St. Francis of Assisi
Of all the saints in the Church, none has touched Catholics and non-Catholics alike so deeply as St. Francis. His simple, absolute devotion to the Gospel and to poverty has indelibly shaped Christian spirituality.
He was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy, and was baptized with the name John. His father was a merchant, and the family was well off. His father often left to trade in France, and when Francis was born on one of those trips, he became known as “the Frenchman,” or Francesco.
As a young man, Francis loved the romantic ideals of chivalry. He spent his parents’ money lavishly on friends and parties. He did not apply himself to study or to his father’s business—his one interest was pleasure.
After suffering a year-long illness, Francis turned his focus inward and began to struggle to reconcile his ideals for winning honor and glory in battle with a call to give everything away and follow Christ. When Francis took up with his friends again, he was noticeably distracted and distant. People told him he was in love. “Yes,” he replied, “I am going to take a wife more beautiful and worthy than any you know.”
As he was riding near Assisi one day, he met a leper covered in sores. Francis was repulsed, but resolved to conquer himself. He dismounted, and the leper reached out to receive his charity. Francis gave him money, and then leaned in and gave the man a kiss. This encounter moved him to tend to the sick, and he began to visit hospitals to give the poor there money and clothes.
He was praying at a church outside of Assisi named after St. Damian, and he heard a voice coming from the crucifix, saying, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Francis thought the Lord was telling him to repair the falling down church building around him. He went home, took a horse and cart and loaded it with cloth from his father’s warehouse. He sold the cloth, as well as the cart and horse, and gave the money to the poor priest who was living at St. Damian’s.
His father was outraged, and came and retrieved Francis from the dilapidated church. He beat Francis and put him in chains, demanding that Francis either stay at home by his own choice, or renounce his inheritance and pay back what he had taken. Francis was ready to let go of his inheritance, but he said that the money belonged to God and the poor. His father took him to the bishop of Assisi, who told Francis to return the money.
Francis obeyed. “The clothes I wear are also his. I’ll give them back,” he said, removing his garments and standing naked in front of everyone. “Up until now I have called you father here on earth, but now I say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’”
His father was furious and full of sorrow—he hurried away. A laborer who worked for the bishop gave Francis a frock, Francis marked it with the sign of the cross in chalk, and put it on. He walked through the land with nothing, relying solely on the generosity of others for food, clothing, and shelter.
He returned to Assisi and began to rebuild the church of St. Damian. He begged for money in the town he used to live in, and hauled the stones himself. He went about repairing several other churches in the region until he heard one day a reading from Matthew 10, where Jesus sends the disciples to preach the kingdom of God without shoes nor a staff.
With a simple heart, Francis took off his shoes and gave away his clothes and put on one, worn out coat and started preaching repentance. His words and example touched people and others started to join him in his way of life. Francis made simplicity the foundation of his order, and everything they did showed their love for poverty—from what they wore to the food they ate.
His love of animals is well-known: he commanded the birds to be quiet once when he was preaching, and they flocked around him to listen; he befriended a rabbit at one place; and he tamed a wolf in the famous story where he saved the city of Gubbio.
The community that sprung up around Francis worked for their daily bread as field laborers. When that was not enough to provide what they needed, they begged door to door for food, but never accepted money. They always received others with hospitality, especially the poor and the sick, including lepers.
Back in Italy, Francis continued to shape the community of followers that had gathered around him, which now numbered in the thousands, and had grown to include an order of women under the leadership of St. Clare. Franciscan communities extended even into Spain and Germany. Today, the Franciscans are comprised of three branches, and together form the largest religious community in the Church.
Francis gave himself to prayer more and more, and on several occasions was observed levitating in contemplation. He spent a month in intense solitude and prayer in 1224, and received the sign of the stigmata, which are the physical wounds of Christ on his hands, feet, and side.
He lived for two more years, but the stigmata was a source of great suffering, he was getting weaker from illness, and his eyesight was failing. He welcomed death as a sister, and died on the evening of Oct. 3, 1226.
The relics of St. Francis rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica and his image is used in a number of places on campus. The chapel in Breen Phillips Hall is named after him, and the tapestry pictured above is hung there. He is also depicted in a mural in the Basilica, receiving the stigmata, and in a stained glass window in the Dillon Hall chapel. Ivan Mestrovic, the famious artist-in-residence at Notre Dame, painted this image of Francis receiving the stigmata, which that hangs in Moreau Seminary. Francis is patron saint of environmentalists, families, and business people.
St. Francis, your simplicity and dedication to the Gospel rebuilt the Church--pray for us!