St. Francis of Assisi (Part I)

Fr. Jeff ErnstBread to Offer0 Comments

This coming Tuesday is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, an important feast day for the Capuchin Franciscans, our parish Secular Franciscans, as well as all of the consecrated religious of the Franciscan family. St Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy. While the feudal system was still very much a part of the culture and society of his day, another economic/social class had emerged by the time Francis was born – the merchant class. These individuals were usually not of the upper noble class or aristocracy, but they had a lot of money either from the sale of their craft or from “retailing” fine articles and goods. Francis’ Father Pietro di Bernadone was of the merchant class. The merchants organized into guilds and became very powerful politically because of their wealth. Eventually, they began to appoint mayors in their own towns and thereby established their own governing power, which conflicted with the established nobility who “owned” these towns and cities. When Francis was just ten years of age, the merchant class of Assisi rose up against the nobility. They kidnapped the ruling family and set fire to their castle. The nobles of Assisi hired the army of the neighboring town of Perugia to help them regain power over Assisi. Eventually, a truce was signed, but not with honest intent on the part of the Assisi merchant class. The two cities would war again in 1202.

In the years between those two battles, Francis apprenticed under his father in the textile trade. Early on, Francis became very wealthy and popular. He loved to host huge parties and celebrations, often paying for most of it himself. He had dreams of becoming a knight and finally had his chance when Assisi went to war with Perugia a second time. Francis strongly desired to serve God as a knight (a recognized sign of Christian devotion at that time). After some months of battle in Perugia, Francis was taken captive and imprisoned for one year, during which time he fell seriously ill. Pietro bargained for his son’s return home, paying a heavy ransom. It took about a year for Francis to recover from his illness, but his desire for knighthood and chivalry never abated. He had yet another chance at his quest when Sir Walter of Brienne, a famous knight and Duke, was sent by Pope Innocent III to recapture Sicily, which had been taken by King Frederick, the reigning Emperor. When Walter requested support from the citizens of central Italy, Francis was elated. His father acquired the finest armor for him and one of the best stallions. As Francis was on his way to Sicily, he had a dream during which he heard a voice ask him why he is serving the servant and not the Master. This vivid dream with its accompanying imagery of a knight’s castle filled with armor, disturbed Francis very deeply. He realized that God was calling him to return to his home and await instructions there. He sold his horse and his armor and gave the money to the poor. He gave his expensive knight’s cape to a poor beggar. He begged his way back to Assisi, where he steeped himself in prayer and fasting. On a couple of occasions, he gathered with his old friends, but the joy he once experienced with them had dissipated. Finally, upon hearing a priest read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, he decided to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and become an intinerant preacher.
During this time, approximately 1205, Francis rebuilt by hand, three small churches. Eventually, other young men, most from the nobility of Assisi, as well as one priest, joined him. Together they bathed the sores of lepers, fed them and cared for them, and preached the Gospel to the people of Assisi and other nearby towns. They also spent much time in prayer and solitude in caves and small, poor churches. They would gather to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and for Mass. They established their living quarters at one of the churches Francis rebuilt, “Our Lady of the Angels.” They also named that church the “Portiuncula” or “little portion,” because it was from this “little portion” where Francis and his friars would set off to preach the Gospel and earn their food doing manual labor. In 1208, Francis and a few of his followers went to Rome to ask permission from Pope Innocent III to continue to live their new life with the official blessing of the Church. The Pope gave verbal approval for their new way of life. However, it was not until 1221, that the first “Rule of the Friars Minor” was approved, but not officially “sealed” by the Pope Honorius III. In 1223, after some re-working of the Rule, Pope Honorius gave the final seal of approval to the Rule. It is the same rule that all First Order Franciscans, including the Capuchins, follow today. “Friar Minor” comes from the Latin “Frater” which means “brother” and the Latin “Minor” which translates as “lesser” or “smaller.” St. Francis wished that his followers and he became as “little brothers” – servants to everyone.

– Fr. Jeff

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