By CAROLE BRESLIN
Down in southern Italy, in the year 1416, a loving couple welcomed their son into the world after many years of hoping for children. Their devotion to St. Francis of Assisi was well known as they sought to imitate his great love of poverty and devotion to prayer. Since St. Francis answered their pleas for children, they named their son after him in keeping with the vow they had made.
A few years later the young boy was stricken with a serious illness causing much swelling in his face. The danger of losing his eyesight was very real. Once again the parents prayed to St. Francis of Assisi for his intercession in granting a cure to their son. If he was cured, they vowed that their son would live one year with the Franciscans and wear their habit.
Soon the boy was completely healed. Hence, when he was 13, in keeping their promise, Francis’ parents took him to the Franciscans where he donned their habit and stayed one year with them. This experience left an indelible impression on the young man. He came to cherish the peacefulness of their simple existence, which embraced poverty and prayer.
After returning to his parents, the family — now with two other children — traveled to Rome and Assisi where they visited the church of Portiuncula. This church is the same church where St. Francis founded his order after having received instructions to “rebuild my Church” from God.
In 1432, after returning home, Francis’ parents granted their permission to him — at the age of only 15 — to go and live as a hermit. He lived only on what he could gather in the woods near his cave or on that food which his friends would leave for him. After four years, two others joined him in his cave.
Three cells were then constructed as well as a small chapel where a priest could come and celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the men. This year, 1436, marked the founding of his order. Slowly the order grew so that St. Francis asked for and received permission from the archbishop of Cosenza to call these men the Hermits of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1454 Francis began the construction of a monastery and a large church.
The reputation of the men was so widespread and so favorable that many hands came to lend help in the building of the church and the monastery. Even noblemen carried stones to erect the walls. Those who were injured and unable to help came anyway. The saint obliged by curing them of their lameness.
With the completion of their community buildings, St. Francis set about establishing the regular routine and rules of the group. He still practiced fasting and severe poverty by sleeping only on a board with a stone for a pillow. Their rule was very strict with continuous abstinence from any animal products. His hope was that those many Catholics who no longer observed the penitential practices of Lent would again begin to fast and sacrifice during that holy time.
Francis urged his followers to practice heroic charity as the mark of their order, not only for God but for each other and their fellow citizens. This charity was to be built upon a profound humility, recognizing their nothingness before God. Naturally, or supernaturally, this drew even more people to seek his attention and favor, contrary to his desire for a simple, quiet, humble existence. Like Mary, the Mother of God, the more he was exalted the more humble he became, seeing himself as unworthy of such adulation, giving all glory to God.
Such was his humility and that which he expected from his men that he petitioned the Pope for them to be called the Minims. This would indicate that they were the least among men in reference to St. Luke who quoted our Lord as saying, “He who is greater among you, let him be as the least.”
In 1471 the archbishop of Cosenza approved the rule of the order and Pope Sixtus IV confirmed it on May 23, 1474. Then the building of other houses began with the first being completed in 1476 and another at Spezza. In 1479, he went to Sicily where he established several more houses of Minims. Next he went to Corigliano, where he built yet another house of his Order of Minims in 1480.
St. Francis also became known for his gift of prophecy. In three successive years he predicted the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, which occurred several years later in 1453. In addition he prophesied that Naples would also fall, as it did in the year 1480. Likewise, he predicted that the Christians would recapture their land from the infidels, which they did the following year.
Having heard of the many marvels associated with Francis of Paolo, a messenger of Pope Paul II visited the saint and learned from firsthand experience as well as from many who were intimates of the man of his holiness. The chamberlain of the Pope was greeted by Francis who honored the chamberlain’s 30 years of being a priest, which no one had told Francis.
Their conversation extended into the night as the chamberlain recognized the eloquence of Francis, being a man of similar gifts. Even though he censured Francis for his austere rule, he relented when Francis picked a coal from the fire, held it for some time and remarked, “All creatures obey those who serve God with a perfect heart.” The man returned to the Pope and reported the sanctity of Francis was greater than rumored.
Francis’ reputation for miracles led to a woman begging his intercession for her deceased son. The son was brought back to life and subsequently entered his order, becoming a holy man himself.
Changing The King’s Heart
Even the cantankerous King Louis XI of France demanded that Francis come to him, and cure him, which Francis refused to do since he sought the cure for purely selfish and worldly motives. Louis prevailed upon the king of Naples and finally the Pope, whom Francis obeyed as his superior.
The saint arrived in France and on his way to King Louis, he cured many of the plague but when he met the king he explained that all men have their time set by God. Although he did not render a physical cure, he did change the king’s heart, with the king resigned to his death, dying peacefully in the arms of St. Francis in 1483. His son was so moved by the change wrought by Francis that he built many monasteries for him both in France and in Italy.
On Palm Sunday in 1508, after a two-year illness, Francis died on April 2, urging his confreres to greater love of God. His feast day is celebrated on April 2.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)