In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. (It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name.) Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores, and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labors. He moved in with the priest, and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins, and by working as a day laborer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.
After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. ("Friar" means "brother," as in "fraternity", and "minor" means "lesser" or "younger." I take the meaning to be that a Franciscan, meeting another Christian, is to think, "I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself."
Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach (St. Matthew 10:7-10):
"And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food."
They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, "using words if necessary," but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. Francis was partial to a touch of the dramatic (see his parting from his father, for example), and it was probably he who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home the Good News of God made man for our salvation, home to men's hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects.
In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francois' deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands.
Back in Italy and neighboring countries, the Order was suffering from its own success. Then, as now, many persons were deeply attracted by Francis and his air of joy, abandonment, and freedom. What is overlooked is that these were made possible only by his willingness to accept total poverty, not picturesque poverty but real dirt, rags, cold, and hunger, and lepers with real pus oozing from their sores and a real danger of infection. Many idealistic young men were joining the Order in a burst of enthusiasm and then finding themselves not so sure that such extremes of poverty were really necessary. When there were only a few friars, they were all known to Francis personally, and the force of his personality kept the original ideals of the Order alive in them. Now that the Order was larger, this was no longer enough. In 1220 Francis resigned as minister-general of the Order, and in 1221 he agreed to a new and modified rule, which he did not approve, but could not resist. He died on 4 October 1226. The Franciscan split into the Conventual Franciscans, who held a limited amount of property in common, and the Spiritual Franciscans, who disavowed all property. They taught that Christ and the twelve apostles had held no property, singly or jointly. This view offended those who held property, and was declared to be heretical. In 1318, several Spiritual Franciscans were burned at the stake in Marseilles.
A story is told of the days when the friars first began to have permanent houses. A beggar came by when Brother Juniper was at the gate and asked for a little money. Brother Juniper said, "There is no money in the house. But wait a minute. Last week someone gave us an altar cloth with little silver bells attached. We don't need those. I will cut them off for you. They will be as good as money." And he did. When the sacristan learned what had happened, he complained to the prior, who said, "We are fortunate that he did not give away the cloth itself. But send him to me, and I will scold him." Brother Juniper came, and the prior scolded him until he was hoarse. Brother Juniper noticed that the prior was hoarse, and went to the kitchen and cooked him some mint sauce. He brought it to the prior, who had gone to bed. He said, "Father Prior, get up and eat this mint sauce. It will be good for your throat." The prior said, "I don't want any mint sauce. Go away and let me sleep." Brother Juniper said, "It's good sauce, and will be good for your throat." The prior said, "Go away, I don't want it." Brother Juniper said, "Well, if you won't eat it, how about holding the candle while I eat it?" This was too much for the prior. He got up and they both ate.
From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:
O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: "Our Father, who are in heaven," since we must always pray and never grow slack.
Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive toe very human being for God's sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father's children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.
While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty day fast in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis is said to have had a vision on or about 14 September 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of the phenomenon of stigmata. "Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ."
Suffering from these Stigmata and from an eye disease, he had been receiving care in several cities (Siena, Cortona, Nocera) to no avail. In the end he was brought back to the Porziuncola. He was brought to the transito, the hut for infirm friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of 3 October 1226 singing Psalm 141. His feast day is observed 4 October.
On 16 July 1228 he was pronounced a saint by the next pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal Ugolino di Conti, friend and protector of St. Francis. The next day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
St. Francis is considered the first Italian poet by literary critics. He believed commoners should be able to pray to God in their own language, and he wrote always in dialect of Umbria instead of Latin. His writings are considered to have great literary value, as well as religious.
Propers for Francis of Assisi - Friar
MOST high, almighty, and good Lord: Grant thy people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, that, after the example of blessed Francis, we may for love of thee delight in all thy creatures, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Epistle - Galatians 6:14-18.
The Gospel - St. Matthew 11:25-30.
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