The Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis was born at Assisi in the Italian region of Umbria in 1182, the son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, and his wife Pica de Bourlement, a French noblewoman. Pietro was in France on business when Pica gave birth, and upon his return to Assisi began calling his son Francesco (“the Frenchman”), although the baby had been named Giovanni at birth.

Francis grew into a handsome and witty young man who delighted in fine clothes and revelry. Around 1202, he joined a military expedition against Perugia, however, and was captured and imprisoned for a year. During this time, an illness led him to re-evaluate his life, and he began to pray and seek spiritual enlightenment. After his release from prison, while praying in the forsaken country chapel of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in which Christ said to him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” He took this to mean that he should restore the crumbling church in which he was praying, so he went around Assisi begging for stones, which he then lugged to San Damiano, eventually succeeding in rebuilding the church. Over the course of the next two years, he lived as a penitent, restoring chapels in the countryside and nursing lepers.

Francis was inspired to live a life of poverty in early 1208 and began dressing in the coarse woolen tunic worn by the poorest Umbrian peasants. He preached penance, brotherly love, and peace to the people in the countryside, and soon attracted 11 followers. In 1209 he composed a simple rule for his followers (“friars”), the Regula primitiva or “Primitive Rule,” which was “to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” Francis petitioned Pope Innocent III to endorse his order in 1210, which the pope did after having a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and the oldest and most important basilica of the Western world.)

The order grew rapidly and expanded to include the Poor Clares, an order for women started by the noblewoman Clare of Assisi, and the Secular Franciscan Order, comprising laity and clergy who did not withdraw from the world but observed the principles of the Franciscan Order in their daily lives.

Determined to spread the Gospel, Francis first sought to travel to Jerusalem, but a shipwreck forced him to return home. An attempted trip to Morocco had to be cut short due to illness. He succeeded in traveling to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, however, and met with the Sultan of Egypt in 1219. Although there are few details of Francis’s time in Egypt, the members of the Franciscan Order have been in the Holy Land almost uninterruptedly since.

The order continued to grow, creating a need for more structure and a more detailed rule. Francis handed over the governance of the order to other brothers and withdrew increasingly from evangelism. In 1224, while praying during a 40-day fast, Francis received the stigmata, which caused him much suffering. He died on October 3, 1226, and was canonized in July 1228.

Francis believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters.” He famously preached to a flock of birds and was said to have persuaded a wolf to stop attacking people in the town of of Gubbio. He believed that all creatures should praise God and that the people of God have a duty to protect and enjoy nature. On November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Francis the patron saint of ecology, later saying that Francis “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation.”

Christ Church Cathedral will celebrate the Feast of St. Francis on Sunday, October 7, at 6 p.m. during the BreakingBread@6 Liturgy. The Liturgy will include a Blessing of the Animals at which all pets are welcome. Please ensure that all animals brought for a blessing are on a leash or in a carrier or other appropriate container.

Dianne Green