FEast: OCt. 4th
animals, merchants, ecology
Born in Italy in 1181, he was originally named "Giovanni" by his mother after St. John the Baptist. Enraged to discover this when he returned home from his trip as a cloth merchant, his father quickly renamed him "Francis" after his own love of France and then proceeded to spoil him and raise him much like himself.
Francis indeed grew up following in the ways of his father, indulging in much spending (his family was very wealthy) and becoming the leader of Assisi's young people. He was popular, handsome, talented, extremely friendly, and charming to be around.
Francis, however, did not want to follow his father in becoming a merchant, he wanted instead to be a soldier.
His opportunity came quickly when his town declared war on a neighboring one. He was captured and held prisoner for an entire year, but an illness he contracted was what caused him to re-evaluate his way of life. He joined another army when healthy again, but before he had even been away from Assisi for a day, he believed he had been told by an unknown voice that he should return home. When he did, the entire city made fun of him and looked down upon him for wasting his family's money just to be a coward and not even fight. His former friends teased him and asked if he, like the rest of them his age, had been thinking about marriage. He told them that he was - to the virtue of living without riches that he was beginning to fall in love with.
One day when riding through the countryside, Francis passed a leper who made him turn away in disgust. He was repulsed by the man being so poor, dirty, and sick. Suddenly, however, Francis turned, jumped down, and gave the leper a kiss on his hands, as well as all of the money he had. When he rode away, he looked back and the leper had disappeared - he then believed it had been a test from God.
Francis continued wandering to discover his purpose when he came upon a crumbling church in San Damiano. While praying there, he heard a message saying "rebuild my church!" Francis took this literally, and returned home where he took cloth from his father's business and sold it to pay the priests of San Damiano to be able to fix the church building.
Not only would the priests not accept the money since it had been gained by stealing, Francis' father had also found out and was furious, locking him in a closet and beating him.
His father then took him before the local bishop and demanded that Francis legally be removed from inheriting his family's wealth because he was "obviously crazy".
The town came out and made fun of him as well, throwing rocks and mud, and demanding that he repay the money.
Francis, however, saw this to be a moment that would change his life forever. He took off all his expensive clothing and told his father that he was his father no longer and that from now on, he would obey only his heavenly father. He went off singing of his freedom, and despite the snow, went to the woods. There, he was even beaten by robbers and had his underclothes taken from him. Still, he was overjoyed to be free and to decide to live his life as Jesus did, owning nothing.
He spent the first few years of his new life as a beggar, asking for bricks and stones which he carried to San Damiano and other churches in the area, rebuilding them by hand.
At a mass service one morning, Francis finally realized God had not literally meant to rebuild stone churches, but to reach Christians with his ideas.
He went about preaching, and slowly, people who had ridiculed him for his past began to notice the good he was doing and were starting to be intrigued by the message that had compelled him to change so drastically. People from all over - cities and the country, people who had been born into wealth and had not, and people of all ages began to follow Francis and his lifestyle. He didn't wish to officially found an order because he thought it was too military-esque, and preferred to call it a brotherhood. His only rule for the group was to own nothing and to "take up their crosses" daily. They were always joyful, and often sang while working or walking. They slept anywhere they could, usually outdoors, and aided any laborers or workers they might come upon. This was not common, as the religious life usually had much money and did not work or understand the needs of those who did work.
But Francis' brothers would not accept any money, working only for the necessities they needed to get by each day. Francis was certain that owning more than necessary was the opposite of love, telling the bishop, who did not understand his way of thinking, that fear and weapons are required to guard possessions, and he wanted neither of those. He also said that a man who owned nothing could not be stolen from, starved, or ruined socially because he already had done those things himself - so he was truly free.
Stories are told, for example, that when one of Francis' group had part of a coat stolen from him, Francis asked him to run after the thief and offer him the rest of it, knowing the man who took it must have been in greater need. He also was asked to condemn a priest who was living openly with a woman, but when he arrived at the church, Francis instead kissed the priest's hands, recognizing the man's dignity as a person and holiness of having handled the body of Jesus in the Eucharist. Once, he told a brother who was hesitant to speak because of a stutter that he should go preach half-naked to be even more humble. Francis, realizing he had taken it too far that time, ran to town where the brother was preaching and stripped half-naked himself to apologize for hurting someone he cared so much about.
Francis also believed that God lives in every person - and that therefore, every person, whether prisoner, pope, robber, or sickly beggar, deserves the same love and respect. He also believed Creation is a direct mirror of God as well. He called everyone, including animals, "brothers and sisters". There is a story that he preached to birds once, telling them that he was so thankful for their beautiful "clothes" and their independence and care that come from God. They stood still as he walked among them, flying off only when he was finished. Another story goes that a town was being terrorized by a wolf who had been stealing from them and possibly even eating people. Instead of allowing them to try and kill the wolf, Francis went and spoke to it, asking it to end its violence. He then walked to town with it next to him, and began the even harder task of beginning to explain to the villagers what must be done. He revealed to them that it had only killed out of hunger, and told them that if they took care of it and fed it regularly, no longer would they be at odds. It soon became the town's beloved pet!
Francis, when deciding to ask for formal permission for his brotherhood, took the simplest route as always - and went straight to the Vatican to ask the Pope. He was laughed at, at first, and thrown out, but the Pope had a dream that Francis, in his drab, raggedy clothing, was holding up the Church all by himself. He granted permission the next day.
Another time he took such a route was during a Crusade, wanting to speak to the Sultan of Egypt and again, going right to him. It was miraculous that he and his brothers survived that trip, and the sultan even allowed him to go free and told him he had a beautiful faith.
When he returned home, though, he had found that his group had grown to more than 5,000 people, and that, due to this, much of it was now out of his control and there was pressure from all sides to make changes in rule and values.
At this time, however, he had come up with an idea still practiced today, which is the living Nativity or sets of Nativity scene sculptures. He used real animals in this first living Nativity he created, and, Christmas being his favorite holiday, wanted to use it to make Jesus and the Holy Family seem more real and relatable for the people in his day and age. He also wrote to authorities asking that animals and the people who are especially poor and suffering have special provisions given to them each Christmas season.
Francis had also by this time met St. Clare after she had attended one of his sermons and left home secretly to join his group. Together, they established the order of "The Poor Ladies", later, "The Poor Clares" after her, and they lived just as Francis' group did. He also had set up an order that was accessible for those who could not leave their homes. They were called "The Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance", and though they did not leave their daily lives behind, they would instead integrate his principles into them.
Francis unfortunately spent his last few years suffering. During a session of intense prayer, Francis emerged with the same wounds given to Jesus on the cross called the stigmata. They bled and ached as real wounds, but would never heal and no one could explain how they had gotten there. Several other saints received these wounds, but Francis was the first. He also was suffering with near blindness and endured several painful procedures involving hot irons and medicines.
Francis responded, however, with praise for Creation in a piece called "Canticle of the Sun' in which he thanked "Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth" for the beautiful life he had lived as they were where he had seen God. He asked pardon of his own body as well, for having put it through so much in his lifetime.
After visiting St. Clare one more time (where she had taken care of him during more treatments), he returned to his hometown where he blessed it and passed away in a small hut on the bare ground, having taken off his only garment to lay instead on a borrowed blanket and end his life in the same way he lived it - with nothing of his own.
He was only 44 years old, and had asked to be buried on a hill in Assisi where criminals were executed.
There was a procession through town, coordinated with the help of St. Clare, with one of the stops being his original church San Damiano.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared him patron of ecologists, reminding the world of every person's responsibility to take care of nature.
You found so much joy on this earth in simplicity, the environment, and all living creatures. You celebrated life while not owning anything, and you realized just how necessary it is not only for us to take care of nature, but to make it an integral part of our lives. you covered mistakes, shame, and your past with your great love. Help us do the same.
Sts. Clare + Francis,
guide us in our friendships and make ours as loving and genuine as yours. Spare us miscommunications, grant us joy and laughs, and keep us from straying. May our friendships last as long as our lives and may we know each other deeply and love each other well as Jesus loves us.
I knew Francis needed to be wearing the most simple clothing and bearing his stigmata, as is traditional. Deciding on the tattoos of animals and nature and portraying him with his nose buried in or mouth to some leaves comes from how integrated Francis strove to be with creation. It was as much a part of him as was his own body, and a Francis today may choose to express that in this way.