Saint of the Day – St. Francis of Assisi
October 4 is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). I once heard a priest ( a non-Franciscan) say that St. Francis was one of the great religious figures of all time. Francis left a life of privilege and comfort to adopt a radical Christian lifestyle of poverty and service to the poor. Francis became the reluctant head of a major religious movement of men and women. Today he is revered by Christians and non-Christians around the world as a model of peace, humility, and compassion.
Francis was one of seven children and he was baptized Giovanni di Bernadone. His parents were Pietro di Bernardone and Pica Bourlemont. His father called him Francesco – an apparent reference to his mother’s French heritage. Francis’ father was a successful cloth merchant and Francis had the benefit of a good education. He ran with a group of young well-to-do friends who spent their time drinking, partying, and chasing women. From time to time his charity got the better of him, and his friends – as well as his father – mocked him for his foolishness in giving to the needy.
The story of his conversion is a gradual one involving a year in Perugia as a prisoner of war, illness, and a constant sense of calling. Franco Zefirelli’s film biography of St. Francis, “Brother Son, Sister Moon” (1973), presents a young idealistic, impractical man. To many, Zefirelli’s St. Francis was a hippie. As “mature” (read “jaded”) sophisticates, it is easy to be condescending to St. Francis as portrayed by his biographers and the facts of his actual life. However, if we dismiss St. Francis as a gentle fool, we do so to his model – Christ.
The early impact of St. Francis on the Church was to renew personal devotion to Christ as the Incarnate Word dwelling with us. He invented the “creche,” or nativity scene, as an opportunity and aid to contemplation of the human birth of God in poverty to the powerless of the world. Service to the outcast – lepers, the homeless, the mentally ill, the destitute – became service to Christ in our midst. The presence of God in His creation and all life forms, is a hallmark of his spirituality. St. Francis’ tangible sense of God would continue to ripple down the centuries, not only through members of the Franciscan family – St. Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus – but also St. Dominic, St, Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Vincent de Paul. The work of Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr is a good example of the spirituality of St. Francis today. The life and example of St. Francis permeates western Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – in such a way that it is difficult to conceive of Christianity without him.
Today, St. Francis is important to people around the world facing issues of hunger, nuclear war, and environmental collapse. Every year in September in Assisi, the United Nations holds a peace conference and Pope John Paul II led inter-faith peace services on more than one occasion. St. Francis continues to challenge those who are religious and mystical to encounter the living God in the messiness of everyday life and problems which seem completely beyond our control.