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St. Francis for Seekers View Comments
By Barbara Beckwith

Father Murray Bodo stands in front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. He first saw the basilica in 1972 when he came to Assisi to write Francis: The Journey and the Dream.

FORTY YEARS AGO a gentle Franciscan high school teacher penned a seminal book about St. Francis. It wasn’t a biography or a treatise on the little Poor Man of Assisi but a romantic, imaginative work that presents the saint from the inside out. Francis is a saint for seekers because he was one himself. He first set out to be a knight, fighting with the army of Walter of Brienne, was captured and taken prisoner in Perugia. He returned to Assisi, a sick and melancholy 22-year-old who didn’t know what to do with himself.

So he prayed harder and listened deeper to his dream of glory for the Lord. It eventually led him to kiss a leper, rebuild chapels, renounce his father’s wealth and privilege, embrace Lady Poverty and turn his friends into fellow travelers radically committed to the gospel. They preached by their words and by their lives.

In the end, Francis allied himself so closely with Jesus Christ that he came to share his wounds (the stigmata) and died covered only by another friar’s habit. Within a couple of years he was declared a saint by the Catholic Church, and his followers numbered into the thousands.

This is the story Father Murray Bodo, O.F.M., tells in his book and reflected on in an April interview with St. Anthony Messenger. Born in Gallup, New Mexico, he was an English teacher at St. Francis High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970 when Father Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, asked him to write a book about St. Francis. Father Jeremy had heard about Franco Zeffirelli’s new movie project about St. Francis that became Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and wanted to capitalize on it, while presenting a thoroughly Franciscan view.

Father Murray devoted the spring and summer of 1972 to writing his book. He went to Italy to absorb firsthand something of the geography and atmosphere (“the spirituality of place”) Sts. Francis and Clare knew. In traveling to Assisi, the priest says he found he was not just moving geographically, but also moving back in time. It freed his right brain to deal with Francis, not the analytical Ph.D. side of him.

But at whom exactly was the book aimed? “When the writing was happening, I realized that I was the audience,” Father Murray remembers. “If it worked for me, then I was praying it was going to work for someone else.”

He next came to see his audience as the young men of the boarding school with whom he lived 24 hours a day, nine months of the year.

Finally came the idea that the book might have a larger reach: “I was writing somehow deeply from within. It was almost—I don’t want to be dramatic or false here—like I was an instrument of something that was coming from deep within me and from within the Franciscan tradition. From the fact of being in Assisi, I could almost feel Francis and Clare on the streets, and all of that, I think, was forming and informing the book.”


Barbara Beckwith is the retired managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. She was a proofreader for the second printing of Father Murray’s Francis: The Journey and the Dream, and says that that book’s vision inspired her then and sustained her throughout the ensuing 37 years.

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Francis of Assisi: Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a sense of self-importance. 
<p>Serious illness brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi's youth. Prayer—lengthy and difficult—led 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." </p><p>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. </p><p>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 all his possessions, 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 fanatic, begging from door to door when he could not get money for his work, evokng sadness or disgust to the hearts of his former friends, ridicule from the unthinking. </p><p>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" (Luke 9:1-3). </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p> American Catholic Blog The joy of the Gospel is not just any joy. It consists in knowing one is welcomed and loved by God…. And so we are able to open our eyes again, to overcome sadness and mourning to strike up a new song. And this true joy remains even amid trial, even amid suffering, for it is not a superficial joy: it permeates the depths of the person who entrusts himself to the Lord and confides in him.

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