Times Past

The story of St. Francis of Assisi

The new pope chose Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the Catholic Church’s holiest figures. The news services are reporting that hundreds if not thousands of newly born boys are being given that name. It’s a good name for someone dedicated to a life of healing and understanding.

The original Francis’ hometown lived up to the love that he proclaimed, “to be an instrument of peace” and “where there was despair” to bring “hope.”

During World War II, the town of Assisi witnessed a beautiful occurrence. All 26 convents and monasteries helped or hid Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Gestapo.

Christians and non-Christians regard St. Francis of Assisi as a saint.

Francis was born in 1181, the time when poetry in the Italian language was just beginning. His ways of love and dedication to God quickly became the stuff that the poets sang about. This folklore was eventually written down in Latin and translated into medieval Italian as the Fioretti (The Little Flowers) of St. Francis.

St. Francis was named Giovanni or John at birth, the son of Pietro di Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant in the rugged Umbrian Mountain range of central Italy about 80 miles north of Rome.

His mother was born in Provence, the bountiful region of southeastern France. The boy was quickly called Francis by most of the family friends and townspeople.

Assisi fought a series of wars with her neighbor, the larger and more prosperous town of Perugia. Francis was captured in a battle and imprisoned for a year in Perugia.

His family ransomed him and he returned to Assisi a changed person. Rather than return to fight another war, Francis began to minister to the poor.

One day Francis saw a leper in the forest outside Assisi. At first, Francis drew back in fear. Victims of leprosy were objects of great dread in medieval and early modern society. They were required to carry a wooden bell or clacker, singing out “Beware Leprosy Beware.”

Then Francis decided that he must embrace the thing he feared most. Only then could he be free. He grasped the mangled limbs and embraced the withered body of the leper, and in doing so realized he was embracing Christ Jesus.

Afterward, he passed by the church of San Damiano outside Assisi. The ancient crucifix within the derelict church seemed to call out to Francis: “Go, repair my house, which you see is falling down.”

Francis thought he was called to repair the ruined structure. Later he realized he was called to heal the church mankind.

He sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for the repairs, and his furious father locked him in a storeroom from which he escaped.

Francis left his family and renounced his inheritance. He chose a life of poverty, begging for his food. He used the language of courtly love to express suffering, thanking Brother Flea for biting him and reminding him of the suffering of Christ. He thanked Brother Sun for burning his skin and “Sister Moon” for providing light with which to light his path through the night. Francis embraced Lady Poverty with the good manners of a gentle knight.

Francis was joined by seven disciples. They lived communally in the Portiuncula (The Little Portion) near Assisi’s leper colony.

They called themselves “the little brothers.” Francis sought approval for the group from church authorities. He was required to establish a formal set of rules, which included poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. They became the order of Friars Minor. Usually there’s an “O.F.M.” after the name of members of the order.

The Little Brothers became one of the largest religious movements within the Christian church. Francis’ followers came to California in 1769, but that’s another story.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.