FRANCIS OF ASSISI, EVERYONE’S SAINT


 Essay written in 2011

by +Dr. Franco Camarca (1950-2017)

Psychologist, Writer, Journalist

Father of Brother Bernardo, FFV


“The Providence, which rules the world…

…two Princes ordained in its behalf”.

Dante, Paradiso

Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most “universal” Italian saint. We defined him “everyone’s Saint” to underscore this peculiarity of his person: venerated by Catholics but respected even by Muslims, when he joined a Crusade to preach the Good News, and studied by the Protestants, of whom Peter Sabatier wrote in 1893 the “Life” that has become a classic of world literature.

Assisi presents itself as a city dominated by a castle and surrounded by towers, fortified walls, and other constructions that immediately bring war to mind. Francis, of wealthy merchant family, contributed to those constructions, probably to defend the city against Perugia in one of the many wars that characterized his time. Francis lived between the 1100s and the 1200s: a time of wars between Christians and Saracens, Empire and Church, city and city, for prestige and commercial predominance. In the war against Perugia he was made prisoner for two years, 1202-03, and he was also sick for a long time. Once healed, he threw himself into a new adventure, but at Spoleto he was stopped by a new illness and by a vision that invited him to follow the example of Jesus and “rebuild the Church”.

What was the situation of the Church in that epoch?

Let’s briefly say that there was a deep popular displeasure against the excesses of wealth and corruption that characterized the high clergy. Preachers in the public squares condemned all of it, reminding all of the simple life preached by the Gospel. In Italy in the XI and XII centuries many social movements were born which united politics and religion, since political freedom and religious purity were values deeply sought after by the people.

Thus Dante wrote in Canto XI of “Paradiso”:

The Providence, which rules the world…

…two Princes ordained in its behalf,

who should serve it as guides on either side.

 (Verses 28 & 35-36) 

 

The “guides” to whom Dante refers are Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. Three more centuries awaited the necessary Reform of the Council of Trent, and a number of historians agree that without those powers of new purity triggered by the Franciscan and Dominican movements the Church would have suffered very grave damages.

His first companions and biographers called Francis “the herald of Christ”, “the invincible knight”, and the said he was “armed with the weapons of Christ”. In another contemporary work, “Speculum perfectionis”, he is compared with his disciples to the Knights of the Round Table. And the spouse – “dominam”, as one of his biographers says – of such knight was poverty, who appears symbolically in classical vestments in the frescoes of the great Giotto.

The Order of friars minor, his Rule, was approved by pope Innocent III, who also gave them permission to preach. Before we expose our thoughts on the Saint let us briefly mention some biographical notes, referring to the historical data of Martignetti (Italian Encyclopedia). Returned to Assisi, Francis founded with Saint Clare the “second order of the poor clares” and then went to preach the Gospel amidst the Saracens. His followers grew fast, reaching the thousands, but the Saint went back to preach to Egypt, where he was honored by the Sultan, and in Palestine. Returned to Italy in 1220 and leaving the direction of the Order to Pietro Cattani and eventually to friar Elias, he prepared the “first Rule” (1221) and then dictated the text of the “Second [Third] Rule” that pope Honorius III approved in 1223. Continuing in an intense spiritual life which included preaching – which did not impeded him to ‘invent’ in 1222 the Crèche that became one of the most intimate representations of Christmas – he founded the “Third order of the penitents”.

We thus reach 1224, when in a spiritual retreat of fasting on mount la Verna he received the stigmata.

      Then we find his autograph writings, the “Laudes Dei” and the “Canticle of brother Sun” in which, according to authoritative reviewers, “the rigid Benedictine spirituality is overcome in favor of a new conception of Creation characterized by an exaltation of a sense of universal brotherhood”, and, we think, of a sort of mystical fusion with nature and thus with the omnipresent God.

The hymn begins with an invocation to God, followed by the sun “beautiful and radiant”, the moon and the stars “clear and precious and beautiful”; then the four elements: the earth, the water “useful and humble and precious and chaste”, the fire “beautiful and playful and robust and strong”, and the air.

Our Prezzolini, faculty of Columbia University, mentions that the adjectives applied by the Saint reveal a new interpretation of Nature and place it in a new relationship with Man. The hymn is not written in Latin but in the vulgate language of the people of Umbria, which for the first time assumes an artistic form, although preserving the simplicity and characteristics of the local dialect. The language is mixed with Latinized words; the verses do not have a regular metric yet there are many rhymes and assonances. The epilogue, according to Prezzolini, was added at the nearing of the Saint’s death in 1226, a death that Francis calls “sister”.

It is worth mentioning what Sapegno recalls in his History of literature: “It is certain that the hymn of grace, raised to the Creator by a beautiful world, admirable in its harmony and its ends, finds its roots not in an easy and superficial enthusiasm, but in the “labor pains” of ascesis and penance, from which the soul resurrects renewed, capable of contemplating the things and events of the earth with new, peaceful, and joyful eyes. The simple poetry of the Saint translates itself in the adjectives that accompany one step at a time the evocation of the creatures and they underscore the poetic aspect […] but the power and resonance of the hymn resides instead in the deep intimacy and novelty of the religious feeling that pervades it, outside and in a certain sense above pure poetry”.

The behavior of Saint Francis towards animals, with whom he spoke (like the wolf of Gubbio) opened a new field in painting: Giotto and his successors felt a great influence and even the architectonic structures of the churches of the Franciscan order displayed a new disposition of the altars, a new amplitude of the walls, a significant austerity in their entire edification.

Towards the end of his life, with a serious illness in his eyes, Francis returned to Assisi and asked to be taken to Saint Mary of the Angels, where lying on the bare ground he reached the Lord that he so much loved in 1226.

Saint Francis was canonized by Gregory IX in 1228. His feast in the Catholic Church is October 4th and Pope Pius XII proclaimed him, with Saint Catherine of Siena, “Patron of Italy”.

It is interesting to note that many centuries later the charm and personality of Saint Francis still live. His fame is worldwide. Saint Francis remains one of those figures of Western civilization without whom our history would not be complete.

The Franciscans are today, and we witness it by our personal and direct experience, an imperishable and daily example for all the orders.

The letting go of Saint Francis was in actuality acquisition of a superior freedom and his poverty was the acquisition of spiritual wealth, and Jesus rewarded him with the gift of the stigmata.

Published in: on May 9, 2017 at 3:09 AM  Comments Off on FRANCIS OF ASSISI, EVERYONE’S SAINT