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  • Writer's pictureFr. Mastroeni

St. Francis of Assisi

Updated: May 24, 2018

The Thirteenth Century saw the end to serfdom and the gradual disappearance of a poor, slavish peasant class. In its place emerged the beginning of a middle class because of the rise of a free market economy and the use of currency. This very time gave birth to the university system, wherein was born the great wedding of Faith with Reason, later called the “medieval synthesis”. It was in the universities growing as they did “ex corde ecclesiae” [from the heart of the Church] that the scientific method emerged, and thus the birth of science. The Thirteenth Century was an age when art, architecture, music and literature flourished. By all accounts it was, “the best of times”.

More importantly, it was an age in which the Faith flowered, and gave birth to numerous saints: St. Francis of Assisi [whose feast we mark today], St. Dominic Guzman, founder of the Dominicans, St. Thomas Aquinas the greatest thinker since St. Augustine, and later the great Franciscan theologians, especially St. Bonaventure and Blessed Duns Scotus.

But of all the saints that century produced there is none more beloved than the one called, “Il Poverello D’Assisi”, the little poor man of Assisi—for whom even Protestants and some non-Christians have a great affection. But while fame may have its privileges, it also has its problems, and for Francis his popularity has succeeded in dumbing down his message and mission. Tragically he has become “saint of the bird bath”. the patron saint of animals, the green party. “Will the real Francis of Assisi please stand up!”

Giovanni Bernadone was born in 1181 in the province of Umbria, Italy. Umbria would be a land of saints—having already given the Church one of the greatest: St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica.[1] The Bernadone family was part of the bourgeoning middle class. The father Pietro was a successful cloth merchant importing fine silks from Lyons, France. Both parents taught their son French songs and French expressions which gave rise to his nickname, “Francesco”, or the “little Frenchman.”

Like most young men at the time, Giovanni was regaled from an early age with tales of chivalric valor—stories of brave knights in shinning armor with their damsels in waiting. Francesco also dreamt of being a valiant knight. However two attempts to defend his native region from the aggressive rivalry of Perugia ended somewhat unceremoniously. Of frail health and falling in battle, he had to be carried back to his ancestral home almost near death’s door.

Truly humbled by these failures, he soon found that life for him would never to be the same. As with every divine vocation, there is an epiphany moment. Here the first was a sudden surge of generosity. One day Francis was riding along on his horse, and came upon a leper living in one of the caves outside the city limits. Fastidious by nature, Francis would normally have distained any contact whatever with the sick, but this time he dismounted, pressed alms into the leper’s ulcerous hand, embraced and kissed him. Thus began a definitive break with his past.

The second epiphany occurred while praying before the crucifix in the old, ruined Church of San Damiano. He could hear interiorly from the wounds of our crucified savior the words telling him, “Francis, repair my house which is falling into ruin”. Those words were repeated several times. At first Francis took them literally and went about the countryside collecting rocks with which to rebuild the walls of San Damiano, only to realize much later that the Lord meant his whole Catholic Church, and not the outside but the inside—an interior moral and spiritual reform.

At one point he even took some of his father’s precious inventory and sold it to buy building materials, and give the rest to the poor. When his father returned home, Francis was beaten badly, then chained to a room in the house as was often done to people judged to be mad. When all this took no effect, Pietro Bernadone publicly and formally disinherited his son before the bishop in the town square– a legal gesture indicating he was no longer liable for the foolishness of his son. Of course Francis was made to pay back his father, and then in a gesture of near madness before the bishop and a curious crowd, he divested himself of his fine outer clothing, returned them to his father, and declared that “Now, God is my Father.”

Dressing in an undyed woolen tunic supported by a rope about his waist, begging his daily bread, sleeping wherever he could, Francis went about preaching from the Gospels to the common people who were ignorant of even the most basic truths of the Faith. Preaching was not common and catechetical instruction in the Faith virtually unknown. While some thought him crazy and pelted him with rotten vegetables, others listened politely; and others some quite prominent took him seriously sought out his company. In time they were called, “I frati minori” or the lesser brothers.

Francis, together with his companions, walked all the way to Rome to present their simple rule of life to Pope Innocent III. The guards at the Lateran took one look and were about to toss him out to the other beggars on the street when the Pope recognized him from a mysterious dream  he had just the night before in which he saw a little poor man, holding up the walls of the Basilica of St. John Lateran which were about to collapse. The rest is history.

The Franciscan movement spread rapidly. It was a time when young people were especially receptive to inspiration, stuffed as they were from the husks of their new affluence, and longing for something more. And Francis gave them more—Jesus, not simply as an idea, an aspect of the culture, but the real Jesus of the Gospels: the “way, the truth and the life.”

While Francis loved the life of nature—and who wouldn’t living where you can take in daily from the high hills above the breathless view of the lush Umbrian valley below– he was more madly in love with the Tree of Life—the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ from which flow the waters of real, eternal life. The words of St. Paul to the Galatians in the first reading: “May I boast of nothing but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! Through it the world is crucified to me and I to the world.” [Gal.6: 14]

It was in 1224 while praying in solitude atop of Mt. La Verna, that Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of the passion on his hands, feet and side, the grace to share in the physical suffering of Christ. Speaking of the Cross, Francis said, “Were I to live to the end of the world, I should stand in need of no other books.”  The stigmata is not a trophy. With it comes the pain and suffering of the crucifixion. [2] Gradually his health failed, most probably his condition had been aggravated by his severe fasting and penances. Now almost totally blind—some think from diabetes—Francis died on this day in 1226 at the age of 45 while the Passion of our Lord from John’s Gospel was being read aloud to him.

Shortly before breathing his last, Francis summoned enough energy to recite or sing his famous Canticle of Brother Sun, and to compose its very last which:

                                    “Happy those who endure in peace,

                                    By you, Most High, they will be crowned.

                                    All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,

                                    From whose embrace no mortal can escape.

                                    Woe to those who die in Mortal sin!

                                    Happy those She finds doing your will!

                                    The second death can do no harm to them.

                                    Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,

                                    And serve him with great humility.”

That does not appear to be the “saint of the bird bath”. Many fail to appreciate these days, and sadly some of his own followers, the depth and intensity with which believed and reverenced real presence of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist.

At one point Francis warned his brethren of abuses of the Eucharist because of the spread of the heresy of Berengarius which among other things denied the Real Presence.  What he warns of could very well have been written today:

"…and besides many clerics reserve the Blessed Sacrament in unsuitable places, or carry it about irreverently or receive it unworthily or give it to all comers without distinction. Surely we cannot be left unmoved by loving sorrow for all this; in his love God gives himself into our hands; we touch him and receive him daily into our mouths. Have we forgotten that we must fall into his hands and so we must correct these and all abuses.”

From his letter shortly before his death to the last General chapter of the Friars Minor which he could not attend because of ill health:

“Let everyone be struck with fear, the whole world tremble, and the heavens exalt when Christ the Son of the Living God is present on the altar in the hands of the priest. O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity, O sublime humility and humble sublimity. The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God so humbles himself that he hides himself for our salvation under an ordinary piece of bread. See the humility of God, Bros and Sisters and pour out your hearts before him. Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him. Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves that he who gives himself totally to you, may receive you totally.”

May St. Francis of Assisi give all of us not only a love of nature, but more importantly a love for the new Creation which begins here in the Most Holy Eucharist where we are fed and nourished on the food of eternal life—the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we always be vigilant, have an ardor for the protection, the reverence due and the love owed to Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

[1] Umbria was originally  part of the Papal States since the donation of Pepin. Along with other territory it was expropriated by the Italian State during the War of Italian Reunification in the late 19th century.

[2] I am reminded of the time when the spiritual son of St. Francis, Capuchin Franciscan St. Pio of Pietrelcina, was examined at the behest of the Vatican by the psychiatrist—also a Franciscan and an M.D– Fr. Gemmelli. Gemmelli  who later informed Padre Pio that the stigmata was caused by auto-suggestion, that his deep thinking about the passion was causing the wounds to appear.  Pio looking answered Gemmelli, “Go and meditate on the bull there outside in the field for a couple of weeks and then come back and tell me if you have grow horns.”

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