Walking with the Saints

St. Francis - Truly Free

When Francis’ father Pietro Bernardone returned home from a trip to France in 1182 and learned that his new son had been baptized with the name of Giovanni after John the Baptist, he was furious. The last thing he wanted was for his son to be a man of God. Instead he wanted him to follow in his footsteps and be a businessman – particularly a successful cloth merchant like himself, He abruptly changed his son’s name to Francesco, which is equal to calling him a Frenchman, a country dear to Pietro’s heart.

Francis was well liked by most, if not all people as a young man. People catered to him and he had a rich and easy early life. He was also a bit of a party guy, naturally becoming the leader of a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. Francis himself would later say that he “lived in sin” during that time. You might say that Francis’ life was not so unlike some of our own early years. Many of us have had stages in our lives when we were a bit on the wild side and can relate to this lesser known part of Francis’ story.

Francis seemed to inherit his father’s acumen for business and was not inclined to the pursuit of holiness. But what he wanted more than business success and wealth was nobility. He longed to be a knight, and he knew the best path to such was through battle. He got his chance when Assisi declared war on the nearby village of Perugia – a long time enemy. Most of the troops from Assisi were slaughtered, but Francis was spared because he came from wealth. He was taken prisoner for ransom, and chained in a harsh, dark dungeon. The ransom was eventually paid after a year of imprisonment, and he was released.

Strangely, the experience didn’t seem to change him. He returned to partying with as much joy and abandoned as ever before. It also didn’t change what he wanted from life – glory. A call from the Fourth Crusade gave him a chance at his dream. As he set off, his family wealth afforded him not only a suit of armor, but one adorned with gold and an opulent robe. Contrary to the one who would become known for humility and poverty, Francis boasted that he would return as a prince!

But he didn’t get far before he felt convicted by God that he had it all wrong. He decided to turn around and return home and was met with disgrace – being laughed at, humiliated and called a coward and confronted with rage from his father. So began Francis’ conversion, one that would take time to unfold.

A turning point in his life came when Francis, who was picky about food and cleanliness and who hated deformity, was riding through the countryside and came upon a leper in rags. Even though he was repelled by the appearance and smell of the leper, he jumped from his horse, approached the leper, and kissed his hand. When the kiss of peace was returned, the lives of both were changed.

This beautiful moment can help us think about conversion moments in our own lives. Have you had a moment when God has stopped you in your tracks and changed the direction of your life? Have you ever had a moment when you truly realized that we are not so different – leper and otherwise – and took the risk of love instead of avoidance or indifference?

Later, in an attempt to raise money to repair the local church, Francis took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it to get money for the materials needed. His father saw this not as an act of charity, but as theft. Put together with Francis’ growing disinterest in money and power, his father saw him as an idiot. He dragged his son before the whole town and demanded that he return the money, renounce all of his privilege as heir, and humiliated him. In response to his father’s horrible behavior, Francis not only gave the money back, but also stripped off all his clothes down to only his hair shirt. In Front of the crowd, he declared that, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father, from now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our father who art in heaven.’” Wearing only cast-off rags, he went off into the freezing woods. From that moment on, Francis had nothing and yet he had everything.

This was a real crucible moment where the values of the kingdom of the world were squared against those of the kingdom of God. Many of us have had – or will have – such moments where we need to make a choice that will define who we are. Francis made his, and his choice can and should inspire us to be true to our authentic self. 

Francis never wanted to found a religious order. But eventually many would follow. He framed a Rule of Life for this growing community from three pieces of scripture from the life of Jesus: The command to the rich man to sell everything and give the money to the poor; the order to the apostles to take nothing on their journey; and the demand to take up the cross daily. “Here is our rule,” he said. They attracted people from all walks of life, from fields and towns, common people and nobility. They practiced true equality by showing honor, respect and love to every person whether they were a beggar or a prince.

But Francis’ brotherhood also included all of God’s creation. It was more than merely enjoying time in nature. He really felt that nature and all of God’s creation were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow and squirrel were as much his brother and sister as any human being, including the pope. How we need that message and vision today, as we are faced with the consequences of our selfish actions that continue to destroy the environment and push us all – creatures, the planet and humans alike – toward extinction.   

Francis did not try to abolish poverty. He tried to make it holy. He said, “If we had any possessions, we would need weapons and laws to defend them.” How does this view hold up to our time of endless wars around the world and increasing gun violence in our communities? Possessing things was the death of love for Francis. After all, what can you do to a person who owns nothing? How important this message is in our culture that is obsessed with over-accumulation and consumption? You can’t starve someone who is fasting. You can’t steal from one who has nothing. You can’t ruin a person who hates prestige. They are truly free.

It is a statement of Francis’ authenticity that he gave up authority in the order he founded. He became just another brother, like he always wanted. This is such an authentic and beautiful display of humility.

Years of poverty and wandering took its toll and Francis eventually became ill and began to go blind. His response to blindness and suffering was to write his beautiful Canticle of the Sun that expressed his brotherhood with creation in praising God.

In his time, Francis was rejected, humiliated, but also eventually respected for his radical and authentic living of the Gospel. It is not so different for us now in our own time. The world at times seems at odds with true Gospel values that call for us to turn away from things that are a detriment to the unfolding of God’s kingdom here on earth. It is a Gospel message that warns against running the risk of being held prisoner by the things we possess. Authentic Gospel living would ask us to climb off our high horse and meet the world – especially the lepers of our time – with a kiss of peace. It is a Gospel that says if you have love, you have everything.

Francis died on October 4, 1226 at the age of forty-five. His legacy of authentic Gospel living in humility and love endures.