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Who is St. Francis?

Below is Part 1 of a two-column series on St. Francis of Assisi. Part 2 will run in the June 19 issue.

 Catholics the world over have statues of him holding birds in their gardens. No doubt, St. Francis paraphernalia has increased ten-fold with the election of our new pope. But who was this man?  With many saint stories, myths have mixed with facts over the centuries. In the case of St. Francis’ radical witness, what often sounds like a medieval fairytale is actually true!

Francis’ dad, a successful cloth merchant, had plenty of money, and Francis knew how to spend it. He was the life of the party. He loved to sing, wear the finest clothes, and eat the best food money could buy. But he wanted more. He wanted glory! That longing drove him to become a knight—a career move he failed at miserably. In a battle between Assisi and Perugia he was taken prisoner for more than a year.

It was in that lonely prison where he began to be stripped of everything he had previously defined himself by. Notoriety, wealth, pleasure … gone. After being ransomed, he set out for another military journey but his dreams of glory were cut short again, this time by illness. Before he could regain his strength, he received a vision in a dream telling him to give up his adventure and go back home to Assisi. He rode home a defeated knight, but his journey to true glory had just begun.

Back home he tried to join in the parties he had been the center of, but something had changed in him. He began to join in the revelry less and less, and retreated into silent prayer more and more, and he began to see everything he had previously lived for in a new light.

It is said that he once turned upside down so he could look at the world as it really was. Upside down it looks like everything is fragile, hanging on a thread, about to fall into the abyss … the bigger, heavier, costlier things even more so. He wanted to be free of every precarious weight of this world. This man who had loved luxury began to fall in love with what he called “Lady Poverty.” His heart was set on a new goal: to become poor and a servant of the poor.

One day while passing by a leper, Francis overcame his repulsion and fear, jumped down from his horse, embraced him, and gave the man all the money he had. Then, on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis dove deeper into poverty. He emptied his purse as a donation at St. Peter’s Basilica, exchanged his nice clothes with a beggar, and spent time begging with the poor.

After returning home, he was praying before a crucifix and heard the voice of Jesus speak from it, “Go, Francis, and rebuild my house, which is falling into ruin.” He thought Jesus was talking about the little chapel where he was praying. He could never have imagined that Jesus was calling him, through his spirit of poverty and love of the Gospel, to be an agent of spiritual renewal for the whole Roman Catholic Church, which, in the early 1200s, had been entangled in political power and wealth.

As impulsive as a holy man as he had been as a party animal, Francis sold his father’s cloth to get building supplies. His father became infuriated with his son. He had failed to become a knight with all the armor he bought him, failed to become a businessman, was giving away his money, and by now his seemingly crazy behavior had made Francis the laughing stock of Assisi. He had Francis beaten, bound, and thrown into a dark cell.

When his dad brought him before the bishop to be judged and to cut off his inheritance, Francis tore off his clothes and gave them to his father saying: “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’”

He now had complete freedom from any worldly tie. Not long afterward he was seen praying in ecstasy, simply repeating again and again, “My God and my all!”

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