Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most revered Saints in Western Christianity. He was born in 1181 or 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Receiving visions from God, he instead pursued a life of following Christ through poverty, renouncing his familial wealth. He founded the Order of Friars Minor, also known as the Franciscan Friars, and he and his followers were known for their preaching, their strict vows of poverty, and their dedication to Jesus Christ. Saint Francis traveled to the Holy Land and preached to the Sultan of Egypt, at a time when Christians and Muslims were at war. Near the end of his life, he also received the wounds of Christ's crucifixion upon his body - the stigmata.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Francis of Assisi
St Francis was born as Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in Assisi, Italy to Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant in 1181 or 1182. Pietro di Bernardone had a lot of business dealings with France, and was married to a Frenchwoman (St Francis’ mother). St Francis’ name is probably a reflection of hs father’s love for France - Francesco means “little Frenchie”.
St Francis’ early life was typical of a wealthy young man, spending lavishly and filling his time with vain amusements. But even at this early age he demonstrated signs of caring for the poor that he would be famous for later in his life. We share this account in GK Chesterton’s biography of St Francis:
While he was selling velvet and fine embroideries
to some solid merchant of the town, a beggar came imploring alms;
evidently in a somewhat tactless manner.It was a rude and simple
society and there were no laws to punish a starving man for expressing
his need for food, such as have been established in a more humanitarian
age; and the lack of any organised police permitted such persons to
pester the wealthy without any great danger. But there was, I believe,
in many places a local custom of the guild forbidding outsiders to
interrupt a fair bargain; and it is possible that some such thing put
the mendicant more than normally in the wrong. Francis had all his life
a great liking for people who had been put hopelessly in the wrong. On
this occasion he seems to have dealt with the double interview with
rather a divided mind; certainly with distraction, possibly with
irritation. Perhaps he was all the more uneasy because of the almost
fastidious standard of manners that came to him quite naturally. All are
agreed that politeness flowed from him from the first, like one of the
public fountains in such a sunny Italian market place. He might have
written among his own poems as his own motto that verse of Mr. Belloc's
'Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than courage of heart or holiness,
Yet in my walks it seems to me
That the grace of God is in Courtesy.'
Nobody ever doubted that Francis Bernardone had courage of heart, even
of the most ordinary manly and military sort; and a time was to come
when there was quite as little doubt about the holiness and the grace of
God. But I think that if there was one thing about which he was
punctilious, it was punctiliousness. If there was one thing of which so
humble a man could be said to be proud, he was proud of good manners.
Only behind his perfectly natural urbanity were wider and even wilder
possibilities, of which we get the first flash in this trivial incident.
Anyhow Francis was evidently torn two ways with the botheration of two
talkers, but finished his business with the merchant somehow; and when
he had finished it, found the beggar was gone. (2:14)Francis leapt from his
booth, left all the bales of velvet and embroidery behind him apparently
unprotected, and went racing across the market place like an arrow from
the bow. Still running, he threaded the labyrinth of the narrow and
crooked streets of the little town, looking for his beggar, whom he
eventually discovered; and loaded that astonished mendicant with money.
Then he straightened himself, so to speak, and swore before God that he
would never all his life refuse help to a poor man. The sweeping
simplicity of this undertaking is extremely characteristic. Never was
any man so little afraid of his own promises. His life was one riot of
rash vows; of rash vows that turned out right.
Two events inspired St Francis to disdain his comfrotable life. First, at the age of 19 he was involved in a military expedition against Perugia that ended disastrously – he ended up a prisoner of war for a year. Secondly he suffered a long illness. The hagiographer Father Alban Butler recounts how these events shaped him, this account including a famour encounter with a leper.
His patience under two accidents which befel him, contributed greatly to the improvement of his virtue. The one was, that in a war between the cities of Perugia and Assisium, he, with several others, was carried away prisoner by the Perugians. This affliction he suffered a whole year with great alacrity, and comforted his companions. The second was a long and dangerous sickness, which he suffered with so great patience and piety, that by the weakness of his body his spirit gathered greater strength, and improved in the unction of the Holy Ghost and the divine gift of prayer. After his recovery, as he rode out one day in a new suit of clothes, meeting on the road a decayed gentleman then reduced to poverty and very ill clad, he was touched with compassion to the quick, and changed clothes with him. The night following, he seemed to see in his sleep a magnificent palace, filled with rich arms, all marked with the sign of the cross: and he thought he heard one tell him that these arms belonged to him and his soldiers, if they would take up the cross and fight courageously under his banner. After this, he gave himself much to prayer; by which he felt in his soul a great contempt of all transitory things, and an ardent desire of selling his goods, and buying the precious jewel of the gospel. He knew not yet how he should best do this, but he felt certain strong inspirations by which our Lord gave him to understand that the spiritual warfare of Christ is begun by mortification and the victory over one’s self. These interior motions awakened him, and inflamed him every day more and more to desire to attain to the perfect mortification of his senses, and contempt of himself. Riding one day in the plains of Assisium he met a leper whose sores were so loathsome, that at the sight of them he was struck with horror, and suddenly recoiled; but overcoming himself he alighted, and as the leper stretched forth his hand to receive an alms, Francis, whilst he bestowed it, kissed his sores with great tenderness.
Saint Francis receives a dramatic vision of Christ, which leads to a dramatic and famous confrontation with his father, where he renounces his inheritance and pursues a life of poverty. We follow this account by Butler.
One day as he was praying in the church of St. Damian, without the walls of Assisium, before a crucifix, he seemed to hear a voice coming from it, which said to him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house, which thou seest falling.” The saint seeing that church was old, and ready to fall to the ground, thought our Lord commanded him to repair it. He therefore went home and by an action which was only justifiable by the simplicity of his heart, and the right of a partnership with his father in trade, (for he was then twenty-five years old,) took a horse-load of cloth out of his father’s warehouse, and sold it, with the horse, at Foligni, a town twelve miles from Assisium. The price he brought to the old poor priest of St. Damian’s, desiring to stay with him. The priest consented to his staying, but would not take the money, which Francis therefore laid in a window. His father hearing what had been done, came in a rage to St. Damian’s, but was somewhat pacified upon recovering his money, which he found in the window. Francis, to shun his anger, had hid himself; but, after some days spent in prayer and fasting, appeared again in the streets, though so disfigured and ill-clad, that the people pelted him, and called him madman; all which he bore with joy. Bernardon, more incensed than ever, carried him home, beat him unmercifully, put fetters on his feet, and locked him up in a chamber till his mother set him at liberty while his father was gone out. Francis returned to St. Damian’s and his father following him thither, insisted that he should either return home, or renounce before the bishop all his share in his inheritance, and all manner of expectations from his family. The son accepted the latter condition with joy, gave his father whatever he had in his pockets, told him he was ready to undergo more blows and chains for the love of Jesus Christ, whose disciple he desired to be, and cheerfully went with his father before the Bishop of Assisium, to make a legal renunciation to his inheritance in form. Being come into his presence, Francis, impatient of delays, while the instrument was drawing up, made the renunciation by the following action, carrying it in his fervour further than was required. He stripped himself of his clothes, and gave them to his father, saying cheerfully and meekly: “Hitherto I have called you father on earth; but now I say with more confidence, Our Father, who art in heaven, in whom I place all my hope and treasure.” He renounced the world with greater pleasure than others can receive its favours, hoping now to be freed from all that which is most apt to make a division in our hearts with God, or even to drive him quite out. The bishop admired his fervour, covered him with his cloak, and shedding many tears, ordered some garment or other to be brought in for him. The cloak of a country labourer, a servant of the bishop, was found next at hand. The saint received this first alms with many thanks, made a cross on the garment with chalk or mortar, and put it on. This happened in the twenty-fifth year of his age, in 1206. 1
St Francis would then get the blessing of the Pope to form his order of friars, to live this vision of a life devoted to Christ in poverty. He would receive that blessing, and the order of Franciscan Friars that bears his name is still active today. Here is an excerpt from the First Rule of this order, written by St Francis:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. This is the life
that Brother Francis begged might be conceded to him and confirmed by the Lord Pope
Innocent. And he [the Pope] has conceded and confirmed it to him and to his brothers
present and future.
Brother Francis, and whoever may be at the head of this religion, promises obedience
and reverence to our Lord Pope Innocent and to his successors. And the other brothers
shall be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.
The Rule and life of these brothers is this: namely, to live in obedience and chastity,
and without property, and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who says: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and
thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.”2 And: “If any man will
come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me;”3 in like
manner: “If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and
children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My
disciple”1 “And everyone that hath left father or mother, brothers or sisters, or wife, or
children or lands, for My sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life
St Francis and his order went about begging and preaching, and affirmed the faith of many and were active in spreading the gospel, and helping the poor and suffering. The most dramatic moment of St Francis’ missionary efforts is probably his travels to the Holy Land, and his encounter with the Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt. This was a time of the Crusades, where Christians and Muslims were fighting for control of the Holy Land. Saint Francis desired to preach the gospel inthese Muslim lands, and was hoping to be martyred. But instead, he was received with hospitality by the Sultan. Thanks to this encounter, the Franciscan order was the only Catholic organization permitted in Jerusalem for many centuries. We read an account of this meetigg in de
Vitry’s Historia occidentalis is instructive:
He [Francis] was so moved by spiritual fervor and exhil-
aration that, after he reached the army of the Christians
before Damietta in Egypt, he boldly set out for the camp
of the Sultan of Egypt, fortified only with the “shield of
faith.” When the Saracens captured him on the road, he
said: “I am a Christian. Take me to your master.” And
so they dragged him before the Sultan. When that cruel
beast saw Francis, he recognized him as a man of God
and changed his attitude into one of gentleness, and for
some days he listened very attentively to Francis as he
preached the faith of Christ to him and to his followers.
But in the end, fearing that some of his soldiers would
be converted to the Lord by the efficacy of his words and
pass over to the Christian army, he ordered that Francis
be returned to our camp with all reverence and security.
At the end he said to Francis: “Pray for me, that God may
reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to
2019 was the 800th anniversary of this meeting, and the Franciscan Friar’s released a booklet with reflections on this event. One of these is Healing the Violence of the Contemporary World:
A Franciscan Paradigm for Dialogue with Islam
Michael F. Cusato, O.F.M.
Francis’s approach, as borne out by the results
of his encounter with al-Kamil Muhammad, was to adopt a
two-fold posture. First was the way of exemplarity: that is, live
the life of the Friars Minor among the people and acknowledge, if
asked, that the motivation of their living in peace and the expla-
nation of their way of life (forma vitae) are the life and values
of Jesus Christ. They live this way, in other words, because they
are Christians. The second was the way of direct testimony: to
preach the Word of God, if so prompted by the Spirit, so as to
give witness to the triune God, salvation in Christ and their view
of the necessity of baptism into Christ. Francis put the emphasis
not on the denouncing of the other faith but rather on giving a
testimony “of the hope that is within you” (1 Pt 3:15). In other
words, explain why it is you believe in Jesus Christ, why it is you
see the world as you do, rather than berating the other for his or
her belief, misguided as it may seem for a Christian of the Middle
Ages. Note too, however, the echoes to the farewell message of
1219: that such witness of exemplarity and testimony might
cost them their lives. Nevertheless, in order to witness, quietly
or more vocally, among the people, they must be ready to make
themselves vulnerable, handing themselves over to those who are
said to be their inimici (their enemies). In doing so they will give
witness that they are, in fact (even without the others knowing
it), their amici (friends): fellow creatures in the human fraternity
created by the same “Creator of all.” The emphasis on that phrase
by Francis is an important key to understanding how he saw the
other as inseparably connected to himself. This is the substance
of the leper experience now extended to its most logical (and,
35to some, offensive) conclusion. This is the shocking revelation
of God to Francis which made of him a pazzo: a crazy man, a
St Francis received periodic visions of Christ, and many wondrous miracles, including, famously receiving the marks of Christ’s crucifixtion upon his body – known as the stigmata. Let us read from this reflection by Mark Soehner OFM on the significance of this stigmate
There are three ways that I like to think about the Stigmata. The first is that as Francis grew in his friendship with Christ, he wanted to know, from the inside, what his friend went through in His own suffering. This seems much more human, like a mother wanting to “take on” the suffering of her sick child at night. In many friendships, we long to be present with the person when they are suffering. When friends go through chemo, are fired from a job, grieving a lost spouse, showing up may be all we can do. In those times, we’d like to relieve the burden of the suffering of our friend, even to the point of wanting to experience ourself what the other feels. I believe this is the motivation of Francis that’s unwrapped in Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis. Francis wanted to know the suffering of his friend, Jesus, from inside of His Passion. He asked for a share in it. St. Ignatius, later in his Exercises, encourages the retreatant during the contemplation of the cross to possibly “compassionate” Jesus in His suffering.
The Stigmata also reminds us that as brothers of the Crucified One, we know what to do with our pain. We don’t waste it. Or as Richard Rohr (and Sigmund Freud) would say, “we transform our pain, rather than transmit it.” If I just transmitted my pain it might go something like this: I yell at Vince Delorenzo for something that’s happening at Mt Airy, and when he goes home, he yells at the cook, and she goes home and kicks the dog (which Patty would never do!). That’s a lot of transmitting of violence and suffering! Our own suffering can become an opportunity for intimacy with the Crucified when we allow Christ to walk with us in it, when we discover Him already in our private Gethsemane. Or, as Bonaventure suggests, we hang naked with the naked Crucified Christ, nudus cum nudum. Later Cardinal Newman will say we speak “cor ad cor” or “heart to heart.” We take the situations where we are suffering in our lives, our nailed hands, and touch them to His. And we are comforted, encouraged, transformed. This means that rather than projecting it outward, blaming society, our parents, our early childhood for our pain, we allow it to become a doorway into intimacy with God. Like the old Morning Offering used to say, “I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.”
Finally, Francis wearing the wounds of Christ, remind all of us that it’s okay to be vulnerable, appropriately, with our brothers. The word vulnus means wound. We worship a Wounded Savior, who, even when resurrected, shows us His hands and His side. Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet this line: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” Without our wounding from life, we may never feel compassion, we could just laugh at other people’s misfortune. It tells us that God is wounded in some way as well and knows our suffering from the inside. Francis encouraged the preaching of Jesus and His vulnerability when he had the wealthy Ruffino preach in his underwear to the townspeople of Assisi. Marshall McCluhan famously said that the Medium is the Message. We preach best when, aware of our own woundedness, we approach others humbly.
Suffering from the wounds of the stigmate and an eye disease (Trachoma) which he contracted in his travels in the Holy Land, St Francis passed in 3 October 1226. He is one of the most popular saints in the Catholic calendar of saints. He is the patron saint of Italy (together with Catherine of Siena) and Pope John Paul II declared him the patron saint of ecology, due to his love of nature. His feast day is celebrated in Oct 4,
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Saint Francis wrote many wonderful prayers and other writings. Let us share one of his most famous ones, the Canticle of Brother Sun, which speaks to his love of the natural world.
Canticle bother sun
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honour and all blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong, and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather's moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.