October fourth is the “Feast Day of St. Francis.”
The spirit of St. Francis – Francesco di Pietro Bernardone – is paraphrased often in the bumper sticker “preach always, when necessary using words.” Recognized, during his lifetime, as a living legend and founder of an order, St. Francis was a radical religious pioneer in many ways, especially in the way that he read the gospels for direct inspiration on how to live his life.
Many are familiar with Francis’ basic story: a young man, known simply for carousing, turns his horse around in the middle of a journey to the crusades, in 1204, after a vision. Following Jesus’ advice to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 19:16), Francis sells everything – including his horse – and turns the proceeds over to the local church. His father is understandably furious; Francis didn’t technically own what he had given away. Francis’ request to have his case heard by the church authorities, rather than civil authorities, is granted. The scene was unforgettable, and deeply embarrassing for Francis’ father. As the bishop returned the funds, Francis disrobes, announcing, “Because I am resolved to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will only say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘Father Pietro Bernardone.'” The bishop, in covering Francis, symbolically also offers Francis the protection of the church. From that point, Francis lives out his life in radical discipleship to Jesus, as a humble servant, in poverty, chastity, and obedience, rebuilding a local ruined church and begging for his daily needs.
Francis’ biography – or at least the brief outline above – is reasonably well known, as is the story of Francis preaching even to the birds and animals. What is less well known is how Francis helps a young woman, St. Clare, form a radical new style of worship for women – claiming “the privilege of poverty” – or how, as his brotherhood grows and the Pope wishes to impose a hierarchy, Francis resists. At the suggestion that Francis have the authority to mete out punishments on others in his orders, Francis attempts to resign, saying “I was not called to be a policeman.” Francis knew himself, and God’s call on his life.
Francis lived peacefully, loving all created things, and working to carry out the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies. At the time of the crusades, Muslims were considered the “enemies of Christ’s cross,” and Francis’ extraordinary visit in 1219 with Sultan Malek-al-Kâmil exemplifies Francis’ active, interventionist love. Francis had received permission for the visit, but might have expected martyrdom as a result. Instead, the results of his visit were extraordinary and unexpected: a conversation, gift offers (which he refused), and peace offers from the sultan to the invading crusaders (rejected by the crusaders, who were then soundly beaten) . The visit didn’t end the crusades, but it showed what was possible, if others had taken his lead.
This site is a resource for those of us who are dedicated to active healing – ourselves, others, our world. Our Oath includes an invitation to active intervention. As we see from the life of St. Francis, such dedication can have an extraordinary effect on the world.