October 4 is a widely observed Catholic holiday that celebrates the life, generosity, and kindness of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM), or the Franciscans.
St. Francis was born Giovanni Bernardone in Italy in 1181 to a life of wealth and luxury. Francis was renamed “Francesco,” which means “Frenchman.” Pietro, his father, wished for a son who was infatuated with France, and who would eventually become a cloth merchant and take over his business. The last thing Pietro wanted was a man of God. Attempting to fulfill his father’s wishes, Francis tried to win renown on the battlefield, fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia in 1201. Following the battle, he was captured and imprisoned for a year before being ransomed. During this time, he received visions from Christ. After his release, the voice of God directed him to abandon his affluent life, and Francis reformed his ways into those of poverty and faith.
Although St. Francis is often associated with poverty, he wrote little about it. However, it is said that he cared for lepers and prayed in abandoned chapels. During a legal case which his father had brought against him, Francis publicly renounced both his father and his inheritance, leaving behind even the clothes that he was wearing and choosing to live as a beggar.
On February 24, 1209, he heard a sermon about Matthew 10:5-10, where Christ tells the apostles to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven without acquiring money, or bringing with them any bag, or sandals, or second cloak, or a staff. Francis resolved to live in just such a way, tending to the needy around Assisi without recompense. By the end of the year, he had acquired eleven followers. He led these followers to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to form a new Order. The Pope tonsured the first twelve Franciscans, but told Francis that his request would be approved only if his group continued to gain members. As Francis attracted more people to his way of life, the Pope approved the founding of the Order of the Friars Minor on April 10, 1210. Francis chose to remain unordained, and the name “Friars Minor” refers to this early practice among Franciscans to remain tonsured friars throughout their life.
At some point, Francis developed a special concern for nature, the environment, and animals. St. Francis’ last years were visited by illness, including the first recorded stigmata in Christian history. Stigmata refers to bodily marks or sores in locations that correspond with Christ’s crucifixion, including wounds in the hands, wrists, and feet. On September 17, the faithful observe a secondary feast in honor of the Stigmata of St. Francis.
He died in Portiuncula, Italy, on October 4, 1226, and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1228.
Though remembered for his care towards the poor and ill (a vocation exemplified by his willingness to minister to lepers), his love of animals is also remembered and celebrated with the blessing of pets. These are mostly exclusive to the Catholic Church, but are also observed in some Anglican churches. Animal blessings may involve a verbal prayer and holy water, and they may occur indoors or outdoors.
St. Francis understood the importance of living a life like Christ’s, especially during challenging times. St. Francis once explained his way of life to his friend, who saw himself as miserable, by saying, “The sadness of not being perfect is a feeling that is much too human… Focus your vision outside of yourself, on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him… Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain they are able to abide in His peace.” May we grow to resemble St. Francis in our daily lives.