St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226)
St Francis of Assisi, the ‘Alter Christus’ or ‘Another Christ’, was well known for imitating Jesus with his way of living in poverty and simplicity. His heart’s only desire was to live and love as Christ did, and commit his service to his true love, Lady Poverty.
From a wealthy knight, captured and imprisoned for a year, Francis discerned and sought to be a knight for a greater king, with the lepers and beggars as his comrades in arms, his weapons the stones to rebuild the church, and hearts, the lands they would conquer. After initially struggling to make sense of what God had asked him to do, from his hearing Christ on the crucifix in the dilapidated church of San Damiano say to him ‘Francis, rebuild my church, which you see is falling to ruins’, Francis’ first encounter with Christ in hugging the leper helped him to embrace the path to serve the outcasts of society, giving clothing and food to the beggars and living with the lepers. Incurring his father’s wrath, Francis severed ties with him at the town square, with the bishop as witness. With no plan in mind Francis set forth, only knowing he would go wherever God would lead him.
With Brother Bernardo as his first follower, they rebuilt the church of San Damiano with the generosity of the people of Assisi and went on to rebuild many others. Francis’ acts inspired many and soon his followers grew in numbers. Having discerned it as God’s will for them to become an order, Francis travelled to Rome to seek approval from Pope Innocent III. After securing an audience with the Pope, Francis was questioned by the Holy Father on his way of life and service to the poor, which was radically different from the prevailing Christian practice. Upon hearing Francis’ parable of the king and the poor woman who gave him sons, Pope Innocent III was decided on giving Francis and his brothers a chance to live the rule he had drawn up; a rule that both impressed and shocked the pope himself and the curia in its severity. Impressed but not entirely convinced such a way of life was livable, they decided to approve Francis’ order of the ‘lesser brothers’.
Having received the stigmata of the wounds of Christ two years before his death in 1226 and proclaimed a saint in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX, Francis’ story remains an inspiration today. The first nativity scene set up by Francis in Greccio to honour the Saviour’s birth has become a feature of Christmas celebrations worldwide. So beloved was the Christ-like little poor man of Assisi, the Argentinian Bishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took on the name ‘Francis’ when he became Pope and Bishop of Rome in 2013. Francis’ devoted care for creation and the natural environment, his belief that God’s Creation, Man, animals and plants alike are one family (expressed in his great poem, ‘Canticle of the Creatures’) have made him the patron saint of animals and ecology. His feast day, October 4th, is usually celebrated with reminders of his advocacy of our oneness with Creation. One of these is the blessing of animals carried out as part of his feast day’s observance.
St Francis of Assisi founded three Franciscan orders. The first was the Order of Friars Minor, the second, the Order of St Clare (the Poor Clares), cloistered nuns who live the rule cast by St Clare of Assisi and approved by Pope Innocent IV in 1253; and the third canonical order was the Order of Franciscans Secular, also established since the 13th century, for those who wish(ed) to follow the way of Francis without joining the religious life. Thus the Franciscan family consists of and continues to accept devout persons, married or single, male or female into one of these three orders, as long as they desire to conform to Christ in the manner of St Francis and fulfil the order’s requirements.