St. Francis of Assisi took amazing twists, turns

Catholic News Service | Gregory A. Shemitz

The director of the Vatican Press Office has noted that the pope's choice of the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, strongly recalls the saint's evangelical spirituality and radical poverty.

Who is St. Francis of Assisi?

The Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart, based in St. Louis, refers to their religious community's founder as a medieval man of radical action and a challenger of the status quo.

"In today's vocabulary, the life and work of Francis of Assisi would be considered both unconventional and innovative," the explanation from the province states. "He spent years searching for a new way of life, a pursuit that led to two radical breaks: firstly, with the world's conventions and the obligations attached to them; secondly, with the established codes of conduct followed by the religious communities of the time. Francis was an open, communicative individual, inspired by nature -- qualities which challenged the Italy of the 13th century. He overcame numerous setbacks and -- eventually -- even saw his vision endorsed by the papacy in 1209."

The Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University in western New York has a biography of the saint that notes that Francis Bernardone (1181/82-1226) was born in the town of Assisi, Italy. His family belonged to an up-and-coming merchant class of citizens.

Francis devoted himself to the bon vivant pursuits of his youthful contemporaries and also joined in a series of military adventures, the biography notes. Around the year 1205 he began to experience a conversion. He left behind carefree high living exploits and his apprenticeship in his father's cloth merchant shop and devoted himself to solitary prayer.

While meditating before a crucifix in the dilapidated wayside chapel of San Damiano, Francis underwent a deep spiritual experience. He heard the voice from the crucifix telling him to rebuild the church. Francis interpreted this literally at first. Eventually, he perceived his vocation to renew the spiritual life of his time by a return to living the Gospel ideals of Jesus Christ.

By the year 1209, a group of disciples had formed the nucleus of what was to become the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans. They devoted themselves to the imitation of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels, preaching repentance and the love of God in the town squares and serving the needs of the poor, especially lepers. In order to guide this growing fraternity, Francis composed a Rule or Way of Life that was approved by Pope Innocent III.

St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226 and was canonized a saint two years later. He is the patron saint of Catholic action and ecologists.

The Franciscan province's description of St. Francis also seeks to define what made him so different. "His central cause appears at first somewhat unspectacular: He wanted to share the Gospel with humankind, attesting to the infinite love of God. Yet this is the very thing which makes his philosophy stands out -- it is shaped by sharing. Up until then, religious orders had lived a life of seclusion within their cloisters, shut off from the challenges and problems of the outside world. Then along came a young man who had broken with his family publicly and spectacularly in order to become involved in the lives of the people, in a spirit of dialogue and solidarity. Over the course of 800 years, Francis of Assisi has proved an inspiration to many men and women."

Pope Francis seems to be exhibiting the ideals that St. Francis of Assisi had, said the pastor of St.Anthony of Padua, a historic Franciscan-staffed parish in south St. Louis.

Franciscan Father Michael Fowler said Pope Francis is "concerned for the poor, concerned for common, everyday folk, and is going out of his way to really be a servant."

The pope is "really setting a wonderful tone for leadership," Father Fowler said, a leadership that is accessible.

Most impressive, Father Fowler added, is that "he is definitely going to let the Holy Spirit guide the Church, and that's what St. Francis always said, that the real minister general, the real head of the order, is the Holy Spirit."

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