Published Fri, 02/04/2021 by

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) has always been one of the most celebrated and popular of saints.  Born into middle-class affluence, he was a high-spirited youth with many friends.  Something changed in him though when he was required to fight in battle against the neighbouring city of Perugia.  Francis was captured and held prisoner for a year before obtaining release.  The next time he was called upon to fight, he dropped out and began to follow a different path.  He spent a lot of time in prayer in a semi-ruined church in front of a Byzantine-style crucifix.  One day as he prayed he heard the voice of Christ speaking to him from the cross saying, “Francis, repair my church which as you see is everywhere in ruins.”  Setting to work with a will, Francis began repairing the church with his own hands.  Only later did it occur to him that his calling was not primarily to the repair of that church but to the repair of the Church of God which (not for the first time or last) was in urgent need of spiritual renewal.  

For some years Francis had already been conspicuous by his care for the needs of the poor and for lepers.  As he continued in his efforts to live out the Gospel life taught by Christ, a band of followers formed around him.  Together they lived a communal life of prayer and discipleship, supporting themselves by manual work and by begging for alms.  When they discerned the time was right they would go out on the road in mission, engaging in preaching tours around Italy, where they met with increasing success, before returning to the community to recharge their spiritual batteries.  The Franciscan life is an oscillating one of action and contemplation: but the contemplation comes first, the Gospel-inspired action second, as the fruit of prayer and discernment.

Some Christians respond to their encounter with the Lord by retiring from the world to a life of deep prayer and solitude, like Julian of Norwich in her walled-up cell.  Others are called to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed – like St Francis who said, “The world is our enclosure.”  Once out in the world, Francis knew that deeds count for more than words.  As he famously charged the brothers, “Go out and preach the Gospel everywhere – use words if you have to.”


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