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In the Footsteps of Saint Francis

A. PROLOGUE

For over 80 years, members of the Secular Franciscan Order have been meeting at Saint Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Vancouver, Canada. They have answered a call to live the Gospel faithfully in the secular world. They follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi who made Christ the inspiration and the centre of his life with God and people and are involved in apostolates such as caring for creation, peace building and service to the poor. At monthly fraternity meetings, Secular Franciscans pray together, get to know each other, help each other figure out how to apply the gospel to their own particular circumstances, and deepen their understanding of Franciscan spirituality.

B. THE EARLY LIFE OF ST. FRANCIS

St. Francis was born in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi in 1181, the son of Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife, Madonna Pica. Francis spent a happy childhood under the watchful eye of his mother and the attention heaped on him by his father. As a youth Francis seemed carried away by the joy of living, taking no interest at all in his father's business or in formal learning. Pietro, proud to have his son finely dressed and associating with the young noblemen of Assisi, gave him plenty of money, which Francis would often spend on lavish banquets for his friends. It was the age of chivalry, and he was captivated by the songs of troubadours and the deeds of knights.

During this period, there were episodes revealing some intolerance on Francis’ part. It was on one of these occasions that the seed of his future transformation was planted. He was working intently in his father's cloth shop, arranging the fabric, when a beggar came to the door asking for alms in God’s name. Francis rudely kicked the man out, but then he regretted his actions and followed the man. When he found him, he stopped the man and, apologizing, gave him some money.

When Francis was twenty years old, he fought in a war between Assisi and Perugia and was taken prisoner at the battle of Collestrada. During a year of captivity he remained cheerful and kept up the spirits of his fellow prisoners. Soon after his release Francis suffered a long illness. His mother's loving care and time itself brought him back to health, but the carefree life he had led before and which had started again by now, seemed empty to him. After his recovery, Francis joined the troop of a knight of Assisi who was riding south to fight under Walter de Brienne for the Pope against the Germans.

Having equipped himself with expensive clothingl and fine armor, Francis began his journey. On the way he met a knight shabbily clad, and was so touched with compassion that he exchanged clothes with him. The next day, Francis set out again, but on the first day fell ill. While lying helpless, a voice seemed to tell him to turn back, and "to serve the Master rather than the man." Francis obeyed. Returning to Assisi, he began to take long walks in the country and to spend many hours by himself; he felt contempt for a life wasted on trivial and transitory things. It was a time of spiritual crisis during which Francis was quietly searching for something worthy of his complete devotion.

A deep compassion was growing within him. Riding one day in the plains below Assisi, he met a leper whose loathsome sores filled Francis with horror. Overcoming his revulsion, he leapt from his horse and pressed into the leper's hand all the money he had with him, then kissed the hand. This was a turning point in his life. Francis started visiting hospitals, especially the refuge for lepers, which most persons avoided. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he emptied his purse at St. Peter's tomb, then went out to the swarm of beggars at the door, gave his clothes to the one that looked poorest, dressed himself in the fellow's rags, and stood there all day with hand outstretched.

He did all this amidst the mockery and scorn of his friends and to his father’s great disappointment. Only in Madonna Pica did he find any understanding.

Francis continued to go off in silent meditation amidst the hills and countryside of Assisi, often stopping at the little church of San Damiano, a short distance outside the city. There, God spoke to him through the crucifix in the little chapel, saying, " Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."
The building, he observed, was old and ready to fall. Assured that he had now found the right path, Francis went home and in the singleness and simplicity of his heart took a horse load of cloth out of his father's warehouse and sold it, together with the horse that carried it, in the market at the neighboring town of Foligno. He then brought the money to the priest of San Damiano, and asked if he might stay there. Although the priest accepted Francis' companionship, he refused the money,

Francis spent some days in prayer, and then went bravely to see his father. He was now so thin and ill-clad that boys in the streets pelted him and called him mad. The exasperated Bernadone beat Francis, fettered his feet, and locked him up in a small cell inside the family home. A month later his mother set him free and Francis returned to San Damiano.

His father pursued him there and angrily declared that he must either return home or renounce his share in his inheritance and pay the purchase price of the horse and the cloth he had taken as well. Francis made no objection to being disinherited, but protested that the other money now belonged to God and the poor.

Bernadone had him summoned for trial before Guido, the bishop of Assisi, who heard the story and told Francis to restore the money. "God does not wish," the bishop said, "to have His church profit by goods which may have been unjustly acquired." Francis not only gave back the money but went even further. "My clothing is also his," he said, and stripped off his garments. "Up to now I have called Pietro Bernadone father.... From now on I say only, 'Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

Bernadone left the court in sorrow and rage, while the bishop covered the young man with his own cloak until a gardener's smock was brought. Francis marked a cross on the shoulder of the smock with chalk and put it on. He then began a life of meditation, great sacrifice and spiritual growth.

C. THE FIRST FRANCISCANS

It was only a matter of a few weeks for Francis to have the joy to receive his first brothers or friars at the Porziuncola. The first among them was Bernardo da Quintavalle, a rich young man from Assisi. Together with Francis he went to the church of San Nicolò in the town square, and together they consulted the book of the Gospels.

Three times they opened the book and read these words: "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Matthew 19,21); "Take nothing for your journey" (Luke 9,3); "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me" (Luke 9,23). These Scripture verses were to constitute the basis of the life and Rule of the evangelical movement initiated by Francis.

The small brotherhood grew steadily in numbers. Peter and Sylvester soon joined them followed by Giles, Rufino and Leo.

As the summer waned and the nights grew cold the brothers needed a place for shelter. Francis knew of a place where there was a ruined building. It stood beside a little stream, which meandered through the woods so the place and the building were called Rivo Torto which means “Crooked Brook”. The ruins provided space so cramped as the group grew in number, that Francis chalked marks on the ceiling to allocate spaces for each one to sleep.

In the autumn of 1208 the friars went to preach in the Rieti valley. They stopped in a tiny village called Poggio Bustone. In a shallow cave high above the village, Francis received two divine encouragements. The first was a sense of unprecedented certainty that all his previous sins had been forgiven. The second occurred during moments of extra-corporeal awareness, described by Thomas of Celano:

He was caught up above himself, and absorbed into a kind of light; the capacity of his mind was enlarged, and he could see clearly into the future. He said to his brothers . . . “I saw a great many men who wanted to share our way of life – the roads, as it were, filled with Frenchmen, Spaniards, Germans, Englishmen, and many others, speaking various languages and hurrying toward us.”

In 1209, Francis wrote down a Regula primitiva or “Primitive Rule” for his brothers, which was mainly composed of Gospel texts, including the three quoted previously. Later he said, “When the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I ought to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the holy Gospel. And I caused it to be written in few words and simply.

Soon after, Francis boldly decided to take his group to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III and ask for approval of their way of life. At his first meeting with Francis, the Pope rejected his ideal, considering his penitential rule with its emphasis on poverty too harsh. He did not grant permission for it. However, that night the Pope had a dream in which he saw a ragged little man holding up the great basilica of the Lateran. He recognized Francis as the little man and sent for him again. Innocent gave him his blessing together with permission to preach. At a time when the church was beset by heresy and complaints about mendicants the cardinals opposed his approval. To them Pope Innocent said, “This is truly the man who, with example and doctrine will uphold the Church of Christ”

From then on, his new Order grew quickly with new vocations. When hearing Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1209, Clare of Assisi became deeply touched by his message and she discerned her calling. On the night of Palm Sunday, March 28, 1211, Clare quietly left her family's palace. Francis received her at the Porziuncola and hereby established the Order of Poor Ladies, later called the Poor Clares. Francis also formed a Third Order, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. This was a fraternity composed of either laity or clergy who carried out the principles of Franciscan life in their daily lives. Later, a branch of the Third Order became the Secular Franciscan Order.

D. THE WAY OF LIFE - THE RULE OF THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER

The Secular Franciscan Order is governed by the universal law of the Church and by its own Rule.

During the Rite of Profession, a candidate makes the following pledge, “I promise to live all the days of my life the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Secular Franciscan Order by observing its Rule of Life.”
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This fundamental statement is reflected in Article 4: The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.

Christ, the gift of the Father's love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.

Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.

E. THE BOOK OF NATURE

Francis is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment. There are many stories about the life of Francis that deal with his love for animals. Two are noted here:

One of the most famous stories speaks of a time in which Francis walked by a tree filled with birds and begged them to listen to the word of God:

A second story tells of a wolf that was terrifying the city of Gubbio near Assisi. Having compassion for the frightened residents, Francis went up to the hills to find the wolf. Walking alone because all of his companions had fled in fear, Francis eventually found the wolf, made the sign of the cross, and instructed the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. He said to the wolf:

Brother wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil. All these people accuse you and curse you. But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.

Francis led the wolf into town. Surrounded by the startled citizens, he made a pact between them and the wolf. He explained that the wolf had terrorized the people because he was hungry. He told the people to feed the wolf regularly and the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. This legend exemplifies Francis’ love for animals and the natural world.

In his well-known “Canticle of the Creatures”, Francis sees everything - Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth and even Sister Death - as a gift of an utterly transcendent, unfathomable, but loving God.

Francis spent a third to half of each year praying in nature and the wilderness, living in hermitages, caves, and on mountainsides. There was something about that experience of being intimately related to creation itself that helped him grow more fully into the mystery of God. In Italy today, one can still visit these quiet places where Francis spent time in communion with God, embraced by the beauty of the earth.

F. PERFECT JOY

“Perfect Joy” is an elusive thing. Franciscans talk about it. Know when someone has it. Feel it and want it. But what is it really?

"Perfect Joy" according to Saint Francis of Assisi

How Saint Francis, walking one day with brother Leo, explained to him what things are perfect joy.

One day in winter, as Saint Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to Saint Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: "Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy."

A little further on, Saint Francis called to him a second time: "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy."

Shortly after, he cried out again: "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy."

After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: "O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters - write that this would not be perfect joy."

Shortly after, he cried out again: "O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy."

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: "Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy." Saint Francis answered: "If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, "We are two of the brethren", he should answer angrily, "What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say"; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall - then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, "Begone, miserable robbers! to to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!" - and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.

And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, "These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve"; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick - if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, "What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?" But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, "I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Amen."

Imagine the face of Jesus looking at you…knowing you in your most inmost thoughts. Loving you in spite of and because of, who you are; Jesus looking at you with a love so immeasurable that our minds cannot understand it, but only try to accept it. Jesus’ love and peace stays with us and changes who we are and what we are.

Christ speaks to our hearts with His love for us. Our hearts burn within ourselves when we recognize Christ and His love within us. He shares in our life while we share in His life. Joy is the result. His joy becomes our joy. His love becomes our love. Our suffering becomes joy-filled because we are with Christ and He is with us. Everything else pales in the comparison to His love. We find joy in suffering because of His love. This is what Franciscans mean by “Perfect Joy!”