Francis was born in the small Umbrian city of Assisi, Italy in the year 1181 or 1182. His father, Pietro di Bernardone was a wealthy textile merchant and his mother, Pica, of a distinguished French family. The times were marked by violence , mistrust and corruption in political and social life. People were distracted by the new commerce. In the Church also there were scandals and unbelief - doubts about the Eucharist and the after-life, and poor attendance in Church. There were many poor people to be seen around. This has a familiar ring for us too, living today. But Francis of Assisi was to turn this world up side down. This was even acknowledged by Time Magazine who named him the Man of the Millenium! How did this happen? Let’s go and see!
According to an early biographer, Francis was always happy and generous, dedicated to play and song, roaming through the town of Assisi day and night with friends like him, spend-thrifts, dissipating all they could have or earn on parties and other things.
He was naturally courteous in manner and speech and, following his heart’s intent, never uttered a rude or offensive word to anyone. From these stepping stones of natural strengths, he was brought to that grace that prompted him to look within himself saying:
“You are generous and courteous to those from whom you receive nothing except passing and worthless approval. Is it not right that, on account of God who repays most generously, you should be courteous and generous to the poor?”
One day when he was in his father’s shop he was selling cloth, totally absorbed in business of this sort, a poor man came in, begging alms for the love of God, Preoccupied with thoughts of wealth and the care of business, he did not give him alms. Afterwards touched by divine grace, he accused himself of great rudeness saying:
“If that poor man had asked something from you for a great count or baron, you would certainly have granted him the request. How much more should you have done this for God who is King of kings and the Lord of all.”
Because of this incident, he resolved in his heart, from then on, not to deny a request to anyone asking in the name of so great a Lord.
Another aspect of Francis’ personality that impressed his contemporaries was his ambition, his thirst for glory and adventure. It was this that led him to the battlefield, where he ended as a prisoner for a year in Perugia. The same thirst for glory, when freed, would take him to Apulia, on a new military expedition, but precisely in this circumstance, at Spoleto, the Lord made himself present in his heart and inspired him to retrace his steps and listen seriously to his Word. His early biographer continues, In Spoleto as he was falling asleep he heard someone asking him where he wanted to go. When Francis revealed to him his entire plan, the other said:
“Who can do more good for you? The Lord or the servant?”
When Francis answered:
He again said to him:
“Then why are you abandoning the Lord for the servant, the patron for the client?”
And Francis said:
“Lord, what do you want me to do?”
The Lord replied:
“Go back to your land and what you are to do will be told to you.”
Therefore when it was morning, buoyant and happy, he quickly returned to Assisi.
Many people mocked him when he came back without his horse and armour which he had given away to a poor knight. But Francis took no notice. After a while his friends again asked him to host a party for them, which he did but his heart was no longer with them. So he withdrew from their company to a lonely place above Assisi, where he prayed in silence. Here Francis discovered that it is only in silence that we can hear the voice of God which truly sets us free. He began to realise that it was always on the days after these parties that he felt empty inside, so he began to seek solitude and to pray more earnestly to discern God’s Will.
One day he was riding his horse near Assisi, when he met a leper. Francis always felt an irrepressible sense of disgust for lepers who were numerous at the time. But on this occasion touched by God’s grace he opened his heart to him. He made himself dismount and gave the leper a coin, kissing his hand as he did so. After he accepted a kiss of peace from him Francis remounted and continued on his way. He himself confessed that what at first had been bitter, became for him “sweetness of soul and body”. Grace therefore began to form Francis. He became ever more able to fix his gaze on the Face of Christ and to listen to His voice.
Again the early biographer narrates: And one day when he was passionately begging for the Lord’s mercy, the Lord showed him that he would be told in the near future what he must do. A few days had passed when he was walking by the Church of San Damiano, on the outskirts of Assisi, he was told in spirit to go inside for a prayer. Once he entered, he began to pray intensely before an image of the Crucified.
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.
The Image of the Crucified then spoke to him in a tender and kind voice:
“Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me.” Stunned and trembling, he said:
“I will do so gladly, Lord.”
For he understood that He was speaking about that church, which was near collapse because of its age. He was filled with such joy and became so radiant with light over that message, that he knew in his soul that it was truly Christ crucified who spoke to him.
Upon leaving the church, he found a priest sitting nearby and, putting his hands into the pouch, he offered him a handful of coins saying:
“My Lord, I beg you, buy some oil and keep the light before the Crucified burning continually. When this money runs out I will again give you as much as you need.”
From that hour, therefore, his heart was wounded and it melted when remembering the Lord’s Passion. While he lived he always carried the wounds of the Lord Jesus in his heart. This was brilliantly shown afterwards in the renewal of those wounds that were miraculously impressed on and most clearly revealed in his body. Two years before his death in September 1224 St. Francis, while on retreat on Mount La Verna, received the wounds or stigmata of Christ on his body.
He would spend whole nights in prayer simply sighing from the depths of his soul;
“My God and My All”
At first Francis took literally our Lord’s words to go and rebuild His house. So he went about repairing the Church of San Damiano and other run down local churches. However as time went on he realized our Lord was not speaking so much of the building of stone as of God’s Life in each soul through grace.
Francis continued to discern God’s will through prayer and listening to the Word of God at Mass, and others were also drawn to join him and live a simple Gospel life.
Francis’ conversion came about when he was in the prime of life, of his experience, of his dreams. He was 25 years old. About six years later St. Clare at the age of 18 was also inspired by St. Francis to follow the poverty and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most Holy Mother, Mary. Their vocations were to be complimentary.
Francis and his followers lived for the most part, the life of itinerant preachers following Jesus in His public ministry of preaching and healing. This was the First Order founded by St. Francis.
While Clare and her sisters chose to live an enclosed life of prayer at San Damiano, following the hidden life of Jesus and Mary at Nazareth, and just as Mary was united in spirit with Jesus during his preaching, Clare and her sisters supported Francis and his brothers by their lives of gospel poverty, penance and prayer. This was the Second Order founded by St. Francis with St. Clare.
Also many lay people inspired by the example and preaching of Francis and his Friars wanted to live a Gospel life in their families and work places. This is how the Third Order or Secular Franciscans came into being. In this way the whole of society began to be transformed. People began to discover love at the heart of the condition of being human: God’s Love and God’s presence revealed in Jesus true God and true man, Who was born for us, died for us and rose again from the dead, for love of our love.
Pope Benedict goes deeper speaking to young people in Assisi: “This is what Francis felt about Jesus, according to what his first biographer narrates: “He always carried Jesus in his heart. Jesus on his lips, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in all his other members…. Rather, finding himself travelling often and meditating on and singing of Jesus, He would forget that he was travelling and would invite all creatures to praise Jesus.” Thus, we see that communion with Jesus also opens the heart and eyes to creation.
In a word, Francis was truly in love with Jesus. He met Him in the Word of God, in the brethren, in nature, but above all in the Eucharistic Presence. Concerning this he wrote in his testament: “In this world, I see nothing corporally of the same Most High Son of God except in His Most Holy Body and Most Holy Blood.”
“Exactly because he is of Christ, Francis is also a man of the Church. From the Crucifix of San Damiano he heard the direction to repair the house of Christ, which is precisely the Church. There is an intimate and indissoluble relationship between Christ and the Church. To be called to repair it certainly implies, in the mission of Francis, something that is his own and original. At the same time, this duty, after all, was none other than the responsibility that Christ attributes to every baptized person. To everyone of us He also says: ‘Go and repair my House’ “.
We are all called to repair in every generation the House of Christ, the Church, anew. And only by doing this does the Church live and become beautiful. And as we know, there are many ways to repair, to edify, to build the House of God, the Church. One also edifies through the different vocations from the lay and family vocation, to the life of special consecration, to the priestly vocation. If the Lord should call some of you to this great ministry, or even to some form of consecrated life, do not hesitate to say your “Yes”. Yes it is not easy, but it is beautiful to be ministers of the Lord, it is beautiful to spend your life for Him!
Once again, I make my own the invitation that my beloved Predecessor, John Paul 11, always liked to address especially to youth: “Open the doors to Christ”. Open them like Francis did, without fear, without calculation, without measure. Be, dear young people, my joy, as you were for John Paul 11.”
Let us end with a prayer of St. Francis to the Most Holy Trinity: