St. Francis Feast Day
October 2023 · Forward in Hope
Now, this is a story all about how My life got flipped-turned upside down And I’d like to take a minute Just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.
~DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
Today, October 4, is the annual feast day that commemorates Saint Francis Ministries’ namesake and patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. Now, you might be wondering what the foregoing quote from the lyrics to the theme song from the 90s mega-hit TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has to do with a 13th century Italian friar, mystic, and deacon, but I promise that this will all make sense!
Francis was born in 1182, the son of a prominent and prosperous silk merchant in the town of Assisi, which is in the Umbria region of Italy. While his father was on a trip to France, Francis’ mother had him baptized as Giovanni but upon his father’s return he took to calling his son “Francesco” in honor of the success of his business dealings and love of all things French. Francis enjoyed a privileged youth spent in harmless revelry and vain attempts for military glory. Encounters with poor beggars and lepers however pricked his conscience and after a period of disillusionment with the direction of his life he decided to devote his life to a form of poverty in imitation of Jesus Christ.
One particularly famous story about Francis from this period demonstrates his commitment to living a life committed to God’s way. While meditating in the ruined church of San Damiano, Francis heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him from the crucifix saying, “Francis, repair my church.” Initially, Francis took this call quite literally and spent money from his father’s fortune to repair the ruins of the church—later dragging the stones there himself. That desire to fix what was broken continued after the repairs of the church were completed and soon Francis came to understand its deeper meaning as a call to renewal of the soul of the church and not just its buildings.
Francis’ father, who had indulged his son in his youth, was enraged by Francis’ liberal charity to those in need. Increasingly opposed to Francis’ newfound devotion, his father attempted to have the local bishop talk some sense into his wayward child…or least get him to pay back all the money he’d given away. Publicly and dramatically, Francis removed the colorful clothing of his family wealth and stood naked before the bishop, who quickly wrapped him in his robes. Thus was Francis’ renunciation of material wealth complete.
Many of the young people of Assisi were attracted to Francis’ devotion to Christ and service to the poor. They joined him in a new form of mendicant religious life. In 1210, the pope approved Francis’ new religious community, the Order of Friars Minor; so named because of Francis’ desire to be “numbered among the least” of God’s people. This order is usually referred to as the Franciscans after him and even inspired a parallel order for women, the Poor Clares, founded by his close friend St. Clare of Assisi.
The Franciscan order grew very quickly throughout Europe and by 1221 Francis had lost control of it due to his strict insistence on absolute poverty which many found too difficult to maintain. In his last years he suffered both in body and spirit, but his joy in solidarity with the poor never diminished. Near the end of his life, Francis received the divine gift of the stigmata—the Lord’s wounds from the crucifixion—in his hands, feet, and side. He died aged 44 amongst his Franciscan brethren in 1226 and by 1228 he was canonized a saint.
Francis is among the most popular of all the saints, though perhaps also among the least imitated due to his radical devotion to “Lady Poverty.” Nevertheless, his identification with the poor and his love of all God’s Creation continue to inspire people of all faiths and none even to this day. Francis is the patron saint of the Franciscans, the poor, ecology, animals, stowaways, merchants, several towns in Italy, and co-patron of all Italy. The US city of San Francisco is named after him. Our own founder, Fr. Bob Mize, was inspired by St. Francis’ example of a simple life devoted to Christ and the poor, naming his own ministry after him.
As promised, I said I would explain how any of this has to do with the lyrics above. Here is the answer: Francis’ life was “flipped-turned upside down” by his response to God’s call in his life. Tho instead of living the life of a prince, as provided by his earthly father, Francis committed himself wholly to the care of our Heavenly Father. In so doing he was able to connect and engage with those whose lives were marked by poverty, chaos, and despair—lives that were upside down. In this way, inspired by Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit, Francis and his companions were able to turn lives right side up again through love, compassion, and kindness.
Today, we at Saint Francis Ministries, remember the remarkable life of one who forsook the ways of the world to help restore the world. We step into the breach with children and families to help them fix what has been broken and renew their hope. Our methods may be a little different from a 13th century mystic who embraced suffering and poverty in a nearly impossible way, but we are motivated by the same divine love that seeks health and wholeness for all.
May you have a most blessed St. Francis Day!