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The Simple Saint

A Tribute to Francis of Assisi

The Simple Saint

The Simple Saint -"I lived in sin," he admitted at one point in his life. And yet the man who said these very words - whose feast day is celebrated on Oct 4 - is one whom Elimites look up to. Their way of life draws inspiration from him whose witness and commitment for God was, in his time, almost second to none. He was called an eccentric, a madman, a fool and finally a saint. He was Francis of Assisi.

His father was away on business when (sometime between September 1181 and early 1182, the date is uncertain) his mother gave birth. Her name was Pica. She was still in bed recuperating when an old stranger asking for alms knocked on her door. It was a practice not to turn away pilgrims at the time of a birth. Not satisfied with food, the old man asked to see the newborn. Reluctant at first, Lady Pica, sensing a supernatural air, consented to his demand. Taking the child in his arms, he prophesied, stating that on that day two boys had been born in Assisi. One of these two, he declared, would be among the best of men.

Pious mother that she was, Lady Pica named her son John after the man who had announced the Messiah's coming and preached repentance. But his father, the wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, would have none of it. The last thing he wanted his son to be was a man of God. He wanted his son to follow in his steps - to be rich and be like the French. So little John was renamed Francis.

Francis was a born leader. While growing up, he headed a group of young people who spent their nights partying and engaging in worldly pursuits. In spite of this, his mother adamantly believed that Francis would be a "son of God."

Once, it is told that, while selling velvet and fine embroiders to a client in the market, a beggar came imploring alms. Finishing his business with the buyer, he turned to look for the beggar. But the poor man was gone. Francis leaped from his booth and raced across the market place. When he found the beggar, he loaded the man with money. Before God he swore to never in his life refuse to help a needy man.

Still, his ambition was to win fame and glory. After a few unfruitful military adventures, at age 25, the Lord told him in a dream that his life was all wrong. Francis started spending more time in prayer. He went off to a cave and wept for his sins. When he emerged, a great sinner was becoming the great lover.

It was in the old church of San Damiano, as he gazed on the image on the cross, that the love of Christ went forth into the heart of Francis. He
received a revelation of the great love the crucified Christ meant. "My Church is crumbling into ruins," Christ said to him. He began to beg for stones and started to rebuild San Damiano with his bare hands. He had not realized that it was the Church with a capital "C" that the Lord wanted
restored. The Lord spoke to him later on: "Replace what you still love carnally and vainly with spiritual goods...Prefer bitterness to sweetness if
you wish to know me." Francis immediately obeyed. He gave way to Christ. He was possessed by Christ.

Slowly, Francis attracted followers. Though they slept in the open and renounced worldly possessions, their inexplicable joy and witness of faith won unexpected conversions. "He and his little group were children of God; they had won the freedom of those whom the world can no longer seduce and who rejoiced to own nothing any more," biographer Julien Green wrote.

Wanting direction from God, he opened the Bible in three places. He read the command to the rich young man to sell all his goods and give to the poor, the instruction to the apostles to take nothing on their journey and the order to take up the cross daily. "Here is our rule," Francis declared. He proceeded to do what no one considered achievable - live by the Gospel. He took the words of Scripture so literally that he made one brother run after the thief who stole his hood and offer him his robe! When the brothers met someone poorer than they, they would eagerly rip off the sleeve of their own habit to give to that person.

To assist at Mass with fervor and profound attention was a norm. One specific but seldom mentioned detail is that Francis recommended to his
brothers that they fix their eyes on the host at the elevation and adore the Real Presence with all their hearts. The respect due the Church and clergy was inviolable. One day, a heretic pointed out to him a priest living openly with a concubine. He was then posed with the question of whether Mass said by that man with polluted hands could be valid. Francis went up to the priest, knelt before him and kissed his hands - because those hands held the Body of the Lord at Mass.

Francis was a man of action. When he wanted approval for his brotherhood, he directly sought out Pope Innocent III in Rome. Seeing this little troop of paupers, the Pope had them thrown out. But then the Pope dreamed that a palm tree was growing slowly at his feet until it attained a fabulous size; and God revealed to him that this tree was none other than the beggar in the ash-gray robe whom he refused to see. He quickly called Francis back and eventually gave him permission to preach.

In 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans (friar means "brother" and minor means "lesser" or "younger"). This implied 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." His brotherhood had, in 10 years, grown to 5,000 members.

Francis and his followers were essentially missions-oriented. Twice a year all the brothers who could come to the chapel of Our Lady of Portiuncula gathered for two objectives. One was to reawaken the spirit of the brotherhood and to decide where to preach the Gospel. In other words, they determined where to set up the next mission. Francis resolved to establish "provinces," and that proved to be his first effort at organizing the brotherhood. Each of the provinces - Umbria, Tuscany, Campania, Apulia, Calabria - was placed under the care of a "minister." Missions would also be sent to foreign countries.

Praying to share in Christ's passion, he received the stigmata on his body, the marks of the nails and the lance wound that Jesus suffered. When he began to go blind, the Pope ordered that his eyes be operated on. This required cauterizing his face with a hot iron. Francis said, "Brother Fire, the Most High has made you strong and beautiful and useful. Be courteous to me now in this hour, for I have always loved you, and temper your heat so that I can endure it." Francis felt no pain from this operation. His "Canticle of the Sun" is his expression of his brotherhood with creation in praising God. He breathed his last on Oct 4, 1226 at the age of 45, singing the eighth verse of Psalm 142: "Lead me forth from prison that I may give thanks to Your name."

The prophecy had come to pass. Francis had become the best of men. His total surrender, unrestrained worship and utmost humility still astounds to this day. For his unflinching obedience and steadfastness, Francis is a standout among role models. He is the inspirer of all who, from the heart, desire to give God their all. May his example embolden us to strive to put ourselves at the service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ more passionately and unreservedly.

- By Joey Borja with Jane Catan


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