October 3, 2017

Saint Francis of Assisi, Mystic and Founder

Saint Francis of Assisi

Memorial - October 4th

Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian friar, preacher. and stigmatic, who founded the Franciscan Order, is perhaps the best-known saint of the Catholic Church. Indeed, Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. It has been said that of all the holy individuals the Church has canonized, it is this "poor man of Assisi" who most closely resembled Christ Himself. In humility Francis never accepted the priesthood, but remained a deacon his entire life.

So much has been written about Francis that the basic outline of his story is well known. Born into wealth and privilege in the town of Assisi, Italy in 1181, this handsome and popular young man spent his youth in living selfishly. Intent on seeking fame, Francis embarked on an ill-fated bale with the neighboring town of Perugia. When that failed, he set off instead on the Fourth Crusade, but never got further than one day’s ride from Assisi. As the result of a dream, Francis returned home a changed man. His arrogance was replaced by a desire to do God's will.

In the nearby chapel of San Damiano, where he would go for solitude and prayer, Francis received a call from God to “go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Thinking that God literally meant the crumbling chapel in which he was sitting, he set about repairing the building. What God intended, however, was much more than that. The Universal Church was plagued in Francis’ time by scandal and heresy, and it was this "Church" that God wished Francis to restore.

Francis grew in holiness and began to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ by his words and deeds. He embraced “Lady Poverty” and sought humility in all things. Despite the fact that, at first, many people despised and mocked him as a madman and religious fanatic, he treated everyone he met with the love and respect that Christ Himself would have shown. He was even given the grace to embrace a leper, who turned out to be none other than the Lord in disguise.

As it became apparent that he was genuinely caught up in a great love for God, Francis gathered about him other like-minded young men who wished to live the Gospel message in all its radical simplicity. Though he never set out to found a religious order, in 1210 he and his band of friars minor went to Rome to meet with Innocent III. The pope had had a dream about Francis propping up the St. John Lateran Church, and recognized Francis, giving him permission to preach.

There are many stories about St. Francis that are beloved by those who know them. Many center on Francis’ intense joy in God’s creation and His Incarnation. It was Francis, for instance, who erected the first Christmas creche. But what attacks people the most, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is the humility, simplicity, and compassion which radiated from him as he embraced, and was embraced by, God's love. His ardent love of God merited the name of Seraphic.

Two years before Francis’ death, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ crucified. This suffering, plus an eye affliction that left him half blind, marked the last years of his life. St. Francis died on October 4, 1226, in his beloved church, Portiuncula. He was canonized less than two years later by Pope Gregory IX. Francis’ feast day is October 4th. He is the patron saint of Italy, ecology, and Catholic action.

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