The following is a continuation of last week’s Bread to Offer on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The Feast of St. Francis was this past Tuesday, October 4th.
Once the final “Rule of the Friars Minor” was approved in 1223, Francis did not have much longer to live. Even though he recuperated from the illness he incurred while a prisoner of war in 1202-1203, his health remained compromised for the remainder of his life due to that illness. This, and the abuse of himself through severe fasting and a poor diet, left Francis chronically susceptible to illness and disease. Already in 1220, when he sent a band of friars to Morocco to preach the Gospel, Francis was too sick to join them, a deep disappointment for him. Off and on from approximately 1205 through 1226, Francis would battle infirmity. Curiously, he did not succumb to leprosy even though his brothers and he continually were exposed to that disease while bathing the lepers’ wounds and changing their bandages.
Meanwhile, the Order of Friars Minor grew exponentially. In the spring of the year 1224, around the Feast of Pentecost, the friars held a “Chapter of Mats,” so-called because they all slept in little huts outside of Our Lady of Angels church. There was no “rectory” or “friary” at that time. Hundreds of friars were in attendance at that Chapter. The Chapter lasted approximately ten days to two weeks. It was there that Francis appointed Brother Elias as “General Minister” of the Order. Francis appointed Elias as the lead administrator because Francis recognized his own lack of skill in administration. Spiritually, Francis remained the de facto leader, but Elias had the skills necessary to lead and organize a population of friars which by the end of 1224, numbered 2,000. It was also at the Chapter of Mats that groups of friars were sent to preach in different countries throughout Europe. Groups of 10 to 15 were sent to Germany, Spain, France, Bohemia (now the Czech nations), Switzerland, and England to preach, to establish houses, and to recruit new members.
In the autumn of 1224, around the time of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th), Francis went to Mt. Alverno to spend a few weeks in prayer in a hollow of a mountainside. He had a companion with him who remained at a distance so that Francis could pray in seclusion. Francis began to pray intensely, asking God to allow him to experience the love that Jesus felt for us when he hung upon the cross. Suddenly, there appeared what has been described as a “seraph,” an angel but with the image of a man. It had with six wings: two crossed over each other above the man, two crossed over the lower half of the man’s body, and the remaining two wings held the seraph aloft. The seraph also had a “flaming” or “fiery” appearance. As Francis gazed in ecstatic wonder and awe, he was filled with the sweetness of the love of Jesus, but also with the bitterness of the suffering of Christ. The image lasted for a brief time. After its disappearance, Francis was left with the mark of the wounds of Christ on his body, what are referred to as the “stigmata.” It is popularly believed that the stigmata of St. Francis were manifest as holes in his hands and feet. However, the biographers of his time, including the proclamation of the canonization of St. Francis by Pope Gregory IX, describe actual nails formed with Francis’ flesh. They describe the heads of the nails as located on the inside of the hands, with the points protruding through the opposite side and bent over. They also describe the heads of nails on the tops of Francis’ feet, with the nails emerging through the bottom of the feet and again bent over. Francis also had the wound in his side. Those who cared for Francis in his last days describe the wounds in a similar way. His wounds bled frequently, which contributed to his Francis’ ill health.
Francis also had suffered from a disease of the eyes. Because he was neglectful toward himself, for which he would later apologize to his body, the disease grew worse until another friar urged him to get medical attention. Francis finally complied. Different forms of treatment were applied to his temples, including poultices and cauterization. By early 1226, Francis was so sick, that he remained bedridden at Our Lady of the Angels. In the summer of 1226, Francis went to stay with St. Clare and her sisters at San Damiano, another church Francis rebuilt by hand. It was in the courtyard there that Francis wrote the “Canticle of Brother Sun.” The words to this canticle make up the verses to “Canticle of the Sun” that we sometimes sing at Mass. Francis was nearly blind when he wrote that canticle. He found peace and joy in creation and the way it reflects God’s beauty. Francis died in 1226 and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX just two years later.
– Fr. Jeff