On the Kalendar: Saint Francis

October from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“October”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Francis, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, is one of the most well-known and beloved of all saints, but in his own time he was rather controversial. Francis was the son of a wealthy silk merchant, and as such, led a high-spirited life. His first brush with his future calling came when he was a young man selling his father’s wares in the marketplace. A beggar asked him for alms; Francis ignored him at first, but then ran after him and gave him everything in his pockets. His friends mocked him for this act of charity, and his father gave him a sound scolding for his compassion for the poor.

Francis made a couple of forays into the military life. First, he joined a military expedition against Perugia, but he was taken prisoner, returning home only a year later. A couple of years later, he went to Apulia to join the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne, who was preparing to emabark on the Fourth Crusade, but who was embroiled with the intrigues of dynastic successions. A vision led him to return to Assisi, where became isolated from his friends. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he spent some timing begging at St Peter’s Basilica. Back at home, he had a vision outside a forsaken country chapel of San Damiano in which Jesus spoke to him: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis naively took this to mean the ruined church, so he sold some of his father’s wares to give to the local priest. Francis was beaten and locked up by his father, but his mother freed him during one of her husband’s absences. Francis’s father then pressed charges against his own son in legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, but Francis interrupted the proceedings by renouncing his father and his patrimony. To underscore his seriousness, Francis stripped naked and walked out of the town. Francis spent the next several years living the life of a penitent, restoring ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, and nursing lepers in the lazar houses near Assisi.

By 1209, Francis had assembled a small circle of followers, and they went to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious Order. The Pope’s counselors thought Francis’s proposed mode of life was unsafe and unpractical, and possibly disruptive, due to Francis’s earlier propensity to take from the rich and give to the poor. The Pope, however, had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St John Lateran (at the time the home cathedral of Rome), so the endorsed Francis’s Order, and the brothers were tonsured, putting them under the authority and the protection of the Holy See.

Francis travelled widely, preaching his message of simplicity, of “following the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and walking in his footsteps”. In 1219 he traveled with the Fifth Crusade to Egypt, hoping to convert the Sultan of Egypt. Francis is alleged to have been received by the Sultan, although no contemporary Arab sources mention the visit, and to have visited the sacred places in the Holy Land. In any case, the Franciscan Order has been present in the Holy Land almost without interruption since Brother Elias arrived in Acre in 1217. The Order received concessions from the Mameluke Sultan in 133 to access holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and jurisdictional privileges from Pope Clement VI in 1342.

In 1224, during a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis had a vision on September 14, the Feast of the Holy Cross. In it, he saw a seraph, a six-winged angel, either crucified or standing in the posture of crucifixion, or enclosing a colossal crucifix in the frame of its wings. The result of the vision was Francis’s reception of the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ—wounds in the wrists, the feet, and the side. (Francis was the first person to have received this gift.) Francis died two years later, on the evening of Saturday, October 3, 1226, while singing Psalm 142: “I cried unto the Lord with my voice; * yea, even unto the Lord did I make my supplication.”

Francis and his followers celebrated and even venerated poverty. In his last written work, the Testament, he goes so far as to say “that absolute personal and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for the members of his Order”. This stands in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle of his own father, and of the clergy of his time. Francis preached compassion to the poor, and also to animals and the rest of God’s creation, saying that we have a duty to care for them as we care for themselves. To underscore this point, Francis set up the first crèche, using a straw-filled manger set between a real ox and donkey, including the animals as witnesses to the mystery of the Incarnation, and as equal beneficiaries. Many churches observe the saint’s day with a Blessing of the Animals.

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