John Bernardone was born in Assisi in Umbria. They nicknamed him Francesco (‘Frenchie’) because his mother was from Provence. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis was ill after a year’s imprisonment during a local war. As he recovered he began to care for the poor and the lepers, and to give away his father’s goods.
The painted crucifix in the derelict church of San Damiano seemed to say to him, ‘Build My Church, which, as you see, is in ruins.’ He began to rebuild the chapel, stone by stone. But the word he had received there also spoke prophetically about a renewal and rebuilding of the larger Church of his day – a rebuilding through a simple loyalty and obedience to Christ, and a rejection of all the Church’s clutter, corruption and compromise.
Francis brought conversion by example. Taking off the clothes that his natural father had paid for, he stood naked and asked for the Church’s covering and protection. With some embarrassment it was given. Francis and his order of Brothers Minor, living in absolute poverty, continued to embarrass and energise the Church. Francis said that he was in love with a lady – whose name was Poverty. Like Jesus, it was said of Francis that the poor ‘heard him gladly’.
Francis considered himself the most worthless of all people, and the greatest of sinners. The more the brightness of God’s presence shone upon his heart, the more his sin seemed black in comparison. Brother Masseo once ran after him crying, ‘Why after you? Why after you? Why is the whole world following after you?’ Francis was only able to laugh that God had chosen him because no more worthless creature could be found on whom to set His mercy.
Francis longed with all his heart to stand beneath the cross of Jesus and to assure Him of his love. He was also determined to stand with Christ on the hill of Calvary until the Risen Lord returned in glory! With this in mind he made his final journey to the top of Mount Verna, the holy mountain north of Assisi, where he asked in fear and trembling that Christ would let him experience and share some of His sufferings on the cross. Afterwards it remained with him only as a memory – except for the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus in his hands, feet and side. They, of course, made all the difference between the poor man who walked up the mountain and the poor man who limped down.
Because so many of his followers were clever, well-educated men, many of his sayings and numerous accounts of the incidents of his life have survived. The most famous prayer that is ascribed to him was not in fact his own, but aptly sums up his spirituality. Let us make the prayer our own:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.