St Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Francis was the son of a rich cloth merchant of Assisi, Pietro Bernardone. Francis assisted his father in his business until he reached the age of 20. Gallant, high spirited, and generous, he lived as a youth, the life usual for one of his station. In 1202 during a border dispute between Perugia and Assisi he was taken prisoner and held captive for a year. After his release he returned to Assisi and his old ways, and endured a long illness. Setting off again for war, in 1204 he was directed by a vision to return to Assisi where he began to lose all taste for his former life. On a pilgrimage to Rome he was moved to compassion by the beggars outside St Peters and exchanged his clothes with one of them and spent a day himself begging for alms. This experience affected him deeply. When he returned to Assisi he broke with his old companions, was disowned by his father, overcame his fear of leprosy by embracing a leper and devoted himself to repairing churches. One morning c.1208, while attending mass in the Church of Portiuncula in the plain below Assisi, he heard the Lord’s words read, bidding his disciples to leave all (Mt 10:7-19) and at once understood them as a personal call. He discarded staff and shoes, put on a long dark garment girded with a cord and set out to save souls. Before long he gathered round him a band of like-minded men.

When the number of his followers reached 12, Francis drew up a short and simple rule for them, the Regula Primitiva, and on a visit to Rome in 1209 secured for it the oral approval of Pope Innocent III. On his return he sent out the friars two by two to preach. They called themselves friars minor (fratres minores) and increased rapidly. At the chapter at Assisi, at Pentecost of 1217 the Order was divided into provinces and “ministers” were appointed to supervise them. Francis himself was interested in missionary activities and in 1219 he went to Egypt and met with the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil. Due to the confusion during his absence, he rewrote and shortened the rule which was approved by Pope Honorius II in 1223, hence known as the Regula Bullata. Accordingly, Francis resigned as head of the Order and handed over its day-to-day running to a friar whom he called the “Minister General” but without relinquishing real leadership of the Order. In 1223 Francis arranged for apparently the first Christmas crib to be made. In September 1224 Francis received the Stigmata. He died at the Portiuncula in 1226 and less than two years later was canonized.

Francis of Assisi was the embodiment of a pure and uncontrollable force of spirituality, a spiritual recklessness for the sake of the Gospel. Fortunately for the Church, he remained within it even with his complete determination to live the Gospel literally. He could not give a real structure to his group like Dominic did and so, soon after his death the Order he had inspired was rent by controversy over his teaching and the meaning of his life, especially, his ideal of poverty. According to Francis, radical following of Christ, in harmony with Mt 10:7-19, was impossible without absolute poverty. That explains the fierceness with which he clung on to it. But soon the attempt began to reconcile absolute poverty with the practical needs of pastoral ministry because the ideal of Francis was historically not practical. Other compromises also had to be made, like the abolition of wandering preaching, clericalization, academic activities etc. The lay movement of Francis soon became a clerical order. It was perhaps necessary to channel the power of this great movement for the good of the Church and to prevent it from becoming one of the many poverty movements of the time. Similarly, academic activities which Francis had denounced at first were finally accepted when higher authorities intervened. Thus the Franciscan Order, too, produced great intellectuals for the Church, like Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, etc. Francis’s generosity, his simple and unaffected faith, his passionate devotion to God and man, his love of nature and his deep humility have made him one of the most loved saints of all time.

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