St. Francis of Assisi - Early Life
Francis was born in 1181 -82 at Assisi. Italy.The son of a rich cloth merchant. As a youth he spent his father's money generously, if somewhat recklessly, on his friends as they went about seeking adventure, fun and mischief. He was jovial and good natured, a natural leader among his companions.
At the age of 20, Francis enlisted as a soldier to defend Assisi against nearby Perugia but the Perugians captured him and held him a prisoner for a year.After his release he suffered a prolonged bout of illness which for a time sapped his energy.
On his recovery, Francis began to sense how shallow his past had been.There must be a more worthwhile aim to life. Once more, however, his thoughts turned to soldiering. He decided to join the papal army which was engaged in battle some 300 miles to the south in Apulia. He hoped to win fame and possibly a knighthood. He set off but got no further than Spoleto, a mere 30 miles from home.
During an overnight stay at Spoleto, Francis had a dream. He was asked why he was content to give his services to a servant when he could serve the Master himself. He was advised to return to Assisi until he would know what the Lord wished him to do.
One day as he was riding along outside Assisi Francis heard the sound of a leper's bell. His first impulse was to gallop off in the opposite direction but his good nature prevailed. He went up to the leper, gave him the contents of his purse and then embraced him. In his 'Testament' Francis says that the sight of lepers nauseated him until the Lord led him among them and he had compassion on them. He adds that what had previously seemed so horrible was transformed into great joy. From this time Francis began to care for the lepers and the outcasts of the area, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his father.
REPAIR MY HOUSE
More and more Francis felt a need To spend time in prayer praising God the Father for giving us his Son, Jesus, to be our brother. He repented the sins of his youth and begged for guidance to know what he was to do with his life. One day as he prayed in the church of San Damiano he heard the plea as from the crucified Christ on the Cross,'Francis, Francis, repair my house which you see falling to ruins'.The fact that Christ knew him by name and that he needed his service made a deep and lasting impression on Francis.
Believing the 'house' to be The church of San Damiano which was in a ruined state, Francis promptly sold some of his father's best cloth and a horse for the repair of this building. His conduct so annoyed his father that he publicly disowned him. Far from being depressed that he was now one of the poor himself Francis rejoiced that he could in truth say.'Our Father, who art in heaven'. He would rely on Divine Providence to supply his needs.
On the feast of St Matthias, 24th February, 1208, as Francis attended Mass he heard the priest read the Gospel passage on the instructions which Christ gave to his Apostles when he sent them out:"Preach the message,'the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'... Freely you have received freely give... Do not keep gold, or silver, or money in your purses... As you enter a house, salute it. saying.'Peace to this house"'. After Mass the priest explained the message to him and Francis exclaimed.This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart'.
Detached from all worldly ambitions and concerns, Francis understood the deeper significance of the message from the crucifix.The 'house' to be repaired was the Church made up of people ever in need of spiritual renewal. From now on he would strive to live the Gospel to the full and go round encouraging others to do the same. He would preach the Kingdom of God and call to repentance. He put on a rough grey habit tied with a cord.
Soon Francis was joined by other young men who wanted to share his way of life. Once more he looked to the Gospels for guidance. Opening the Bible three times in honour of the Blessed Trinity he came on the texts: 'Sell what you possess and give to the poor... then come, follow me'. 'Take nothing for your journey'. 'If anyone wishes to follow me he must leave self behind, take up his cross and follow me'.
Based on these three texts Francis wrote a simple rule for himself and his followers and had it approved by Pope Innocent III on 16th April. l209.The Franciscan Order was born. Anxious that his followers should be like the humble and poor Christ, Francis named them 'friars minor' or 'the lesser brethren'.
Francis' simple form of life and his deep devotion to the humanity of Christ warmed the hearts of many in a world that had grown cold and indifferent. Soon a vast Franciscan movement was sweeping through Europe.The friars were not to be tied to one place but Francis sent them out two by two to all parts as Christ had sent the Apostles. He, himself, set the example by preaching peace to the Sultan of Egypt.
Day by day Francis' love for the crucified Christ grew deeper in his heart as he longed to be free to serve him alone.This love reached a wonderful climax in September 1224 on Mount LaVerna, near Florence, when he received the stigmata.The wounds of the Crucified were imprinted in his hands, feet and side. Worn out by hard work for Christ and by his own austerities, Francis died near Assisi at sunset on 3rd October, 1226. He was declared a Saint on 16 July 1228.
The Order spread rapidly and continued Francis' policy of organizing the communities in Provinces.The branch of the Order which had communities in the towns and cities of Europe soon became known as "Conventual Franciscans" and within our country "Greyfriars".
ENGLAND AND IRELAND
Two years before his death Francis sent nine friars to England with Blessed Agnellus of Pisa as their Minister Provincial.They arrived in Dover on 10th September 1224 and by the end of that year had established communities in Canterbury, London and Oxford. Fifty-three further foundations followed in rapid succession in England, Scotland and Wales. The first friary in Ireland was established in 1226 and the Irish Province soon consisted of thirty two friaries.
Through the ravages of the Reformation and the various political and other pressures the friaries in England and Ireland were suppressed.The Conventual Franciscans returned to England in 1907 and to Ireland in 1984.
Men from various professions and trades, men from different kinds of social and educational background are to be found in the Order.The friars are engaged in a diversity of ministries, sometimes noticed by the public, often hidden from the human eye. Whatever his work, wherever he is sent, the friar works as a member of a community.
St Francis is well-loved even outside the Catholic Church and is now being invoked as the Patron Saint of ecology. St Anthony of Padua joined the Order in St Francis' lifetime. Other well known members of this Order are St Joseph of Cupertino; Patron of students, and St Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life for another prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp.
All applicants begin as postulants to help them adjust to community life. They then spend a year in novitiate. After these temporary vows, which bind them for three years or more, they may be permitted to make solemn profession and commit themselves to the Order for life.Those who wish to be priests study philosophy and theology after novitiate. Brothers spend three years gaining qualifications to suit their talents and future ministry. No one of average intelligence should find the studies too difficult.
WAY OF LIFE
The way of life of the Conventual Franciscan, priest or brother, is to live the gospel in the spirit of Francis of Assisi and so repair God's 'house', the Church. The friars live in community and gladly take on any duties which help to build up the Kingdom of God, especially parish work, chaplaincy work in hospitals or in schools, the spread of devotion to Our Lady in the spirit of Maximilian Kolbe, giving retreats and parish missions as well as writing and publishing. They may also volunteer to serve in the countries of Africa, Asia or South America.
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