Saint Francis was born in 1181 and died in1226. He was a saint who began and really defined a new era in the life of the Church. We have probably heard of many of the popular events of his life and even of the legends which arose after his death.
In an age when riches were becoming more and more of a problem in the Church, Francis stripped himself of all his goods even to nakedness – much to the embarrassment of his family, fellow citizens and bishop. It was a gesture which was symbolic of his whole life and spirituality.
He lived alone for some time and worked away at restoring the church of San Damiano in Assisi which is still one of the major pilgrimage sights in that city. He eventually founded the order called by his name beginning with a few followers who spontaneously gathered around him at the Portiunculla, another Assisi pilgrimage sight. The rule for his order was approved by Pope Innocent III in 1210.The Franciscan order grew exponentially – it quickly reached 5000 members – to the extent that parts of it were out of control and were not imbibing Francis’ spirit.
In 1220 he resigned as the head of the Order, realizing that he was no administrator but having regrets about what he saw as weakening his rule.
Francis was epoch making in that his emphasis on poverty challenged the Church in its growing richness and power while still remaining faithful to the Church. He changed the form of religious life from one which was entirely monastic in which land and property were necessarily a part of the way of life to a way of life which was called mendicant, that is they were to survive by begging and being dependent on the goodness of others and on the providence of God. He remains a figure who pricks the conscience of the Church and who makes us confront the balance between dependence on God and the practicalities of life.
Many of the things for which Francis is famous happened in the last years of his life after his retirement as head of his Order: the introduction of the Christmas crib at Greccio, the Canticle of the Sun and the reception on his body of the Stigmata of Christ’s wounds.
We celebrate his feast on 4 October.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin
Main image sourced from Catechist Magazine