As the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi on October 4, we invite you to read a reflection from Fr. Jim Gardiner, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, on the life and legacy of this beloved saint.
From the Military to the Ministry
Born in Assisi during the 12th century, St. Francis was the son of a cloth merchant, part of the rising middle class that was on the cusp of disrupting the established social order. He’s been depicted as a sort of playboy – a minstrel, man about town, raconteur, very popular, not wanting for anything. Like most young men his age, he apparently longed for the glory that would accrue from military valor. Perugia, a hilltop city-state visible from Assisi, was a tempting target. So when Assisi and Perugia joined forces in battle, Francis was right there with the rest of them, outfitted as a knight in shining armor. But it didn’t go well for him and his comrades: they were wounded, captured and jailed. Francis had a lot of time to think!
After he had healed and was released from prison, his former high life left a bitter taste in his mouth. Wandering around the hills in Assisi, he came upon a deserted chapel. He began to pray. And, as he prayed, he said that the crucified Christ above the altar spoke to him: “Francis, repair my church; it is falling into ruin.” At first, he took that command literally – sweeping debris, purchasing stones and mortar (at times with proceeds from selling cloth taken without permission from his exasperated father’s shop). Later it dawned on him that it wasn’t the physical edifice alone that needed rebuilding, but the spiritual “church” comprised of hearts and souls.
Finding Freedom in Christ
Rather than “founding” an Order, Francis soon found himself surrounded by an increasing number of men (and later women) who were attracted by the joy he had recently found. His former fellow rabble-rousers in town were puzzled, to say the least, but many of them began to follow along. So many, as a matter of fact, that they became a ‘nuisance’ to the local religious and civic establishments.
But what drove Francis to this way of life?
Most likely the ultimate emptiness of the status quo. If you have a lot of possessions, for example, you need to invest a lot of time and energy into simply preserving them, and life can pass you by. The freedom Francis found in a life dedicated to Christ was exhilarating. Taking the Gospel seriously enabled him to see clearly the relationship between “all creatures of our God and King.”
To this day, people enjoy hearing the story of how Francis preached to the birds (which may or may not have happened). But what’s interesting about it is that the birds in question were grackles, really ugly birds whom everyone – except Francis – loved to ignore (or worse!). Also interesting is the possibility that the story is a sophisticated figure of speech: maybe the birds, as all creation, preached to him about the Creator. Yet St. Francis shouldn’t be remembered as some sweet little guy in a garden. Pope Francis is an awful lot like him – going to those in the margins and proclaiming the Gospel in a very radical way. In the root and classical sense of that word, he got back to basics. Although he lived over nine centuries ago, St. Francis’ fervent example of dedication to loving the least among us still serves as a source of inspiration to the faithful today.
Fr. Jim Gardiner is a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, serving as the Director of Special Events at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land.