Thursday, October 2, 2014

Francis of Assisi--A Person Our Era Needs (Feast Day October 4th)

Francis of Assisi lived in a small town in Italy 800 years ago. Yet he is the Saint (a word that simply means "holy") for our era.

Image from Wikipedia

Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, a town in the Umbria/Perugia region of Italy, and was named "Giovanni" ("John" in English) and given the nickname "Francesco" ("Frenchie"/"the Frenchman") as an infant. His father was Pietro di Bernardone and his mother was Pica de Bourlemont. Francis's father was a fairly wealthy silk merchant, and Francis began his life bathed in privilege.

There is a wonderful hagiography of Francis. I'm sure it's hard to find out if these stories are historically accurate, but they certainly get at the spirit of the man. One story has him selling his father's silks in the marketplace and being approached by a beggar. At first Francis shrinks from the man, but eventually chases after him, giving away everything in his pockets. In the story, he is berated by his father for this.

Francis participated in a local war when he was around 20, was captured and held prisoner for a year. In the years after that captivity he had a religious conversion, culminating in a vision at the chapel of San Damiano, outside Assisi. Here is the story, as seen in Wikipedia (and found in all biographies of the man):

[in the chapel of San Damino} . . . the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose.
His father, Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to change his mind, first with threats and then with beatings. In the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him in front of the public. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the countryside around the town for two years, he embraced the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels just outside the town, which later became his favorite abode.

Francis took the vision literally--to literally repair falling-down churches. But the task eventually took on a metaphoric turn--renewing the Catholic Christian Church. I believe that the reason our current pope, Francis, took the name, was in that spirit--the church needs radical renewal, change, reformation.
St. Francis devoted his life to serving the poor and living in utmost simplicity. He has become the patron saint of nature, the patron of the Earth's environment. His charism, his holiness, his mission is exactly what is needed in our precarious age, when the poor are being trampled, when complexity and luxury and the rich are having their greatest moment in the sun, and when the earth is in terrible danger from the forces of wealth. Francis is the saint for our time.

Francis of Assisi is considered one of the earliest poets to write in Italian (in his case, the Umbrian dialect of Italian) rather than in Latin. You might say he was the first vulgar poet (in the sense that "vulgar" means the language of the people). He was like Italy's Walt Whitman! Here is his great poem, which has been translated and modified a thousand times, even made into modern movies and pop songs. Below is Francis' "Canticle/Song of the Sun."

English Translation of "Canticle of the Sun"
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

My wife and I had three daughters, greatest gifts of our lives. I thought if we ever had a son, he would be named Giovanni Francesco, John Francis--after the great saint, and after my grandfather John Francis FitzPatrick. That never happened, so I have taken that as my secret name.
One of my favorite biographies of St. Francis is by G.K Chesterton; there's another fascinating one by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek. There are movies by Fellini and Zeffirelli (Brother Sun, Sister Moon). Dozens of books; dozens of classical and popular tunes and songs. St. Francis has spoken to artists for 800 years! 
He still speaks to me.
Image from Wikipedia

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