Serious illness brought the young Francis
to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi's youth. Prayerlengthy
and difficultled him to a self-emptying like that of Christ, climaxed by embracing
a leper he met on the road. It symbolized his complete obedience to what he had heard
in prayer: "Francis! Everything you have loved and desired in the flesh it is your duty
to despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. And when you have begun this, all that
now seems sweet and lovely to you will become intolerable and bitter, but all that you
used to avoid will turn itself to great sweetness and exceeding joy."
From the cross in the neglected field-chapel
of San Damiano, Christ told him, "Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly
falling down." Francis became the totally poor and humble workman.
He must have suspected a deeper meaning
to "build up my house." But he would have been content to be for the rest of his life
the poor "nothing" man actually putting brick on brick in abandoned chapels. He gave
up every material thing he had, piling even his clothes before his earthly father (who
was demanding restitution for Francis' "gifts" to the poor) so that he would be totally
free to say, "Our Father in heaven." He was, for a time, considered to be a religious "nut," begging
from door to door when he could not get money for his work, bringing sadness or disgust
to the hearts of his former friends, ridicule from the unthinking.
But genuineness will tell. A few people
began to realize that this man was actually trying to be Christian. He really believed
what Jesus said: "Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses,
no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff" (see Luke 9:1-3).
Francis' first rule for his followers
was a collection of texts from the Gospels. He had no idea of founding an order, but
once it began he protected it and accepted all the legal structures needed to support
it. His devotion and loyalty to the Church were absolute and highly exemplary at a time
when various movements of reform tended to break the Church's unity.
He was torn between a life devoted
entirely to prayer and a life of active preaching of the Good News. He decided in favor
of the latter, but always returned to solitude when he could. He wanted to be a missionary
in Syria or in Africa, but was prevented by shipwreck and illness in both cases. He did
try to convert the sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade.
During the last years of his relatively
short life (he died at 44) he was half blind and seriously ill. Two years before his
death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands,
feet and side.
On his deathbed, he said over and
over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, "Be praised, O Lord, for our
Sister Death." He sang Psalm 141, and at the end asked his superior to have his clothes
removed when the last hour came and for permission to expire lying naked on the earth,
in imitation of his Lord.
of the Day
Franciscan Father Leonard Foley (1913-1994) was the editor of Saint of the Day,
and author of many other books, and articles for Catholic
Update and St. Anthony Messenger.