Francis Gives Money to the Lepers
Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family in Assisi. He had no interest in his Father’s business or in his school studies. He grew up in the age of chivalry and was fascinated by the songs and poetry of the troubadours and deeds of the knights. A war between Francis’ hometown of Assisi and the town of Perugia occurred as Francis was in his twenties. He was taken prisoner, but kept his spirits high. After his release he suffered a long illness, which he bore with patience and from which he eventually recovered. Feeling more himself, he then decided to join the troop of a knight of Assisi who was fighting for the Pope against the Germans. Once again, as he was ready to set out, he became sick. While lying ill, a voice said to him, “turn back and serve the Master rather than the man.” From this point on, Francis’ life was changed.
This window depicts the transitory life Francis began to lead. The time began a spiritual crisis for him, which caused him to search for something worthy of complete devotion. While riding in the plains near Assisi one day, Francis met a leper. This man was gruesome, covered with sores. Despite his repulsion, Francis leapt from his horse and pressed all the money he had with him into the leper’s hand and then kissed it. This was the turning point that led to the Saint we now know.
Francis Visits the Bishops of Assisi
Francis meeting the leper was the major turning point in his life. From that point on, he began visiting hospitals, specifically to the refuges of the most cast out in society. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he went to St. Peter’s tomb, emptied his purse, left to find a swarm of beggars at the door, and gave his clothes to them and took their rags in which to dress himself. He stayed there to beg as the poor did, experiencing for himself what true poverty felt like.
When he returned from Rome, he went out to the little church of St. Damian located outside the walls of Assisi. He felt what seemed like the eyes of the crucifix gazing upon him. Then, he heard a voice say, “Francis, go and repair my church.” He knew this was the right path to a vocation to God and service to others. He went home, took a load of cloth from his father’s warehouse, sold it, and used the money and gave it to the poor priests at St. Damian’s. His father, Bernadone, was furious. He beat Francis and locked him up.
Herein is this window’s scene. Bernadone, incredibly upset, gave Francis an ultimatum - he either return home or renounce his share of the inheritance. Francis refused to come home and had no objection to being disinherited. Bernadone summoned Francis for trial in front of the Bishop of Assisi, as the window shows. He heard the story and told Francis to “restore the money and trust in God; that his church should not profit from funds unjustly acquired.” Not only did Francis give back the money, he gave his clothes back to his father, stating that they, too, were his property and announced, “From now on I say only, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven.’” Bernadone left the court enraged. The bishop covered Francis with his own cloak. Francis then marked a cross on the shoulder of the cloak with chalk and put it on.
Pope Innocent III Sanctions Francis’ Order of Friars
Francis, at this point of his life, was now completely cut-off from his family. He roamed the countryside, singing God’s praise, although he was mocked by many. He came upon a monastery where he was given alms. He trudged to a town called Gubbio, where a friend recognized him, took him in, and gave him proper
clothing - a tunic, belt, and shoes. He eventually made his way back to St. Damian’s, which is where he first heard God command him to “rebuild” His Church. He was welcomed by the priest there and finally began repairing the church and continued rebuilding God’s house - stone by stone. Begging for stones in streets, he finished the church in 1208. He became interested in a tiny chapel known as St. Mary of the Portiuncula. He rebuilt this chapel as he had done before and decided that his life would best be spent there as a hermit. Yet, on the feast of St. Matthias in 1209, the Gospel of the day revealed to him what he needed to do. “And going, preach, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand...freely you have received, freely give...Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves…” (from Matthew 10) He took it as a direct charge from God, removed all his clothing items except his coat, tied it with a rope, and went out. In those clothes, he traveled around Assisi and spoke to the people on repentance and the love of God.
He greeted everyone he met with “Our Lord give you peace.”
In his travels, Francis gained attention and, in turn, disciples, like Bernard Quintaville, who was a rich merchant. He and the others that joined him sold their goods, gave the proceeds to the poor, and accepted the life St. Francis led and preached.
For about a year, Francis continued to gain companions and preached to the people. They drew up a brief rule, which consisted no more than passages from the Gospel with brief interjections of manual labor, simplicity, and poverty. In the summer of 1210, Francis and the others carried the rule to Rome to obtain the Pope’s approbation, here seen on this window. Pope Innocent III listened but was hesitant. He consulted many cardinals, but a dream he had is what got him to approve the order of the friars. He dreamt he saw Francis propping up the Lateran Church with his shoulder. The Pope orally consented, but required that they, too, get the consent of their local bishop and must choose a leader amongst them. Francis was elected and Bishop Colonna gave them the monk’s tonsure. (This is the old practice, now abolished by the Church, which was performed by a Bishop by clipping the hair at the back of the head of a candidate at his time of admission into a clerical state. Its result was a wreath-like crown of hair.)
Clare Joins Francis’ Ranks
Francis and his band of friars returned to Umbria, grateful and rejoicing upon being given the monk’s tonsure. They found a temporary shelter at the foot of Monte Subasio and went their separate ways preaching of repentance and the holiness and joy of doing God’s will. They had become so popular that the Cathedral of Assisi was the only church large enough to hold the crowds that flocked to hear them preach. Seeing their popularity, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery gave Francis and his Friars the Portiuncula Chapel and the ground on which it stood. Francis, in the true spirit of living a life of poverty for our Lord, accepted only use of the property and not ownership of it. In honor of this arrangement, Francis had a basket of fish sent to the Benedictines every year as their rent payment. However, the Benedictines couldn’t accept the gift without giving in return, so they gave the Friars a barrel of oil in exchange. This exchange of gifts still continues today between the two groups. On the grounds surrounding the chapel, the Friars quickly built themselves huts enclosed by a hedge. This was the first Franciscan monastery.
During Lent of 1212, an eighteen year old girl from Assisi, named Clare, heard Francis preach in the cathedral. She was completely overcome by this way of life for God. She, too, wanted to live “after the manner of the holy Gospel.” She sought out Francis, who saw in her great faith and that she was one of the chosen souls destined by God for great things. He promised to assist her. She left her father’s castle to take a vow of poverty, depicted in this window, came to the little chapel of Portiuncula, and became a disciple. Francis had her lay aside her wealthy clothing, cut off her hair, and gave her a rough tunic and thick veil. Being that both the Friars and Clare were chaste, God-fearing people, they knew that she could not live within the huts of the Friars. The monks of Monte Subasio aided Francis with lodging for Clare and her earliest followers. Francis and the Friars built a simple dwelling adjoining the chapel of San Damiano, which became the permanent residence and first community of the Order of Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares.
Shipwreck on the Way to Jerusalem (Francis Seeks Martyrdom)
Francis always longed to attain a height of perfection in his work for God, even if it meant becoming a martyr for Christ. (Thomas of Celano in his Vita Prima - a biography of sorts, specifically written for Pope Gregory IX, that was to demonstrate that Francis was a worthy candidate for canonization - said that Francis was “burning intensely with the desire for holy martyrdom.”) During the 1210’s, there had been many battles between the Christians and pagans of the area, which we now know as the Holy Land. The apostles were our first and foremost missionaries, spreading the Word of God to the pagans of the area. Many suffered and died in the name of Christ at the hands of the infidels. This was the perfection for the love of God that Francis is said to have longed for in his life.
In the autumn of 1212, Francis decided to become a crusader of peace, taking him and a companion on a journey to the Holy Land, and in turn seemingly hoping to win the martyr’s crown. He planned to preach about the Christian faith and the Christian’s need for penance to the Sarcens (the generic term widely used for Muslims in Europe during the medieval era) and pagans. However, Francis and his companion were kept from reaching their goal because they became shipwrecked off the Dalmatian coast (eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea), as we see in this window. They had no money for a return passage and stowed away on a ship that got them back to Ancona (a seaport in central Italy). Francis and his companion tried once more to get to the Holy Land in 1214, by way of a land route through Spain, but was once again disappointed, as Francis became ill and had to return to Italy.
Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio
Francis is well-known to Christians all over the world for his love of nature. This love has inspired artists throughout history to depict their idea of his impact on creation. He loved all of nature—the sun, moon, air, water, etc. He had a tenderness for and power over animals that have been consistently noted through his life. There is a story from his companions about Francis and the noisy swallows, when, while preaching at Alviano, he told the “little sister swallows” that it was “now [his] turn to speak” and they quieted down. There is another story about his preaching to the birds, when they gathered around and attentively listened to him as he told them to sing their Creator’s praises. Most famously though is the story of his taming the wolf of Gubbio, as pictured in this window.
While Francis was in Gubbio, a town in the northeastern part of the Italian province of Perugia (or Umbria), spreading the Good News, he learned a wolf was terrorizing the townspeople. He was not only attacking the animals of the village, but was attacking the people, too.
Taking pity on the people, Francis decided that God would help him through and he was going to meet the wolf. As he left the city walls, the wolf jumped out from the woods and, with jaws agape, charged toward Francis and his companions. Francis made the Sign of the Cross toward it and the power of God slowed the wolf down. Francis then called out to the creature, saying, “Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.” It lowered its head and lay down at the feet of Francis. Francis then continued, “Brother Wolf, I want you to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio.” The wolf seemingly assented by moving its head up and down and followed Francis and his companions back into town. The people were astonished! They promised to feed the wolf and he lived among them for a couple years before its death. The wolf was a miracle; a living reminder of the power of the living God.
Francis Visits the Sultan of Egypt
Francis’ impact on the Catholic Church and it’s missionary work was unprecedented. He and his brother’s popularity spread throughout Italy and eventually Europe; they were seen as peace-makers amongst civil strife. They had become so large and widely dispersed that more systematic organization was needed. On Pentecost in 1217, a general chapter of all Friars Minor was held at Assisi. Italy became divided into provinces, each having a minister provincial responsible for his territory. After the first general chapter, Francis sent missions to Spain, Germany, and Hungary. Francis himself planned to go to France, but was persuaded by Cardinal Ugolino to send two other brothers to England instead. In June 1219, after another general chapter, Francis decided to send some of his friars on missions to the pagans and infidels in Tunisia, Morocco, and Spain, while he undertook one to the Saracens (the generic term for Muslims widely used in Europe during the later medieval era) in Egypt and Syria. Francis’ impact seemed immediate. With eleven other friars, they embarked to the city of Damietta on the Nile Delta. He was shocked and deeply bothered by the crusaders’ cynicism and lack of discipline. (They were besieging that area in Egypt at the time.) So much so that Francis predicted their attack on the area in August would be a failure and it was. The Christians were driven back and lost 6,000 men. (The crusaders did continue on and eventually took the city.)
Francis in his time in Egypt also met many times with Melek-el-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, to do his part to convert him and his people to Christianity. (Shown in this window.) The Sultan was truly taken by Francis’ demeanor and invited Francis to stay with him. Francis is said to have replied, “If you and your people will accept the Word of God, I will, with joy, stay with you. If you yet waver between Christ and Mohammed, order a fire kindled and I will go into it with your priests that you may see which is the true faith.” The Sultan wouldn’t accept his condition for fear of upsetting his people. He continued to try and persuade Francis to stay with him, but Francis held steadfast and continued to refuse. Fearing that some of his Muslims would desert to the Christians, the Sultan finally gave up and sent Francis, under guard, back to his camp.
The Canticle of the Sun
As the 1220’s began and he returned from his missions in the Middle East, Francis found much change. The Franciscan order began to shift and mold to be like other orders of the time. They had general chapter meetings that were meant for making a new rule. Francis was fearful of the direction in which the order was going. It seemed to be taking a life of its own and Francis refused to give up on the way of life that Christ made known to him. Because of the changes in the order, Francis began to become more solitary in his works. He stayed connected to the order he created, but he also stepped away often. When a new place of retreat was made by the order, Francis often had one on his own, a little ways from his Companions.
Although, even amongst the changes, it is his works and the occurrences in the last years of his life for which he is best known. In 1223, he created the first Christmas Crèche that continues to be a popular Christmas tradition in churches and homes alike. In June of 1224, on what we now know as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis was given the stigmata of the crucified Christ. After an evening of prayer, he had a vision of a winged seraph, nailed to the Cross, flying toward him. At that moment, Francis felt the stabs and pain in his hands, feet, and side. From that point on in his life, he kept the wounds covered and had disclosed what had happened to him. Within a few days he composed one of his most famous writings, the “Praise of the Most High God.” (It begins like this, “You are holy, Lord, the only God, and Your deeds are wonderful.”) As he aged and continued to become weaker as he went on living, he still insisted on preaching from village to village. However, his failing health became noticeable to those with whom he spent time. So much so, that, in the summer of 1225, Cardinal Ugolino made him consent to put himself in the hands of the Pope’s physician at Rieti. He stayed for over a month and often seemed depressed (some think because of not only his failing health, but also because, in his eyes, he failed his mission in life.) Yet, in sudden ecstasy, he overcame his bad eyesight and frail nature and composed the “Canticle of Brother Sun”, which is depicted in this window. He even set it to music so that the Brothers may sing it as they go on their way preaching. This canticle invited all creatures of God to glorify the God who made them and many hymns we sing today use these words.
Vision of Saint Francis
This window is different than the others in the church; each window previous seems to chronologically follow each other. This window does not seem to match any happening at the end of Francis’ life and, quite frankly, we are unsure of its true historical meaning.
However, we do know that St. Francis had a very intimate relationship with Christ and that this dedication and love is shown proves its importance. (Here, in the window, Francis and his brothers are shown on their knees in reverence and humility in front of Jesus, our Lord.) Even at the very end of his life, he did his best to maintain a solitary, prayerful life that revolved around preaching and love of the Eucharist. The “Vision of St. Francis”, as this window was named in 1963 during the construction of our current church building, is most likely the artist’s way of showing Francis’ love and dedication to Christ throughout his life, even up to his death.
Francis, beginning in the summer of 1225, as we read last week, was sent to Rieti to undergo treatment for his ailments, by order of the Pope. His health was growing worse and the stigmata were a source of pain. His eyes were even failing. Francis underwent an agonizing treatment of prescribed cauterization of the forehead and plasters to keep the cauterized wounds open. Oddly enough, he did find some relief. During that winter, he was able to preach a little and decided to dictate a long letter to his brothers, hoping it would be read at a general chapter meeting in the future. He told them to love one another, to love and follow “Lady Poverty,” to love and reverence the Eucharist, and to love and honor the clergy. He ended up composing an even longer letter to all Christians, repeating his message of love and harmony. This definitely was the vision St. Francis saw when he formed the Friars and began preaching to the nations about the glory of God, and he surely wanted to make sure it was not forgotten during the order’s constant growth.
As spring came in 1226, Francis’ health continued to rapidly decline. He was taken north to Assisi, as he longed to be home, and stayed at the Bishop’s palace. Even in the fine surroundings, Francis was still unhappy. He begged to be taken to the Portiuncula: the second chapel he rebuilt, where the message “and going, preach, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand…” stirred something in Francis’ soul and so began his life of poverty. As they left down the hill and out of the town for the Portiuncula, Francis asked the men to stop and face him toward the city. He blessed it and bade it farewell. This would be the last time Francis saw Assisi. At the Portiuncula, Francis was able to dictate his Will – something he considered to be a final defense of all he had done on his life, for he had written that it should be “in a clear and simple manner” and it should be understood in the same way and practiced “until the end.”
As the end drew near, Francis asked his brothers to send for an and old friend in Rome, the Lady Giacoma di Settesoli. (Also known as Lady Jacoba, and now Blessed Jacoba, who the Order of the Brothers & Sisters of Penance or Third Order Franciscans is thought to have been created for by Francis.) He also sent one, last message to Clare and her nuns. The brothers are said to have stood around him, singing his “Canticle of the Sun,” with the newest stanza Francis wrote in praise of “Sister Death.” He repeated the 41st Psalm – “I cried to the Lord with my voice; with my voice I made supplication to the Lord.” At his request, he was stripped of his clothing and laid on the ground. He wanted that, in his dying, to be resting in the arms of “Lady Poverty.” He called to receive the Holy Eucharist once last time. While John’s Gospel of the Lord’s Passion was real aloud, darkness fell, and on that day, Saturday, October 3, 1226, Francis died.