St. Francis of Assisi, Founder of the Friars Minor
St. Francis, the great founder of the order which bears his name, a man endowed with heavenly wisdom and especial gifts, and who, on account of his fervent love to the Almighty, is called the Seraphic, was born at Assisium in Umbria, and in a stable to which, by the advice of an unknown beggar, his mother had been carried to be relieved of the pains she suffered. His father was a wealthy merchant, and he destined Francis to follow the same occupation. Although the child was bright and cheerful, he never associated with evil companions, in order to keep his innocence unspotted. To the poor he was ever extremely compassionate, having made the resolution to dismiss none without alms. One day, when he was overwhelmed with business, a beggar asked for some money to buy bread. Francis, in his hurry, refused it, but no sooner had the man gone, than he remembered his resolution, and running after the beggar, gave him a rich alms and vowed never again to refuse any one who asked him: and this vow he faithfully kept.
Hence, when one day he met a poor man in the street, he gave him his new clothes and clothed himself in the rags of the beggar. At another time, while he was taking a ride, a leper came to him begging; Francis dismounted, took a piece of money and gave it to the poor man. When the latter stretched out his hand, deformed and emaciated by the terrible disease, Francis took it into his own and kissed it most tenderly. When he had remounted, he turned to look for the leper, but could no where perceive any sign of him; from which he supposed that either an angel or Christ Himself had appeared in that shape; the thought of which filled his heart with great comfort, and, at the same time, animated him to still greater liberality. After this event, he began to wean his heart more and more from all temporal things, sought solitude and became more fervent in his prayers. He begged the Almighty most earnestly to favor him with the grace to know how he should serve Him henceforth as his Lord and Master. During this prayer, Christ appeared to him, hanging on the cross and covered with wounds. This vision filled the heart of St. Francis with such devotion to our beloved Saviour, that he could never think of His passion, or look upon a crucifix without shedding tears.
After several miraculous events, by which the Almighty gradually manifested to St. Francis His will, it happened that, one day, when he assisted at Mass, he heard in the Gospel the words of Christ: “Do not possess gold or silver, or money in your purse ; nor script for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff.” (Matt, x.) At these words, the holy man felt his mind illuminated and his heart stirred with deep emotion. It seemed as if God said to him that this was the rule by which he was henceforth to regulate his life ; and immediately giving his money to the poor, he put off his shoes, clothed himself in a rough penitential garment, which he girded about him with a knotted cord, and determined to lead henceforth an apostolic life. Going among the people, he began to exhort them to penance with such force and zeal, that he not only converted many sinners, but also drew several pious men to offer themselves as disciples in his austere manner of living, and as co-operators in his holy work.
When the number of these had reached twelve, St. Francis sent them into different villages and hamlets to preach penance after his example. Instead of money, he gave them the verse of the Psalm: “Cast thy care upon the Lord, and He will nourish thee.” As greater numbers came daily, who desired to be his disciples, he gave them certain regulations. Pope Innocent III. confirmed these regulations in 1209, at which time St. Francis and his companions most solemnly made their profession of the three vows of religion. This was the beginning of the celebrated Seraphic Order, which, divided into several branches, has worked, and still continues to work so well for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. When the Order had thus been confirmed, the holy founder went with his disciples to Assisium, where he made his dwelling in a small lonely cottage, that stood near the little Church of Portiuncula. At this place, where the Blessed Virgin was especially honored, St. Francis passed much time in praver and fasting. He lived on alms, and sent his disciples into the surrounding country to exhort the people to penance and to teach them to lead a Christian life. The Benedictines, to whom the above mentioned church and the ground near it belonged, gave both to St. Francis, that he might build there the first house for his Order.
The greatest care of the Saint was bestowed upon his disciples and spiritual children, whose number daily increased. He endeavored to lead them in the path of virtue, and to make of them useful members, that they might work for the salvation of men; and to effect this more thoroughly, he tried to be an example to them. Penance, which he and others of his order preached, he practised most austerely on his own person. He very seldom partook of food that was cooked, and when he did so, he strewed ashes over it, or destroyed its taste with water. Besides the usual forty days’ fast, he observed another fast of the same length, after the festival of the three holy Kings. The same he did from the feast of the holy Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, until the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. To these he added another forty days’ fast in honor of the holy Archangel St. Michael and all the Angels. At night, he slept, on the bare floor; a stone or a piece of wood served him for a pillow. He scourged himself almost daily to blood, and exercised himself in all possible bodily mortifications. The cause of this rigor towards himself was not only to do penance for his former sins, but also to prevent himself from falling into others, and to keep his purity unspotted. Hence, when the evil spirit tortured him with unclean thoughts, he cast himself into the snow, and remained in it until he was almost frozen.
His humility was not less than his mortification. He would not allow any one to praise him. “Praise no one,” said he, “who does not stand securely. No one should be praised, until we see how he ends.” And again: “No one is more or less than he is in the eyes of the Almighty.” One day, a pious brother of the Order asked the Saint, what he thought of himself. The Saint answered: ” I think that there is no greater sinner upon earth than I am.” When the brother asked how he could say so with truth, he replied: ” If as many mercies had been bestowed upon the most wicked of all men, as have been bestowed upon me, I do not doubt that he would have been more grateful and more pious than I.” His humility made him refuse the priesthood, as he deemed himself unworthy of it. He greatly honored the priests, saying: “If I should meet an angel and a priest, I would first kiss the hand of the priest and then duly honor the Angel; because I owe him the greatest veneration who holds the most holy body of Christ in his hands and administers the same to others.”
What shall we say of the poverty which the Saint chose and most warmly recommended to his followers? What of his love of God and man What of his devotion to the passion of Christ, to the divine Mother and the Saints? What of his other virtues, of which the examples are so numerous, that this whole work would hardly suffice to relate them? He refused, after his conversion, to possess anything as his own, and rejoiced when he had to suffer want. During his prayers, he was frequently transported out of himself, by the intensity of his devotion, and could say nothing but, “My God and my all!” Only to name the most High, filled his heart with such burning love that his whole countenance seemed to be on fire. Charity towards men actuated him to nurse the sick most tenderly, to aid the poor to the best of his ability, to comfort the sad, and to be all to all. His wish to convert the infidels and to give his life for Christ’s sake, moved him to repair to Syria and Egypt, where he preached fearlessly before the Sultan of Babylon the truths of Christianity, saying that they should kindle a great fire and he would go into it in order to prove the truth of the Christian faith.
His devotion to the Passion of Christ was so great, that God would recompense it with a miracle until then never heard of. When St. Francis, two years before his death, kept, according to his custom, the forty days’ fast in honor of St. Michael, on Mount Alverno, he fell into ecstasy on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and saw that a shining Seraph came down from heaven towards him. The Angel had six wings, and between these appeared the crucified Saviour with His five holy wounds. At the same moment, the Saint perceived in his side and on his hands and feet, bleeding wounds, like those which the Saviour bore. These wounds or Stigmata remained until the death of St. Francis, and although he endeavored to hide them, he could not prevent their being sometimes seen during his life and many times after his death. The Saint suffered great pain in these wounds, which was a source of great joy to him, as he hoped that this would make him more conformable to his Saviour. Two years later, the Saint became mortally sick, and knowing the hour of his death, he requested to be carried into the little Church of Portiuncula, where, after having received the holy Sacraments, he lay down on the ground, and gave up his soul to his Creator.
Before he expired, he exhorted his disciples to follow punctually the rules of the Order, blessed them, and among other things said: “Remain always in the fear of God. Happy are those who persevere to the end in the good which they have begun. I am now on my way to the Lord, and will commend you to His favor.” He then told them to read to him the passion of Christ from the Gospel of St. John. After this, he began to recite the 141st Psalm, and when he had reached the words: ” Bring my soul out of prison. The just wait for me till thou reward me,” he ended his holy life. This took place in the year of our Lord 1226. Long before while bitterly weeping over his sins, he had received the divine assurance that they were forgiven. In the same manner, it had also been revealed to him that he would go to heaven. Although this gave him great consolation, he did not mitigate the severity of his penances, nor cease to repent of his sins, as he said: ” If I had only once committed a small sin, I would think it sufficient cause for weeping as long as I live.” Many books have been written about the life of this Saint and to relate the many and great miracles which he wrought both whilst he lived on earth and, after his death, by his intercession in heaven.
I. “If I had only once committed a small sin, I should have sufficient reason to weep as long as I live.” These were the words of St. Francis. Are you of the same mind? You have committed, during your life, many hundreds–nay, thousands of venial sins, and perhaps even intentionally and maliciously. How many tears have they cost you? How often have you repented of them? How great is your solicitude to avoid them in future? You commit them without any hesitation and are not much distressed. You say frequently and with great unconcern: “Oh ! it is only a venial sin! One will not be condemned on account of it.” Neither St. Francis, nor any other Saint ever spoke thus. It is true, a venial sin is small in comparison with a mortal sin; but in itself, it is, after mortal sin, the greatest evil in the world. We shall not be condemned for venial faults; but by not regarding them we are gradually led into greater sins until we deserve hell. We do not offend God so grievously by a venial as by a mortal sin; but still we offend His Majesty; and who dares say that any offence of God is small? “To offend the Almighty in the least,” says St. Jerome, “ought never to be considered a trifle.” “I cannot comprehend,” says St. Paulinus, “how any one can regard as a trifle that which offends the Divine Majesty.” The least offence done to a king is, on account of his rank, looked upon as very great. With how much more reason should a venial sin be deemed great, as an insult offered to the great Lord of Heaven and earth? By each venial sin God is offended. This ought to be enough to make us understand that venial sin is in itself a much greater evil than we are able to fathom. Pray to the Almighty to make you recognize the greatness of a venial sin, that you may avoid it in future with greater care, and daily repent of those which, until now, you have committed. “Whoever loves God and obeys Him, not as a slave but as a son, will fear to offend Him in the very least,” says St. Basil.
II. “Happy are those who persevere until their end in the good which they have begun.” Therefore, St. Francis is to be esteemed happy, as he continued to the end, in his austerity, poverty, and all other virtues. Unhappy are those who begin to live piously, but soon relax in their zeal; for, according to the testimony of Christ, “he is not fit for the kingdom of God, who lays his hand to the plough, but draws it back again.” (Luke, ix.) The beginning is of little avail; we must persevere in good until the end of our lives. ” Concerning Christians, we regard not so much the beginning as the end,” says St. Jerome: ” Paul began badly, but ended well. We praise Judas at the beginning; but the end is spoiled by his treachery.” “It is not a very great thing to commence to do good,” writes St. Augustine, “but to persevere in it until the end is perfect and brings the crown of everlasting glory.” If you desire to be happy during all eternity, make an earnest beginning to live piously, and then persevere with equal zeal, without allowing the example of bad people or evil temptation to divert you from the way you have chosen. “What does it avail,” writes St. Bernard, “if we follow Christ, but do not reach Him?” Hence St. Paul says: “Run so, that you may reach the goal.” There, O Christian, shall be the end of your course, where Christ has placed it. He was obedient unto death. You may run, but you will not gain the prize, if you persevere not in your course until your death.