St. Francis of Asissi

St. Francis and Creation (1181-1226)
Psalm 104:1-4, 10-24 & Romans 8:18-2

Back in March, 2013 we saw the retirement of one Pope, Benedict the 16th and the selection of a new Pope while the former Pope is still alive. A very unusual event. It got the press all in a dither.

And then another surprise, they chose a man from South America. Every other Pope had been a European.

Then the next surprise was even more intriguing. What name would he assume? There had been 16 Benedicts, 23 Johns, a dozen Pius’s.  When he chose the name Francis it was a stunner.  There had not been a Francis ever to serve as Pope.

But you ask, What’s in a name? We are beginning to find out, for every week we are seeing a man who signals in one way or another that he intends to live and teach like a man called St. Francis of Assisi. Though we may not all be Roman Catholics, we are finding ourselves strangely attracted to this man.  He gives us hope that the part of The Church that he is leading may find itself being reformed and renewed.   And because he chose St. Francis as his mentor and model, it gives many significant optimism, and others considerable consternation.

So today I want to introduce you to the namesake of the new pope.  I want to reintroduce us a very familiar saint.

St. Francis of Assisi.

The mother named her child “Giovanni.”  A very good Italian name – chosen to please her Italian husband.   But when the father of the young child returned from his trip to France, he insisted on a change.   He insisted that the baby be called “Francesco.”   A very French name, chosen to please his French wife, but also because France was setting the pace for all of Europe in those days.  So the baby was Christened, “Francesco Bernadone” – The Little Frenchman.  Shortly after his death his name would be changed again, this time to “St. Francis of Assisi.”  St. Francis!  And 800 years after his birth the name is still familiar.

The reviews on the life of St. Francis read like this:

  • One person writes: “No other person lived so like Jesus Christ as did St. Francis.”
  • Another writes: “He was the most Christ-like person the world has ever seen.”
  • Others wrote that “he taught the church & the world to love all created things, and in particular the poor.”

Francis was born in 1181, the son of a very wealthy family. He died 45 years later in poverty and ill health.   Two years after his death the church canonized him as one of the saints of the church.  For it was not just later history that made an obscure man into a hero.  Those who knew Francis best knew that they had met a man in whom the Grace of God shone more brightly than in any they had ever met.

But Francis was not born a saint.  He was not a godly young man.  His home was not particularly religious, and his childhood and his teen years were influenced more by culture than by Christ.  In fact, for his first 20 years he was a frivolous and reckless young man.  He was the spoiled son of a rich family whose primary activity was party and pleasure.  He would never need to work for a living.  He was born and bred in the lap of luxury.  His father was a successful cloth merchant – one of the nouveau rich of the early-renaissance world.

So Francis frolicked away his youth with his friends.

But that all changed when he was 21.

It was the practice of neighboring cities to go to war against each other.   It was a world of city-states where each town was fortified with high walls.  Instead of competing football teams and hockey teams trying to win fame for their city, these towns would raid each other and attack each other’s soldiers.   In one of those forays against a neighboring city, several of his friends were killed and he was captured.  He was locked up in prison until a ransom could be paid by his city and his family.  

He spent a year in that prison.  We know enough about medieval prison conditions to know that it was a terrible year.   Hunger and illness, terrible heat and bitter cold prevailed in those dark cells.   Francis survived.  The ransom was paid, but when Francis emerged from that prison he was deathly ill.  It took another year of convalescence to get him back on his feet again.

But something happened to the frivolous young man during this two-year ordeal.  He had tasted the death of his friends and his own near death.  He had survived deprivation and disease.  He came out of that experience a changed man.

He is now 24 years of age.  He makes a decision to leave home.  Now many young men left home in those days to seek their fortune.  But Francis left home to seek God.   He chose not to travel the world to see its sights, but rather to find a quiet place where he could live a life of solitude.   He becomes a hermit, living all by himself.

He camps out in the broken-down walls of a ruined church, and there surrounded by decay and devastation he spent time in prayer and meditation.    But as he meditates he hears a voice saying Francis!  Go, repair my house, which you can see is falling completely to ruin.  Francis takes those words at face value and begins to rebuild the broken-down church with his own hands.

His family was outraged.  They didn’t mind him being a party animal.  They hated the thought of him being a religious nut.   But they continued to give him his allowance, as they had done all of his life.   But now Francis didn’t spend the money on himself to pamper his taste buds or provide for his pleasures.  Instead he began to spend his allowance on repairs to the ruined church, and in supplying the needs of the poor in the neighborhood.   But one day Francis went too far.  He entered his father’s shop, took a bolt of cloth, sold it, and then used the money for further construction work on the church and further help for the poor.

His father has him arrested and brought to trial before the Bishop. He is furious at his son.   He demands that Francis renounce all claim to the family estate and to return all that belonged to his Father.  Francis readily agreed with the request, and in front of the ecclesiastical court, took off his clothes, all of them, folded them neatly and gave them to his father, and stood there stark naked. This act was filled with high symbolism.  His father was a cloth merchant.  He had made his wealth from selling clothes to the rich.  In that moment Francis gave up on the finery of his day, and instead he put on the rough clothing of the poor working man, tied a rope around his waist, and left to live a life of poverty.

Francis the Wandering Preacher

Francis continued to live the reclusive life of a hermit.   He completed the construction on the church so that it could be used for worship, and then with time on his hands he turned around and began repairing other abandoned churches in the area.   It looks like the son of a wealthy cloth merchant has become a brick layer.

Then one day he hears the text from Matthew’s Gospel, (10:9-10)
“Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet,
take no bag for your journey, and do not take an extra tunic, sandals or staff.”  

Again he takes the words literally, and leaving the life of the hermit, he leaves the repair of abandoned churches to others who have caught the vision, and begins to live the life of a traveler.  He travels light, and everywhere he goes he tells the Gospel story.   He now becomes dependent upon the generosity of strangers for his daily pittance of food.

Now history is agreed: if we were to choose only one adjective that marked the life of Francis, there is no contest as to what that word would be.  There was nothing grim, or sad, or austere about this man.  The only word that can capsulate him is the word “Joyous”.  In the midst of poverty and homelessness, joy cascaded from Francis as he found delight in fellowship with God, and found joy in the world around him.  This exuberant joy that filled Francis was so attractive, that others began to follow him into self-chosen poverty. Poverty that had become the choice of one man, soon had dozens and then scores and then hundreds of followers.   Men and women of wealth abandoned their wealth and embraced poverty with this same exhilarating joy.

He Wants to Be Like Jesus

But be careful when evaluating Francis & his friends.  Francis is not trying to be eccentric.  He has not fallen in love with poverty, though he has chosen what he calls “Dame Poverty” as his bride.   He is simply trying to be like Jesus.  He has fallen in love with Jesus of Nazareth.  He reads the story of the Gospels, and then tells that same story day after day to others.

He is aware that the Son of God who was rich, for our sakes became poor.  He saw that Jesus chose to be born into the home of the poor, and lived his early years as a refugee and then as one of the working poor.  He saw Jesus and his disciples give up their money-making trades and go traveling from village to village telling of the coming of the Kingdom of God.   Francis wanted to follow Jesus above all.  He had followed a life of wealth and luxury.  It had brought little joy, and much grief.  Now he wanted to follow Jesus with whatever that might bring.

But Francis and his friends did not want to be only like Jesus.  They also wanted to be just like the rural poor of their day.  They choose to identify with the increasing mass of poor people of medieval Europe.   In his day, while many got rich with the new wealth, millions lived on the borders of starvation and extinction.  And Francis, like Jesus, felt great compassion for the poor.

But this weird activity was seen to be scandalous by most of the church leaders. The church of the day practiced what today is called “The Prosperity Gospel”.  Wealth flowed into the church’s coffers.  Its priest often lived like princes. But Francis’s imitation of Jesus and the early apostles served as a rebuke to their love of money.  The bishops and priests decried what he was doing on their turf.  Francis did not want to cause division among the people of God.  He sensed that this unusual form of ministry needed protection.   So he wrote down a set of rules that would guide this small gathering of friends and then went to Rome to see the Pope (Innocent III) to gain approval for his ministry.  After significant wrangling, papal permission was granted.

With this approval, St. Francis is now unhindered in ministry, and soon small groups of “little brothers” and then small groups of “little sisters” – also known as “Friars Minor” and “Poor Clares” began to be formed in community after community and then in country after country.

The Lover of All Creation

It was clear to all that Francis loved God.
He loved Jesus and chose to imitate his life.
He loved the poor and became one of them.
But once you fall in love with God and with people, the rest of creation is not far behind.  He grew to love the created world in which he now spent his days.

I had mentioned that Francis was filled with a joy that was contagious.  People followed him gladly because it was sheer joy to be part of a people that lived on little, but lived in joy.

In his exuberance Francis preached to the birds and the animals, loving the world God had made.  He celebrated sun and moon and stars and flowers and trees and the real wealth of the world of nature.

The very first living nativity was created by Francis.  In1223 he re-enacted the birth of Jesus but with living oxen and sheep and donkeys in attendance, not just shepherds and wisemen.  You can catch his joy in the hymn he wrote “All Creatures of our God and King….”

In our modern age we can find statuettes of St. Francis in almost every gardening store. Francis has become the world’s favorite saint. He abandoned the wealth of his world and exchanged it for poverty, but found wealth in the world around him that demanded neither money nor price, but gave its wealth freely as a sacrament to all the senses.  There were none more rich that Francis and his friends!

Each year we celebrate “Earth Day”. We celebrate that event in the Spring of the year, when in the northern hemisphere nature returns to life. Green sprouts are everywhere. The robins have returned. The early blooms stick up their heads soaking in the sun.  What a joyous season. I must confess, however, I want to rant a bit on such a day.  When I see the glaciers melting, and drought occurring and never ending drilling and fracking, and clear cutting, and poisoned rivers and oceans, and collapsing bee colonies, and the increased extinction of species I want to cry, and cry out in protest.  But I bite my tongue, and instead sing hymns of thanksgiving to God and offer my praiseful prayers to our great Creator and Friend.