St. Francis of Assisi – God’s Poverello
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.”
When a pilgrim goes to the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, he is given a pamphlet which reads, “An Encounter with St. Francis in Assisi.” This is what we will attempt to do in this chapter, introduce you to, and pray you experience such an encounter with the Poverello of Jesus, your heart will burn to learn more about him. There is so much to know about St. Francis that it’s impossible in this short chapter to tell it all. In addition, Francis touches everyone in a different way, as does Jesus. We believe that Francis was the closest human being on earth to mirror Jesus.
Francis draws you like a magnet. That’s how he got to us. On our first pilgrimage to Europe and the Holy Land, a side trip was included to Assisi from Rome. It was our first time in Rome, we had only one day to spend there. We didn’t want to leave Rome; there was too much we hadn’t seen. So when our guide told us that the next morning, we would leave bright and early for Assisi, Penny and I thought to ourselves, in your dreams; we weren’t going. We would explore Rome on our own. But the morning came, and we found ourselves boarding a bus for the three and a half hour drive to Assisi.
We only spent four hours in Assisi, and an hour and a half of that was lunch. So for all intents, we had two and a half hours in Assisi. There’s no way you can even begin to experience Assisi in that period of time. When the bus was ready to go back to Rome, we begged for more time. We didn’t want to leave! But we had to leave. On our way back to Rome, we vowed that if we ever got back to Assisi, we’d spend a day and a half there. As it turned out, we returned the following year. Our planned day and a half extended to a week, and still we didn’t want to leave. From that time, 1977, to this, we have visited Italy at least once a year, but for the most part, three or four times a year. We have never gone there and not spent at least two nights in Assisi, to bask in the illumination of St. Francis.
We’ve been asked many times, and even began asking ourselves, “Why do you keep going back to Assisi?” Is it because of the beauty of the town, and its surrounding area, including Santa Maria degli Angeli, the home of the Portiuncola? There’s no question that it is truly God’s country, but there are many little towns in Europe that are beautiful. We believed then, and we do now, there is an air of Francis about Assisi, which has never left. His presence blankets the town. You can feel him everywhere you go, in the streets, in the churches, among the people, everywhere. And for a few years, we were content with that explanation, because it is true. But it’s only part of the reason. About ten years ago, while we were doing research on this unique Saint, we came across the reason we keep going back to Assisi. Francis instructed the brothers, “Come back to the Portiuncola at least once a year. The Spirit of Jesus and Mary are very strong here.” Yes, then we understood. The same Spirit and power that made Francis the exceptional Saint he is, has never left Assisi. That’s what we felt in the air, the blanket that covers this holy ground. It is the Spirit, Jesus and Mary. Praise the Lord.
Francis of Assisi, God’s Heavenly Contradiction
Francis is God’s heavenly contradiction. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and analysts of human behavior have a field day, trying to determine what it is about this man that makes him beloved of the whole world. It’s a fact that Francis is embraced by Catholics, Christians, non-Christians, atheists, and dictators. Lenin, the major molding force of the Bolshevik revolution, which plunged Russia into more than 70 years of Communism, had an extraordinary admiration for Francis of Assisi. On his deathbed, he said, “If only we had 100 Francis’ of Assisi, the revolution would have been a success.”
Eastern religious leaders go to the Hermitage of St. Francis, on Mount Subasio, high above Assisi, to have retreats, to learn about this man of God.
In Sweden, which has been officially Lutheran for over 450 years, a Franciscan Friar from Assisi, Fr. Max Mizzi, was asked to go there to instruct the people, not in the Catholic Faith, but in the ways of St. Francis. Each of his visits there were successful; the churches were packed with eager, hungry listeners. A Third Order of St. Francis was established. Conversions to the Catholic Faith resulted. Fr. Max told us his apostolate has extended into Denmark, and all the Scandinavian countries.
During the Reagan administration, while Brezhnev was still alive, relationships between the Communists and Americans were at a boiling point. The then Superior of the Basilica of St. Francis, Padre Michele, issued an open invitation to the two world leaders to come to Assisi, and talk about peace.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II gathered religious leaders from all over the world to Assisi, for a Day of Prayer for Peace. And they all came!
Protestant denominations have named churches after St. Francis of Assisi, and set up Religious Orders, based on the Rule of St. Francis.
These are just random examples that we’ve heard, over the years. There must be thousands of other, more dramatic instances where the name of Francis and his charism, were employed by people or groups outside the Catholic Church.
Who is Francis?
Francis is everyman. He is the brilliant, multi-faceted diamond of Jesus. He appeals to every aspect of humanity possible. He is Gospel! Francis encompasses every charism that Jesus taught us. He appeals to the rich and the poor, the mighty and the humble, the brilliant and the simple. Everyone can relate to Francis. He is hope! We find ourselves sinking and drowning in our world of today, which has buried its people in the quicksand of self love, consumerism, materialism and permissiveness. The television commercials are lies! We have finally come to terms with that. All the things we were told we had to possess to live the American dream, are killing us. There’s nowhere to turn. Where is there a voice of sanity in an insane world? We look to Francis. He is proof that we can walk away from all of this, and be extremely happy. It can work. He did it! We turn to him in desperation, and he gives us hope in our hopelessness.
We have a very personal relationship with Francis. This is what gave us the courage to attempt to put the Francis we know, down on paper. As we delved into research on him, more for dates and facts than anything else, we became intimidated. There are so many brilliant people, who have written such intellectual studies on him, anything we would write could only be categorized, in the kindest sense, as simple.
But then the Lord gave us a word. Francis was all things to all people. He was extremely intellectual to those who needed that from him, but he was basically, like us, a very simple man. The only book he considered worthwhile to read, to study, and to fashion his life on, was the Gospel. And we know that the teachings of Jesus are simple; not always easy, but simple. With that encouragement to strengthen us, we invite you to meet, and fall in love with, a very powerful man in our Church, St. Francis of Assisi
Francis is so touchable. These days, when we see young men dressing in the latest fashions, driving the newest sports car, playing guitars, partying all the time, and chasing girls, we have a tendency to shake our heads, and mumble under our breath, admonitions like, “They’ll turn out bad.” That may be so; but that was also Francis.
Francis came from money. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was in the garment business. The common term for it today would be the rag business. He imported most of his fabric from France. He loved France, because he made so much money there. For that reason, he named his son Francesco, in honor of France. Pietro’s god was money, and he embraced that god with a passion. His wife, Pica, on the other hand, was a very spiritual lady. She was Francesco’s spiritual influence during his youth. The Lord used the strength of his mother to create a balance in his life, and to bring Francis to Him when the time was right.
Pietro had great hopes for his oldest son, Francesco, even though he was a frail and sickly boy. In those days, merchants were not nobility, nor were nobility merchants. Pietro could probably have bought and sold many of the elite in Assisi, but that still did not make him aristocratic. He counted on this son to bring him into that exalted circle of the town. Francis was groomed all his life to be a knight. He wore the finest clothes. He learned to play five musical instruments. He was the life of the party. There were many parties. That was part of the training. Young Francesco di Bernardone was the party-planner of his time, and the most sought-after party guest of his clique. And he loved it! He enjoyed learning the role he was to play.
Signor, che cosa vuole? (Lord, what do you want?)
Although there was not much to wage war over in the little village of Assisi, shiny coats of armor were the fashion statement of the time, and naturally, the son of Pietro di Bernardone had to have the best coat of armor available. He had a handsome horse. He did everything that was required of an up-and-coming member of a noble society. The proper course of action for a young man of Francis’ station was to go off to war, somewhere, anywhere.
He looked for a battle to fight, a cause to champion. A controversy arose between Assisi and Perugia, a nearby town. Francis leapt to the challenge. He went off to war. But the Lord’s plan was not for Francis to be a warrior, by the world’s standards. He was destined to be a warrior for the Gospel. So Francis was captured early in the game. He avoided being killed, but was imprisoned, until such time as a ransom could be paid. It took almost a year before he was released. He went back to Assisi, sick, but not deterred. He was going to find a war, if it was the last thing he did.
The Lord began chipping away at his heart during his recuperation period. He had a dream, in which he saw his father’s house as a palace, with luxurious furnishings, and a beautiful wife. The dream was to become a prophecy, only the palace was the House of God, and the wife was Lady Poverty. One day, he traded clothes with a beggar, in the tradition of St. Martin of Tours. Values were changing for young Francesco. But he was still determined to find a war.
His opportunity came when Assisi joined with the Papal forces to do battle in Apulia, near the boot of Italy. Francis, and a group of young men from Assisi, set out for the war zone. He got as far as Spoleto, fifty miles away, where he stayed overnight. The Lord spoke to his heart. “Francis, whom do you choose, the Master or the servant?” Francis answered, “The Master – Lord, what do you want me to do?”
“Return to your own place,” he was instructed. “You will be told what to do. Your dream has to be interpreted differently; the palace and arms you saw are for other knights than those you had in mind; and your principality will be of another order.”
Francis did not go to war. He returned to Assisi, a changed young man. He was not the party lover he had been in the past. He spent time off by himself, listening, waiting for the Lord to tell him what He wanted of him. The Lord made Francis’ senses very keen. After He had cleared out all the garbage in Francis’ head, his eyes became very clear; his ears sharp; his nose could smell odors, rather than just the sweet fragrances he had been used to all his life. He began to see the poor, hear their cries, and smell the squalor they lived in. He could not reconcile that his family had so much, and these people so little. It didn’t make any sense. He felt the need to balance things. So, in his simplicity, he took valuables from his home and cloth from his father, converted them into money, and gave it to the poor.
One time his mother saw him putting many, many loaves of bread in a sack. When she asked what this was for, he replied he wanted to share the bread with the poor. He had made a commitment to give alms to the poor. His mother attributed this strange behavior to the illness he had come down with during his imprisonment. His father was not as kind. He labeled Francis as “pazzo” (crazy).
This was the beginning of Francis’ conversion, his response to the pull, away from the world and toward the Lord. He went to Rome on pilgrimage. He saw beggars on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. He asked one to change clothes with him. He spent hours on those steps, begging for alms, in French. He enjoyed the feeling of being dependent on the kindness of others. After a time, he changed back into his own clothes, and returned to Assisi.
The Lord placed on Francis’ heart, he was to hate the things he had formerly loved, and love the things he had formerly hated. This instruction stayed with Francis all his life. He knew how he had been a prisoner to things of the world, possessions which possessed him. He had to make a conscious decision, every moment of his life, to denounce those things which had owned him. He also had to use the same determination to accept, no, embrace those things which repulsed him. High on this list were lepers. The sight and smell of them had always nauseated Francis. He couldn’t bear the thought of looking at them, being near them, no less touching them. So he knew that he had to do just that, touch them.
He met a leper on the road, who was begging. The same fear and repugnance that Francis had always felt, began to surge up into his consciousness. As the beggar came closer, Francis fought the sick feeling that was overtaking him. At their moment of contact, Francis gave him a coin. As if that was not enough, he kissed his mangled hand. The leper, in return, gave Francis the kiss of peace. As the man embraced him, Francis cringed as he anticipated the smell of rotting flesh invading his nostrils. Instead, he sensed the most beautiful aroma. He could feel the fear peeling off his body. He was overcome by a strong sensation of joy and lightness. He felt as if he could fly. He was light as a feather. Soon after, he went to a leper hospital, and handed out coins to all the lepers, kissing their hands as he did. He calculated the score as one for the Lord, and 9,000 to go. He felt compelled to seek out Lady Poverty, and take her for his bride.
He found himself in the broken-down church of San Damiano, a mile or so from the city. It was falling apart. But there was a beautiful crucifix there. Francis prayed seriously to the Lord. The question was always the same. “Lord, what do you want of me?” The Cross of San Damiano came alive. Jesus spoke to Francis, “Go and rebuild my Church, which as you can see, is in ruins.”
Francis was always a simple man. He took the Lord literally. He began to rebuild the church of San Damiano. He believed this was his calling. He is so beautiful, so simple. This is why we have the courage to write about him. There was nothing confusing about the statement. The Lord asked him to rebuild his churches, so he got mortar and stone, and rebuilt. Was it simplicity, or humility? Did Francis know what the Lord really meant by those words, but thought He could not be asking the likes of Francis to be a major force in reforming the Church? Don’t we all think that way very often? The Lord speaks to us, and we don’t think it’s possible that He wants us to be instrumental in bringing about change in His Church. We go back to Gideon in the Old Testament. We’re not sure if, in his case, it was humility or fear that made him hesitate. In any event, the Lord used Gideon for His glory. He was asking the same of Francis.
Antagonism built between Francis and his father. It came to a head when his father took him to court, for having stolen so many valuables from his warehouse and his home. Francis considered himself a Religious by this time, and therefore, not subject to civil authorities. He refused to appear before a civil court. His father appealed to the Bishop, who convinced Francis that he had better appear before his father. Francis made a prophetic statement at that meeting, which took place in the center of town. He took off all his clothes, gave them to his father, and renounced his heritage. He said, “From this moment forth, I am no longer Francis, son of Pietro di Bernardone, but Francis, child of God.” It was a very dramatic moment, Francis standing in the middle of the square, stark naked. His father became enraged; he tried to punch Francis, but his younger son held his arm back. The Bishop, who had been presiding over the quarrel, took off his cloak and put it around Francis. God was telling the whole world, through this gesture of the Bishop that Francis was truly under the protection of the Father. Although we believe the Bishop was fully aware of Francis’ spirituality, we believe the conscious reasoning for giving Francis his cloak was, he didn’t want him walking around town without any clothes on.
As Francis was stripped of material possessions, he became happier. He took to wearing a coarse hermit’s tunic, tied with a leather strap. He strolled through the town, so joyful, so light and airy, without a care in the world. He begged crusts of bread from the local people. They thought he was crazy. Very often, his begging was returned with insults. He praised God, blessed his attackers, and continued on his way.
We love you!
What you have just read is a small excerpt from the chapter on
Saints and Other Powerful Men in the Church.