Saint Francis of Assisi, born in 1182, lived only 44 years, dying in 1226. He was the son of a wealthy merchant, known for taking to the streets with his friends for fun and frolic. However, as he reached manhood, he took off for battle between his town of Assisi and the town of Perugia, Italy, where he landed in prison. Upon his release from prison in 1205, he sought the meaning of life, thinking it should be so much more than following in his father’s footsteps. Therefore, Francis turned his back on the family business to embrace the love of God and serve God through the imitation of Christ. He became a living human example of Christ in action, loving God and all that God made.
Francis was not a theologian, buried amidst a pile of books looking for the true meaning of God. No, Francis found God in his own heart, the heart that burned with love. Through prayer and contemplation, penance and sacrifice, Francis developed a loving relationship with God from which the essence of his spirituality flowed.
Francis trusted God. By detaching himself from earthly cares, he freed himself to open his heart to God. He moved from a life of luxury and indulgence to a life of austerity and self-imposed poverty. He embraced the simplicity of Christ’s life, following Christ as closely as possible. Three biblical passages were near and dear to Francis’ heart and guided his every action:
- Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21).
- Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matt 16:24).
- He said to them ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, nor let no one take a second tunic’ (Luke 9:3).
Francis lived by these instructions. He never worried about where his next meal would come from; where he would lay his head to rest; or how he would keep warm in winter. He knew God would provide.
Francis’ approach came across as refreshing to those who became followers. By his own example, he lived the Gospel, rather than talk about the Gospel. Francis did everything for love of God, neighbor and nature, by expressing passion about God and everything that God made.
Francis liked being around people most of the time. However, he understood the need for solitude, silence and stillness. In living the Gospel, he recognized that Christ would also go to pray alone before important decisions or events. Francis would do the same. Yet, he also saw the need to be among the people in service to their needs. He balanced his time between service and solitude.
Within only three years of release from prison, Francis had twelve companions who joined him. They were a community emphasizing a top priority on love, fellowship, brotherliness, and mutual support. Within a year’s time of banding together, Francis recognized a need for organization and a rule of conduct for his little community. The very first sentence of the Rule summarizes all that Francis wanted to accomplish in establishing the Order of Friars Minor:
The rule and life of the Minor Brothers is this, namely to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity (Rule of Saint Francis, Catholic Encyclopedia).
This statement directly correlates back to the three biblical passages from the New Testament, continually referred to by Francis to define what it means to follow Christ.
Men of all different walks of life joined the Order; the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated; all were welcome. Everyone was treated the same, with no distinctions, except for ordained priests. Francis thought it important that all men should be considered equal, to better foster humility. Francis also believed in obedience, poverty and chastity because Jesus was obedient to God the Father. Jesus lived a life on earth in poverty, and Jesus never married. With the establishment of the Order of Friars Minor formally blessed by papal authority, Francis sent his fellow brothers throughout Europe in pairs of two to evangelize as described in Luke 9:3.
Saint Francis of Assisi is considered one of the greatest saints because of his simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide. Francis possessed a willingness to live amongst the poor, to understand their struggles and to strive to bring souls to God through his preaching. Francis imitated Christ in everything that he thought and did. He encountered Christ daily, truly living the deep Christian way of living that defines Christian spirituality. Francis was open to God; giving his life over to God, so that the will of God would be accomplished in the life of Francis.
The charisms of Saint Francis flow forth into every person who becomes a Franciscan (Order of Friars Minor, Poor Clares, or Secular Franciscan). Today, we have over one million Franciscans. The simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide, so effervescent in Francis, are trademarks of Franciscan spirituality to this day. Living the Gospel, with authenticity, is a very alluring attitude that draws people in. Extending care and concern keeps one’s attention. Service with love converts followers. Coming to know Jesus in your heart, not just knowing about Him from reading books, that creates Christians – and that is what Franciscans do – they “rebuild the Church!”
Virginia Lieto teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College. She recently published her first children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at virginialieto.com.