Francis of Assisi
Friar, Deacon, Founder of the Friars Minor 1226 Patron: Animals, Merchants, Ecology. Exciting Holiness He was born in a well to do merchant family in Assisi in Italy, he had a rebellious youth and a difficult relationship with his father. So take heart all parents of difficult youth, they may be great saints in the making. Like St Ignatius of Loyola he had a conversion experience as a result of his experience as a soldier in war. He was never ordained as a priest but remained a deacon. A Franciscan symbol is the San Damiano Cross. Beneath this Christ asked St Francis to ‘build my church’.
Franciscan keynotes are poverty and simplicity. He has also been very associated with more modern concerns about the environment and the care and stewardship of the earth and its living creatures. He talked of ‘Brother Sun’, ‘Sister Moon’, ‘Brother Wind’, ‘Sister Water’, ‘Mother Earth’, and, controversially, ‘Sister Death’. Francis' brotherhood included all of God's creation. ‘Much has been written about Francis' love of nature but his relationship was deeper than that. We call someone a lover of nature if they spend their free time in the woods or admire its beauty. But Francis really felt that nature, all God's creations, were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow was as much his brother as the pope.” There are many stories of his extraordinary relationship with wild creatures.’ From Catholic Online. He seems to have a great appeal to people who have little formal religious faith or allegiance, but are attracted by nature mysticism and simple living. Also for those who find more legalistic systems stifling. William Short OFM, in ‘Poverty and Joy’, describes the Franciscan Tradition as “chaotic and intuitive, creative and affectionate, radical and obedient” He seems to have been an impulsive character. His image is very recognisable and he enjoys great popularity as a garden statue, as well as being credited with producing the first recreation of the nativity scene at Christmas.
His rule of life was extremely ascetic. Initially this was the great attraction for his followers and those who met them, witnessed their lifestyle and heard them preaching. He attracted a great number of followers and prepared a simple rule of life. Francis went to Syria on the Fifth Crusade to convert the Muslims. He got on very well with the sultan but did not succeed in making the desired conversions. “When he returned to Italy, he came back to a brotherhood that had grown to 5000 in ten years. Pressure came from outside to control this great movement, to make them conform to the standards of others. His dream of radical poverty was too harsh, people said. Francis responded, "Lord, didn't I tell you they wouldn't trust you?" He finally gave up authority in his order.” From Catholic Online.
“But above all it is his dealings with the erring that reveal the truly Christian spirit of his charity. "Saintlier than any of the saint", writes Celano, "among sinners he was as one of themselves". Writing to a certain minister in the order, Francis says: "Should there be a brother anywhere in the world who has sinned, no matter how great soever his fault may be, let him not go away after he has once seen thy face without showing pity towards him; and if he seek not mercy, ask him if he does not desire it. And by this I will know if you love God and me." “When someone told him of a priest living openly with a woman and asked him if that meant the Mass was polluted, Francis went to the priest, knelt before him, and kissed his hands -- because those hands had held God.” There are many similar similar stories, “to medieval notions of justice the evil-doer was beyond the law and there was no need to keep faith with him. But according to Francis, not only was justice due even to evil-doers, but justice must be preceded by courtesy as by a herald. Courtesy, indeed, in the saint's quaint concept, was the younger sister of charity and one of the qualities of God Himself, Who ‘of His courtesy’, he declares, ‘gives His sun and His rain to the just and the unjust’. This habit of courtesy Francis ever sought to enjoin on his disciples. "Whoever may come to us", he writes, "whether a friend or a foe, a thief or a robber, let him be kindly received", and the feast which he spread for the starving brigands in the forest at Monte Casale sufficed to show that "as he taught so he wrought".” From Catholic Encyclopedia.
Two years before his death he received the stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ, on his body. Many saints are associated with special prayers. St Francis is famous for his Canticle of the Sun and Make me Channel of Your Peace; a prayer that has become a classic and used in all sorts of situations by all sorts of people is attributed to him. Although according to wiki it cannot be traced back further than 1912 when it was published in French. It is the anthem of the British Legion. It was quoted by Margaret Thatcher on her accession as British Prime Minister in 1979. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both used it as part of their regular devotions. It is a favourite choice at both weddings and funerals. There is a detailed guide on how to use the prayer as an aid to meditation in the book 12 Steps and 12 Traditions published by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a good guide for anyone, not just alcoholics. Go to Step Eleven, page 99.
The Franciscan Order today is unique in its provision for people in ordinary life to become members, the third or tertiary, Order of Franciscans. They follow a rule of life based on simplicity, prayer and action for social justice. Here is an Anglican third order Franciscan site. The Catholic third orders seemed very complicated when I googled. There seem to be a lot of them, not just one. Mind you, this is probably very Franciscan. I get the impression that consistency of organisation and administration were not St Francis’ strong points - this was part of the problems leading to his deposition as head of his own order. Indeed why should they be? 2 Corinthians 3:6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
One of his most famous followers and a personal inspiration to him was Clare of Assisi who founded the Poor Clares and became a saint in her own right. As an aside, I did think when writing up Clare, that nowadays she would probably be taken into care and he might possibly be convicted of all sorts of things, and vilified as a cult leader. Maybe they would even have ended up with an ASBO apiece...
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