The Most Popular Saint
St. Francis of Assisi (1181 - 1226) is probably one of the most popular and well-known saints throughout the entire world. Believers and non-believers alike are familiar with the poor man from Assisi.
And, no doubt, many of us have an image in our minds of this holy saint. But, I would venture to guess that it does not include thinking about St. Francis writing letters to political rulers. Well, he did. At least once. And it is interesting letter to read because it shows a side of him that often gets lost in the popular imagination of who he was.
But, first a bit about St. Francis, and why might he might be so well received.
There are probably many reasons for his popularity, but one of them would seem to be how radical an approach he took to following Christ. Even for someone who is not aware of his complete commitment to Christ and His Church, there is a sense that he had gone "all-in" in the life he chose to pursue. And that type of dedication is well-respected.
Breaking Family Ties
As you might recall, St. Francis underwent a conversion from a sort of frivolous young man who was the life of the party to one who had completely turned over his life to the Lord. It was a gradual conversion of sorts.
After he had begun his conversion, in his exuberance to help with the restoration of a church, St. Francis sold some merchandise and a horse to help finance the repairs. The problem was that the goods belonged to his father, Peter Bernadone, who was a wealthy merchant.
For Peter, this was the last straw. He already was not sure what to make of his son whom he had hoped would follow in his footsteps. Instead, his son was no longer spending time with his peers and spending an inordinate amount of time hanging around churches and lepers. These changes were not in the right direction as far as Peter Bernadone was concerned.
Regarding the stolen goods, Peter was furious, and he took the matter to the local bishop in order to demand that St. Francis return the merchandise. Fortunately, a wise priest had not taken the money when he learned how St. Francis had obtained it.
This moment became a watershed, and St. Francis realized that this was more than a simple matter of righting a wrong. It was a call to choose which way he would proceed from that day forward. Accordingly, St. Francis, who was not one to do things by halves, proceeded to make a complete severing of ties from his father as he returned the money.
In front of the bishop, he proceeded to give back to his father everything that belonged to Peter including the very clothes he was wearing. He declared that, "From now on I will no longer say, my father Peter Bernadone, but Our Father who art in Heaven." The bishop who was able to grasp the call that St. Francis was answering covered the naked St. Francis with a mantle. Free from this familial attachment, St. Francis was able to give himself completely to God.
How does the Church declare someone to be a saint?
Why are there saints?
The Appeal of St. Francis
His renouncing all ties to his father's family and taking up a life of poverty in order to live and preach the Gospel captures our imagination. Perhaps in our mind's eye, we can picture St. Francis in a ragged habit singing and rejoicing in nature as he traveled the beautiful Italian countryside going from one town to another in order to share the Good News.
This vocation might fascinate us because, for most of us, we can be sure that is not our calling. We have families and obligations which in our duty through love we are bound to fulfill by living in homes and working for a living.
We appreciate the freedom he represents. He was free from material items and being bound to a particular place. He was free to go out and live a life based on simple trust in God. He literally begged for his food. And he trusted in God's provision for his daily needs.
We also associate St. Francis with his compassion and gentleness for others. He vividly demonstrated that care for creatures by preaching to birds, and ransoming captured rabbits, and taming a fierce wolf who was terrorizing a village.
He also had a great love for people. For example, he is known for promoting the idea of live nativity scenes at Christmastime. St. Francis instituted that in order the everyone might better appreciate the awesome gift of God's Son who was given to us. He wanted the people to truly experience the love of God. And St. Francis knew that a live nativity scene helped capture the awesome mystery of the Incarnation.
Often his ministry involved a ministry of presence. St. Francis would literally put himself in the same place as another by joining the fisherman in his boat or working side-by-side with someone in the field. He would put himself in their shoes so to speak. Along with joining with them, St. Francis might teach them short, simple, easy-to-remember prayers to help them connect with the Lord in their daily lives.
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A Concern for Rulers
We rightly associate St. Francis with his love for God's creation and for the men and women who were living ordinary lives.
He also was concerned about the people who were in positions of government. And, on one occasion, he addressed a letter to these rulers. The words he uses might surprise us because we often think of him only being gentle. The words he chose were not so gentle, but still flowed from his love for people and his desire that they love the Lord. In addition, perhaps he wrote so forcefully, because he took seriously the words that "to whom much is given, much is expected."
To all podestàs, and consuls, judges and governors, in whatever part of the world, and to all others to whom this letter may come, Brother Francis, your little and contemptible servant, wishes health and peace to you.
St. Francis continues:
Consider and see that the day of death draws nigh. I ask you, therefore, with such reverence as I can, not to forget the Lord on account of the cares and solicitudes of this world and not to turn aside from His commandments, for all those who forget Him and decline from His commandments are cursed and they shall be forgotten by Him. And when the day of death comes, all that which they think they have shall be taken away from them. And the wiser and more powerful they may have been in this world, so much the greater torments shall they endure in hell.
He then provides a way forward:
Wherefore, I strongly advise you, my lords, to put aside all care and solicitude and to receive readily the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in holy commemoration of Him. And cause so great honor to be rendered the Lord by the people committed to you, that every evening it may be announced by a crier or by another sign to the end that praises and thanks shall resound to the Lord God Almighty from all the people.
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Living a Life of True Freedom
The poor man of Assisi always points to Christ. After warning the readers of his letter of the dangers to their souls, he points them to receive our Lord in the Eucharist. (The assumption, of course, is that they would prepare for the Eucharist through confession, as needed.)
Even in this, St. Francis shows us the way to the freedom with which we associate him. This freedom is not simply for St. Francis and his fellow brothers. It is the true freedom we all can have no matter what our state in life is. Through receiving our Lord worthily in Holy Communion, we freely choose to align ourselves with Him in order that we might live in His presence and follow Him in the life to which He has called us.
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