by Michael Usey; Matthew 10.5-20;39
In some respects he seems modern and familiar to us, this one called Francis. Pampered middle class son, he brashly sowed his wild oats, radically repudiating his parents’ values. Alienated from his father, he sought youthful fame and fortune, only to find disillusionment with the world’s ways. Yet, in other ways, he is of another time, a medieval man, foreign to all we know and much we treasure. He rejected education and material goods as destructive to the gospel life, and was fanatically committed to poverty. Eating garbage from the streets, begging in the name of Christ, he had no home, no assets, no life insurance policy, no clothes but the rags on his back.
He received visions from God experienced in some mystical ecstasy the stigmata as marks appeared on his hands and feet like the wounds of Christ. He seems eccentric at best, completely mad to worst. His life is legend, myth, romantic epic, so sentimentalized that it seems impossible to know anything true about him. Yet he speaks to us about the presence of God’s spirit in a human life, the gospel life itself. Perhaps we can feel it ourselves through Francis of Assissi.
He was christened Giovanni in the old church in Assisi, Italy, 1182, but his father, Pietro, a rich cloth merchant, nicknamed him Francis, in admiration of France, home of the troubadour poets. His parents pampered him, and he sought pleasure at every turn. He was called a “master of revels,” a playboy who spent time and money drinking and in pranks, squandering great sums of money emulating the French troubadours, singing of romance and chivalry. At age 20 he went off to war against a neighboring city. The Assisian army was severely defeated; Francis was captured in prison for a year.
When he returned home, he fell gravely ill, hovering near death for weeks. This began an emotional transformation in Francis–his conversion was not sudden. It occurred in a series of events and impressions in his life. He was overcome by restlessness, dissatisfied with his former pleasures, disinterested to work in his father’s shop, disillusioned about the supposed glories of war. He made a pilgrimage to Rome in hopes of finding some peace. There he was accosted by the multitudes of beggars who jammed Roman streets. He was both repulsed and attracted to them, so he exchanged his fine clothes for a beggar’s rags, walking the streets, begging for alms.
Returning to Assisi, Francis had another conversion. Riding one day he met a person with leprosy, the most feared disease of his time. Looking at him, Francis was first sickened and then compelled to care for this man. Dismounting, he gave the man with leprosy alms and kissed his hand, defeating his own repulsion at human suffering. It was the beginning of his long ministry to society’s outcasts, and of his service to God.
A second conversion experience happened while he was praying at the dilapidated chapel of St Damian. He said he heard a voice from the cross saying, My house is being destroyed; go and repair it for me. Francis had a cause now–he would rebuild this crumbling church building. Later he would realize that this vision had a deeper meaning, that all of God’s church needed rebuilding with the Spirit’s new life. But now he was just beginning to discover God’s presence in his life; rebuilding one church now was enough.
He needed fundage, and where better to get it than his dad’s shop. Once home, he sold his horse and several cloth bolts from his family’s business, making the sign of the cross over the confiscated articles. Papa Bernardone was pissed; his worthless son had gone completely mad. Father seized son, dragged him home, beat him, and locked him in a closet for days. This failed to produce repentance in Francis, and since the youth was babbling about God and heavenly voices, his father took him to the Bishop of Assisi. The Bishop was kind but firm, with lots of sanctimonious advice that the church uses to pour water on her fiery prophets. The Bishop said, God does not want you to go against your father.
Francis was ready with an answer, with a dramatic flare that characterized his entire life: Until now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; no I am the servant of God. Not only the money but every that can be called his I will return to my father, even the clothes he has given me. With the speed of a medieval streaker, Francis stripped, saying, Now I will only say our father which art in heaven. You have to admit: it made an impression. He left naked singing God’s praises to the tune of French minstrels’ songs. He begged for clothes, cared for lepers, working for 3 years rebuilding the old church building, eating garbage from the gutters, always singing.
Gradually it began to dawn on him that God had called him to rebuild something more than one old building—something that has often fallen into ruin, but never is past rebuilding. The Church could always be built anew on her first foundation, Jesus Christ. Francis rebuilt other church buildings around Assisi, and, in one of them, he had a boarder vision in February 1209, from the Matthean passage you heard today: Go preach the kingdom of heaven. Heal the sick, cleanse the leper, cast out demons. Go without gold, silver, purse, shoes, coat, or staff. Be sheep in the midst of wolves, but don’t be afraid, for the Spirit speaks through you. Francis said, No one showed me what I should do. But God most high revealed to me how I must live according to the teachings of the holy gospel.
And he literally started to do just that. He discarded his sandals for bare feet, wearing only a rough garment tied with a piece of rope. He went about preaching, not in eloquence, but in simplicity and honesty, calling his listeners to love and fear God and to repent. Some laughed and ridiculed him; others listened, and some followed. Soon a small group of the Little Brothers, as Francis called them, gathered around him.
Francis saw animals as his brothers and sisters and prayed that God would work through him to help them. Birds sometimes gathered while Francis spoke and seemed to listen to him. Francis began preaching to them about the ways that God had blessed them.
Legend has it that when Francis lived in Gubbio, a wolf was attacking people and other animals. He met the wolf to try to tame it. The wolf charged Francis, but Francis prayed and moved toward the wolf. The wolf obeyed Francis’ commands, closing his mouth and lying at Francis’ feet. Francis promised that the townspeople would feed the wolf regularly if it promised never to injure another person or animal. According to legend the wolf never harmed people or animals again.
While ministering to the poor and sick, Francis contracted conjunctivitis and malaria. Later, as Francis was approaching death, he went back to Assisi. He was seen as a saint awaiting only formal canonization, so knights were sent to guard him and make sure that no one could carry him off after death. The body of a saint was seen at the time as an extremely valuable relic. When Francis died on Oct. 3, 1226, at the age of 44, people reported a flock of larks swooping near and singing at the moment of his death.
So what might Francis’ life say to us? First, his life connects the gospel and poverty. If there were any hate in his heart it was for materialism. He saw how love of things had separated him from his own father, and how being obsessed with money could turn our vision from the needs of others to the fulfilment of our self interest. In Francis we rediscover that the gospel identifies with the outcasts, those suffering with terrible diseases, and those whom we reject.
Secondly, Francis reminds us that all God’s creatures are to live together in peace. Francis was an instrument of God’s peace, when the church was organizing a crusade to kill muslims as a service to God. We as God’s people are peacemakers and that peace is God’s will for creation; this is central to the biblical witness.
Some thought Francis was a fool or delusional, but others saw him as one of the greatest examples of living the Christian ideal since Jesus Christ. Whether he was touched by God or by madness, Francis of Assisi is well known throughout the Christian world. Because of his attention to animals, Francis is recognized by the church as the patron saint of animals. The community started by Francis and his followers became the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, whose priests are distinguished by the rough robes they usually wear. The order still serves the poor worldwide.
From Jesus to Francis to each one of us, his life asks of us: who of us will dare to take Jesus’ gospel as seriously as Francis did?