Saint Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi was one of seven children born to Pietro and his wife Pica de Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was a noblewoman originally from Provence, France. Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born in Assisi, and Pica had him baptized as Giovanni. When his father returned to Assisi, he took to calling him Francesco ("the Frenchman"), possibly in honor of his commercial success and enthusiasm for all things French. Since the child was renamed in infancy, the change can hardly have had anything to do with his aptitude for learning French, as some have thought. As a youth, Francesco became a devotee of troubadours and was fascinated with all things Transalpine.
Although many hagiographers remark about his bright clothing, rich friends, and love of pleasures, his displays of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him came fairly early in his life, as is shown in the "story of the beggar." In this account, he was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deal, Francis abandoned his wares and ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his act of charity. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage.
In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken as a prisoner at Collestrada, spending a year as a captive. It is possible that his spiritual conversion was a gradual process rooted in this experience. Upon his return to Assisi in 1203, Francis returned to his carefree life. In 1204, a serious illness led him to a spiritual crisis. In 1205, Francis left for Puglia to enlist in the army of the Count of Brienne. A strange vision made him return to Assisi, deepening his ecclesiastical awakening.
According to the hagiographic legend, thereafter he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions. In response, they asked him laughingly whether he was thinking of marrying, to which he answered, "yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen," meaning his "Lady Poverty". He spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, the most repulsive victims in the lazar houses near Assisi. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he joined the poor in begging at the doors of the churches, he said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the country chapel of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose.
His father, Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to change his mind, first with threats and then with beatings. In the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him in front of the public. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the countryside around the town for two years, he embraced the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels just outside the town, which later became his favorite abode
At the end of this period (on February 24, 1209, according to Jordan of Giano), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life forever. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Gospel precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance. He was soon joined by his first follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as "lesser brothers," fratres minores in Latin. The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression upon their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
St. Francis and the Leper
One day while Francis was thinking of leaving the worldly life, riding through the fields outside the walls of Assisi, he heard distinctly the sound of a bell. He saw a disfigured be coming to meet him, he was a leper with tainted meat, calcified that emitted a stench unbearable. Francis had to flee the motion because he knew that leprosy was a disease very contagious, but overcame his repugnance, he descended from his horse, approached the leper and kissed him with the kiss of love. Climbed on horseback, he turned to greet the leper, but that was gone. That leper was Jesus Christ descended to earth to receive a kiss from his servant.
Francis in his will he wrote: "When I was in sin, too bitter to me seemed to see the lepers, and the Lord led me among them, when I left, what first estimation bitter, I was changed into sweetness of soul and body, and after I left the world.
Francis meets a leper
Here is Fr. Murray Bodo’s poetic account of the scene: Francis remembered the first victory of his new heart. All his life long he had panicked when he met a person with leprosy. And then one day on the road below Assisi, he did one of those surprising things that only the power of Jesus’ Spirit could explain. He reached out and touched such a one, the very sight of whom nauseated him. ... Trembling, he threw his arms around the leper’s neck and kissed his cheek. Then, like the feeling he remembered when he first began to walk, he was happy and confident; he stood erect and calm and loved this man in his arms. (Francis: The Journey and the Dream, by Murray Bodo, O.F.M.)
HOW ST FRANCIS HEALED MIRACULOUSLY A LEPER BOTH IN HIS BODY AND IN HIS SOUL, AND WHAT THE SOUL SAID TO HIM ON GOING UP TO HEAVEN
The true disciple of Christ, St Francis, as long as he lived in this miserable life, endeavoured with all his might to follow the example of Christ the perfect Master; whence it happened often, through the operation of grace, that he healed the soul at the same time as the body, as we read of Jesus Christ himself; and not only did he willingly serve the lepers himself, but he willed that all the brethren of his Order, both when they were travelling about the world and when they were halting on their way, should serve the lepers for the love of Christ, who for our sake was willing to be treated as a leper.
It happened once, that in a convent near the one in which St Francis then resided there was a hospital for leprosy and other infirmities, served by the brethren; and one of the patients was a leper so impatient, so insupportable, and so insolent, that many believed of a certainty that he was possessed of the devil (as indeed he was) for he ill-treated with blows and words all those who served him; and, what was worse, he blasphemed so dreadfully our Blessed Lord and his most holy Mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, that none was found who could or would serve him. The brethren, indeed, to gain merit, endeavoured to accept with patience the injuries and violence committed against themselves, but their consciences would not allow them to submit to those addressed to Christ and to his Mother, wherefore they determined to abandon this leper, but this they would not do until they had signified their intention to St Francis, according to the Rule.
On learning this, St Francis, who was not far distant, himself visited this perverse leper, and said to him: “May God give thee peace, my beloved brother!” To this the leper answered: “What peace can I look for from God, who has taken from me peace and every other blessing, and made me a putrid and disgusting object?” St Francis answered: “My son, be patient; for the infirmities of the body are given by God in this world for the salvation of the soul in the next; there is great merit in them when they are patiently endured.” The sick man answered: “How can I bear patiently the pain which afflicts me night and day? For not only am I greatly afflicted by my infirmity, but the friars thou hast sent to serve me make it even worse, for they do not serve me as they ought.”
Then St Francis, knowing through divine revelation that the leper was possessed by the malignant spirit, began to pray, interceding most earnestly for him. Having finished his prayer, he returned to the leper and said to him: “My son, I myself will serve thee, seeing thou art not satisfied with the others.” “Willingly,” answered the leper; “but what canst thou do more than they have done?” “Whatsoever thou wishes I will do for thee,” answered St Francis. “I will then,” said he, “that thou wash me all over; for I am so disgusting that I cannot bear myself.”
Then St Francis heated some water, putting therein many odoriferous herbs; he then undressed him, and began to wash him with his own hands, whilst another brother threw the water upon him, and, by a divine miracle, wherever St Francis touched him with his holy hands the leprosy disappeared, and his flesh was perfectly healed also. On this the leper, seeing his leprosy beginning to vanish, felt great sorrow and repentance for his sins, and began to weep bitterly. While his body was being purified externally of the leprosy through the cleansing of the water, so his soul internally was purified from sin by the washing of tears and repentance; and feeling himself completely healed both in his body and his soul, he humbly confessed his sins, crying out in a loud voice, with many tears: “Unhappy me! I am worthy of hell for the wickedness of my conduct to the brethren, and the impatience and blasphemy I have uttered against the Lord”; and for fifteen days he ceased not to weep bitterly for his sins, imploring the Lord to have mercy on him, and them made a general confession to a priest.
St Francis, perceiving this evident miracle which the Lord had enabled him to work, returned thanks to God, and set out for a distant country; for out of humility he wished to avoid all glory, and in all his actions he sought only the glory of God, and not his own. It pleased God that the leper, who had been healed both in his body and in his soul, after having done penance for fifteen days, should fall ill of another infirmity; and having received the sacraments of the Church, he died a most holy death. His soul on its way to heaven appeared in the air to St Francis, who was praying in a forest, and said to him: “Dost thou know me?” “Who art thou?” asked the saint. Said he: “I am that leper whom our Blessed Lord healed through thy merits, and to-day I am going to life eternal, for which I return thanks to God and to thee.
Blessed by thy soul and thy body, blessed by thy holy words and works, for through thee many souls are saved in the world; and know that there is not a single day in which the angels and other saints do not return thanks to God for the holy fruits of thy preaching and that of thy Order in various parts of the world. Be comforted, then, and thank the Lord, and may his blessing rest on thee.” Having said these words, he went up to heaven, leaving St Francis much consoled.
Meeting with the leper
"Then the holy lover of complete humility went to the lepers and lived with them, serving them most diligently for God's sake; and washing all foulness from them, he wiped away also the corruption of the ulcers, just as he said in his Testament: "When I was in sins, it seemed extremely bitter to me to look at lepers, and the Lord himself led me among them and I practiced mercy with them."
So greatly loathsome was the sight of lepers to him at one time, he used to say, that, in the days of his vanity, he would look at their houses only from a distance of two miles and he would hold his nostrils with his hands.
But now, when by the grace and the power of the Most High he was beginning to think of holy and useful things, while he was still clad in secular garments, he met a leper one day and, made stronger than himself, he kissed him. From then on he began to despise himself more and more, until, by the mercy of the Redeemer, he came to perfect victory over himself.
Of other poor, too, while he yet remained in the world and still followed the world, he was the helper, stretching forth a hand of mercy to those who had nothing, and showing compassion to the afflicted.
For when one day, contrary to his custom, for he was a most courteous person, he upbraided a certain poor man who had asked an alms of him, he was immediately sorry; and he began to say to himself that it was a great reproach and a shame to withhold what was asked from one who had asked in the name of so great a King.
He therefore resolved in his heart never in the future to refuse any one, if at all possible, who asked for the love of God.
This he most diligently did and carried out, until he sacrificed himself entirely and in every way; and thus he became first a practitioner before he became a teacher of the evangelical counsel: <To him who asks of thee, he said, give; and from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away."
Thomas of Celano, First Life of Saint Francis.