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( Originally Published 1913 )
St. Francis was born in the latter part of the twelfth century in the little town of Assisi, Italy. His father was a cloth merchant and was away in France on business when his son was born. His mother had him christened GiovanniJohn-but when Peter Bernardone returned he said the boy should be called Francis, because his father had been in France when he came into the world. Francis he was called and we hear no more of Giovanni.
Peter Bernardone was a prosperous merchant and he determined to give his son every advantage. Francis had inherited a sunny temperament and happy disposition from his mother. His rich apparel, sparkling fun, and ready means soon made him popular with his companions. His friends were chosen from the sons of nobles and Bernardone was proud to feel that his son was favorite among those of noble blood. Throughout his boyhood he lived a happy, care-free existence.
His mother had declared from the first that her son was destined to do great deeds, and she never lost faith in her early prediction. In the changes that came about later she often repeated her belief that Francis would do good in the world, little dreaming in what way this would be brought about.
When scarcely more than a youth Francis had a serious illness. For weeks his life was despaired of, and when at last he recovered he gained strength slowly. Having been face to face with death he felt that he had been spared for some particular purpose. A change came over his life; the old comrades no longer attracted him; he remained alone, not understanding his own moods. His old acquaintances tried in vain to rouse him out of the melancholy into which he sank. He knew only that their mirth no longer diverted, their pranks no longer appealed to him. Among the poor rather than the rich he now found pleasure, and he often slipped quietly away to take food to the needy or shared his clothing with them. Occasionally he would join his friends in hope of forgetting his own thoughts, but even in the midst of their gayety he was serious. To tease him his companions would exclaim that he was about to take a wife and change his care-free existence for a settled mode of life. Finally he answered back that he was about to wed-Lady Poverty. Even yet his meaning did not dawn upon them.
During his absences from home Peter Bernardone entrusted his business to his son. While he had been entirely willing that Francis should spend money freely for his per sonal pleasures, he objected seriously when he found that he was using his substance for the poor, and especially for the restoration of the town church that had fallen in decay. When arguments and threats were unavailing to bring his son back to his former habits and to the abandonment of his new desires, Peter Bernardone appealed to the bishop, asking that the goods his son had used be returned to him. Then a dramatic scene occurred, when Francis cast his clothing from him and gave it to his father, saying that God was now his father and henceforth to God alone he would yield obedience. The bishop threw his cloak around the youth, while the crowd that had gathered gazed in wonder at one who would renounce all claim to wealth in this unusual way.
When Francis openly renounced the riches of the worldwhich had ceased to attract him-and pledged himself to a life of simplicity and service, his old happy ways returned. He went about singing, doing good to others and indifferent to the ridicule often made of him. One day at mass he heard the priest read the words: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils; freely ye received, freely give. Get you no gold nor silver, nor brass in your purses; no wallet for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes, nor staff: for the laborer is worthy of his food." They seemed to bring to him a new message, and after the conclusion of the service Francis cast aside his purse and all unnecessary articles. He procured a coarse tunic over which he wore a brown cloak.
Neither shoes nor hat did he deem longer necessary, and he trusted to the bounty of those he helped for food.
While many still laughed at what they called his folly, some were attracted by his sincerity and austere life. Surely, they thought, there must be something to hold one of his accustomed habits to this new path, barren of the slightest comfort. Gradually others joined him until he had several companions living as he did.
Now Francis thought it best to go to Rome and get the sanction of the Pope to the kind of life he and his followers were leading. Accordingly he set out at once. To under stand the difficulty of obtaining the Pope's consent and blessing for such a purpose, it is essential that we recall the conditions prevailing among churchmen generally in this particular age. Great wealth had flowed into the coffers of the Church and monasteries had become immensely rich. Neither priests nor monks longer held to their earlier vows and the inconsistency of their teachings and their practices were flaunted every day in the faces of the people. Small hope was there that these simple men in their brown cloaks would win approval from bishops and cardinals whose very pomp and rich apparel put to scorn their country brothers.
Pope Leo III. received Francis and asked him many questions. The bishops and cardinals likewise questioned him, and he responded to all their queries with frank, straightforward replies. The Pope hesitated and the churchmen plainly disapproved of his methods. Francis was sent away to await a decision.
There is a legend that the Pope dreamed that night that his Church was tottering, and that a slight man clad in a brown cloak supported it. However that may have been, he sent for Francis on the following day and, despite the murmurings of his bishops, blessed the little company of spiritually-minded brothers and allowed them to go forth into the world to teach the principles of Christianity and brotherly love as they understood them.
Now that Francis and his followers had the Papal sanction they were no longer scorned as they had earlier been. On the contrary, they were respected-not only by those to whom they brought assistance and comfort, but by those who did not personally sympathize with their methods. Francis went about preaching and large crowds gathered to hear him, for he spoke not like the priests, in Latin, but in the language which the people understood.
"If ever men have preached Christ these men did; Christ, nothing but Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. They had no system, they had no views, they combatted no opinions, they took no side... `The pearl of great price-will you have it or not? Whether or not, there are millions sighing for it, crying for it, dying for it. To the poor at any rate the Gospel shall be preached now as of old.'"
In the Middle Ages lepers were not isolated entirely as they are in the most progressive countries to-day. Instead, they lived in little groups outside the city walls. If strangers approached them they called out "Unclean, unclean," but they lived upon alms thrown to them by the compassionate. To such a group of lepers outside the city of Assisi, Francis and his followers often went. They bathed their sores and ministered unto them, bringing some relief to those so wasted by disease that even their own people had cast them out. To the poor and needy the little band of workers went-anywhere, everywhere, carrying messages of cheer and comfort.
Because of increasing numbers it was necessary to have some organization, and Francis founded the order called from his name-Franciscan. The three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were the ones on which he built. As might be expected, little time and thought was expended upon rules and regulations. A few principles were fundamental; the rest lay in the spirit of the noble founder and through him was transmitted to his followers.
"This is the rule and way of living of the minorite brothers: namely, to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience, without personal possessions, and in chastity. Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our lord, Pope Honorius, and to his successors who canonically enter their office, and to the Roman Church. And the other brothers shall be bound to obey brother Francis and his successors."
Next follow directions as to the manner of gaining admission into the Order. The simple apparel to be worn by the "little brothers" is described, and then, with characteristic delicacy St. Francis cautions his brothers not to criticize other men for following another fashion. "And I warn and exhort them lest they despise or judge men whom they shall see clad in soft garments and in colors, using delicate food and drink; but each one shall the rather judge and despise himself."
The brothers are cautioned about entering into contentions with others; while their lives are not to be spent in the cloister, they are to go quietly and peaceably about, blessing mankind. Neither coin nor money could they receive, nor could property come into their possession. To be sure, after the death of the founder some of his precepts were neglected, but for years the Franciscan friars refused to have monasteries deeded to their order.
St. Francis was such a lovable being that when we attempt to analyze his teachings we lose sight of the personality of the man-by far the more important factor, for he was sweet and affectionate, with abundant love for every living thing.
A man of Francis' temperament was sorely needed in the Christian world at this time. Early Christianity had taught that this world was but a preparation for the one to come; whatever was beautiful and alluring here endangered man in his passage through this world to the one beyond. Life had become barren indeed. Those who wished to save their souls frequently withdrew from all possible attractions lest they might be led unawares to dwell a moment upon the wonderful beauty around them. St. Francis did much to restore Nature to her rightful place. He was so overflowing with love for every living thing that he even removed the worm from his path, calling it "little brother" and fearing lest a careless step might crush out its tiny existence.
Legends naturally grew up around such a man in an age when the strange and miraculous was still demanded. Even in our own day there remain plenty of people who value a personality greater if stories that cannot quite be explained be clustered around it. The old cry: "Give us a sign, give us a sign," may yet be felt and sometimes heard. Beautiful legends shortly gathered around all favorite saints, and particularly around the personality of St. Francis. Best known probably is the one connected with the sermon he once preached to the little birds. That he actually preached such a sermon we need not doubt; it is wholly in accordance with his being. "And as with great fervour he was going on the way, he lifted up his eyes and beheld some trees hard by the road whereon sat a great company of birds well-nigh without number; whereat St. Francis marvelled, and said to his companions: `Ye shall wait for me here upon the way and I will go to preach unto my little sisters, the birds.' And he went into the field and began to preach unto the birds that were on the ground; and immediately those that were on the trees flew down to him, and they all of them remained still and quiet together until St. Francis made an end of preaching; and not even then did they depart, until he had given them his blessing. And according to what Brother Masseo afterwards related unto Brother Jacques da Massa, St. Francis went among them, touching them with his cloak, howbeit none moved from out his place. The sermon that St. Francis preached unto them was after this fashion: `My little sisters, the birds, much bounded are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple raiment; moreover, He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do ye reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sew, God clotheth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise unto God.' When as St. Francis spake these words to them, those birds began all of them to open their beaks, and stretch their necks, and spread their wings, and reverently bend their heads down to the ground, and by their acts and by their songs to show that the holy Father gave them joy exceedingly great. And St. Francis rejoiced with them, and was glad, and marvelled much at so great a company of birds and their most beautiful diversity and their good heed and sweet friendliness, for which cause he devoutly praised their Creator in them. At the last, having ended the preaching, St. Francis made over them the sign of the cross, and gave them leave to go away; and thereby all the birds with wondrous singing rose up in the air; and then, in the fashion of the cross that St. Francis had made over them, divided themselves into four parts; and the one part flew toward the East, and the other toward the West, and the other toward the South, and the fourth toward the North, and each flight went on its way singing wondrous songs; signifying thereby that even as St. Francis, the standard-bearer of the Cross of Christ, had preached unto them, and made over them the sign of the cross, after the pattern of which they separated themselves unto the four parts of the world: even so the preaching of the Cross of Christ, renewed by St. Francis, would be carried by him and the brothers throughout all the world; the which brothers, after the fashion of the birds, possessing nothing of their own in this world, commit their lives unto the providence of God."
Filled with his inspiration and beautiful life, the brothers of St. Francis worked with him while he lived, and carried on his work after his death, and even unto our own generation the work of the Order continues. No longer do the brothers go about as they once did, but that is because the time has passed for their particular form of organization. During the Middle Ages the poor friars were the salt of the earth, and they did much to make the world a better place to live in. And the mission of St. Francis is not yet finished, and his influence is felt by many still who carry on his work in a somewhat different way. Wherever men and women put aside purely personal interests and go forth to comfort the sick, aid the fallen, cheer the weak and heal the broken-hearted, there the work of St. Francis of Assisi goes on, and the life of service, taught by Christ and renewed by him, is exemplified, even as it was by the Franciscan Friars of old.