On this 4th of October, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the “Little Poor Man” whose life has inspired people of all faiths for over 800 years. Most of us are familiar with the poem’s main events: St. Francis embracing the leper, Christ asking him to rebuild his Church, St. Francis disrobing and renouncing all of his possessions, risking his life to preach to the Sultan, and becoming the first person ever recorded to have the stigmata.
St. Francis is often especially honored for his love for animals and all creation. But that is only a small part of his life work. He should also be remembered as a radical reformer of the Church in the 13th century. In his time there was a rise capitalism in Europe. His evangelical zeal, consecration to poverty and charity in combination with his charism drew thousands of followers. Francis’s devotion to the human Jesus and to follow his example changed the medieval spirituality. In the days of St. Francis the Church drifted away from the life of it's base. People wished to live the Christian life with the same intensity as it had been lived by the early Christians. People followed great preachers as St. Damian and St. Anthony. We tend to talk about the saints as not really human. We idolize them and put them on a pedestal. But that is not what the Saints are at all. They are men and women of flesh and blood who were not perfect but learned to live a holy life. The same with St. Francis. But Francis himself would oppose that. He even said: "don't declare me a Saint to soon, because i am very well capable of conceiving a child". His life is more about change and to become more Christ like than anything else.
St. Francis was a great reformer, besides his love for all creation. But that love came forth out of following Christ. We all know the great stories of him preaching to the birds and taming the wolf of Gubbio, among all other famous stories, which are beautiful and moving. But it is not all there is. We have also to consider his life before he came to Christ and what brought about his conversion. It helps us to see that he was a real man from flesh and blood, with real ambitions, desires, weaknesses and with God’s grace became what God wanted him to be. Francis grew up in luxury and vanity of that time. He learned Latin, his catechism, and was influenced by the stories of knights and tales of chivalry. Francis grew up during a time of constant warfare. At some point he joined the Papal army to fight the German princes. Along the way he met a knight who was dressed in rags, and moved with pity, Francis removed the embroidered garments he was wearing and gave them to him. While sleeping he heard a voice telling him to go back to his own country, where it would be revealed to him what he should do next. The following day he returned to Assisi, where it became obvious to the people who knew him that he was a changed man.
God tells him to “rebuild” his church. At first Francis thinks this to be physical rebuild the Church in Assisi. Later he realizes this is a spiritual rebuilding of the Universal Church. After this revelation nothing of the world could satisfy him and he could only find contentment in the things of God. Even though he did not yet know exactly what God was calling him to do, he began to spend his time in prayer and meditation, trusting that God would show him the way. We know the rest of the story, and we know the incredible impact St. Francis’ life had on the people who he met while he lived, and on all those who have read or heard about him over the past eight centuries. There is a lesson to be learned in every single detail and event of the life of St. Francis. We see Francis struggle with God’s call, resist it for a time but then accept it.
Each of us can apply this example to our own lives. Maybe the results will not be quite the same. But when we listen to God’s voice when he calls us; and remain open, we will be changed. We will want to live more simply, so that we can give more to those in need, we will be filled with the joy that only God can give, and we will without a doubt grow closer to God, and be able to share our faith more authentically. Amen