Monday, October 4, 2010

Il Poverello--San Francesco

Today in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the feast of one of the greatest and most well-known saints--Francis of Assisi.  Francesco di Bernadone was born in a small hill town in central Italy in 1182.  He was the son of one of the wealthiest merchants in Assisi and was born into a life of extreme privilege and ease.  And, early in his life, he reveled in that lifestyle.

Despite his wealth and prestigious position in the social life of Assisi, Francis, much to his father's horror and disgust, rejected everything material and became a devoted follower of poverty for the rest of his life.  His way of life was radical for its time.  The church had become very corrupt with a clergy getting wealthy at the expense of the laity.  Favors, called indulgences, were being bought and sold like any commodity found at the local market.  Very few attended Mass and most, while they paid homage to God, did not practice Christianity.

Francis rebelled against this and tapped into something that, as it turned out, many were seeking.  He found a life of simplicity and complete devotion to Jesus.  From the time of his conversion, the time he turned his life from the material world to the spiritual, till his death, he lived an impoverished life by choice so as to imitate the life that Jesus led.  He wanted nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with the Savior. 

Soon, he attracted followers who were drawn to him by his simple, direct message of joy and hope as found in life through Jesus Christ.  In the beginning, he attracted twelve followers and found that they needed something to guide them in their new way of life.  This guide, known as "The Rule", was drawn up by Francis and approved by Pope Innocent III some 800 years ago.  The rule survives today as the main guide of Franciscan Friars in the world today.

Francis also drew woman to his side who wished to follow his lifestyle as well.  One, who, like Francis, came from Assisi, came to him in secret against her family's wishes, in order to be accepted into the way of life adopted by the early friars.  Francis accepted her and thus was born the order of nuns we now know today as the Poor Clares.  They, like Francis, lived a life of poverty, without possessions or anything else that may be a barrier to their relationship with Jesus.

Many married men and women came to Francis to request that they be allowed to live as Francis and his followers did.  But the friars and the nuns were all unmarried and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  They lived in communities called cloisters and spent their days in prayer and contemplation.  But that did not stop Francis.  Promptly, he wrote a rule of life for the lay people to follow and all who were accepted into this fraternity became members of the Franciscan family.  All three orders founded by St. Francis, namely the Order of Friars Minor (ofm), the Poor Clares, and the Secular Franciscans still exist throughout the world.

Perhaps the thing that Francis is best known for is his respect and love of nature.  Most statues, medals, and other images of St. Francis depict him with animals surrounding him.  Some artwork of this nature make him look like a zoo keeper.  In reality, the reason that Francis is so closely aligned with nature is that he saw God in all things, in all of creation.  He revered the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and all other creatures because they had as their creator none other than God.  In Francis' mind, this made every creature holy. 

Perhaps the most important thing to happen in the life of St. Francis was the imprinting of the stigmata of Christ.  These are the five wounds that Jesus endured when He was crucified.  Francis begged God to allow him to share fully in the sufferings of Jesus on the cross.  This was an amazing miracle.  It was the first time, as a matter of fact, that this had ever happened.  Francis endured these wounds during the final two years of his life.  They caused him unbearable pain.  During this time, he went blind due to an eye disease he contracted while in Egypt as he attempted to bring peace between the Christians and Muslims of the day.

The most remarkable thing about this little man from central Italy was his complete devotion to God and his deep and abiding love for Jesus Christ.  He found Christ in all things, including the lepers who lived in the area.  In Francis' day, leprosy was something to be profoundly feared.  Lepers had to live in colonies far outside the towns and the villages.  Whenever they traveled, they had to carry with them "clappers," and object made of two boards that when slapped together made a loud noise warning any oncoming pedestrian that a leper was near.  Lepers had to move out of the way of anyone else and let them pass.  They were forced to beg for their food and often went hungry since no one dare come into contact with them.

Francis was like everyone else where lepers were concerned.  He lived in mortal fear of them.  But he knew at heart that each one of these unfortunate human beings was made in the image of Jesus just as he was.  One day while traveling outside of his beloved Assisi, Francis encountered a leper.  Determined to change his way and truly find Christ in everyone, he climbed off his horse, drew near the diseased man, placed a coin in his hand and kissed him.  Repulsed, Francis moved away from the man but at the same time felt a sense of peace and joy that he had never encountered before.  When he looked back to see what had become of the leper, the man was gone, vanished into thin air.  This leper surely stayed in Francis' heart for the rest of his life.

So the lesson of St. Francis is this.  Find your leper, that person, situation, or circumstance that frightens you the most.  Learn about it not by running away from it but by running headlong towards it.  Embrace this leper of yours and realize that God and Jesus Christ are both very much alive in that leper.  Then feel the joy and peace that only they can bring.  That was the key to Francis' joy.  Not material things.  Not the security of this world, but the security of the love of God in every day life and in everything we encounter.

Pax et Bonum.  Peace and All Good!