St. Francis' example

  • April 24, 2009
{mosimage}Franciscans from around the world have been converging on the Italian city of Assisi to celebrate the founding of the Order of St. Francis 800 years ago. But you don’t have to be a Franciscan to pay tribute to St. Francis of Assisi.

This devout, serene man devoted his life to battling poverty and social injustice and is honoured today as the patron saint of the environment and peace.

Eight centuries later, his relevance is undiminished. The causes he championed still fill headlines. The compassion he demonstrated still inspires followers.

In a 21st-century world too often choking with consumerism, individuality, secularism and violence, the 13th-century life of charity, community, faith and peace lived by St. Francis remains one of history’s most explicit examples of Christian stewardship.

He was born into a well-to-do home in the Italian village of Assisi about 1182. His father was a successful cloth merchant and named his son Francis because of important business connections in France. The family plan was for Francis to join his father’s business, become an important political figure around Assisi and bring more wealth and honour to the family name.

But Francis proved much better at spending money than making it. He enjoyed the hedonistic lifestyle of a wealthy, medieval merchant’s son. He was vain, selfish and in constant pursuit of the material pleasures readily available to a fun-loving young man of wealth and status.

Where St. Paul had a thunderbolt conversion, St. Francis found God more gradually. Passing a leper on the road one day, Francis felt compelled to dismount, embrace the leper and give him all his money. Soon afterwards, he made a pilgrimage to Rome and, moved by the site of a beggar at St. Peter’s Basilica, exchanged clothes with the man and spent the rest of the day among the poor.

Back in Assisi, passing an old church one day, he felt a call to repair its damaged walls. To pay for the repairs, he sold cloth from the family business, which led to eventual disinheritance by his father and to Francis becoming an object of ridicule in a town where wealthy merchants’ sons did not do manual labour, let alone free labour for the church.

In time, Francis renounced all worldly possessions and dedicated his life to God’s work among the sick and the poor. He spent the rest of his days on Earth being an example of piety and peace, to respecting all of God’s creation and its creatures, and to fully following in word and deed the path of Christ as set out in the Gospels.

For 800 years, the St. Francis way of life has been formally embraced by Franciscan orders around the world. Today they are celebrating with justifiable pride eight centuries of following the path of faithful and joyful service set out by their founder.

But more than a call to vocation, the work of St. Francis lives on as a divine example of the piety, peace and charity that is our universal calling.

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