El Poverello, the Little, Poor Man of Assisi

Next Thursday is the Feast of St. Francis.  To celebrate, I thought that this morning we could look at some events in his life and how it might tie into our lives today. [The photos illustrating this homily were taken earlier this year on my pilgrimage to Assisi,]

Francis’ Early Life

View from Assisi

In 1182, Francesco entered this life in the Umbrian town of Assisi, a walled independent commune situated on a spur at an elevation of 1,300 feet overlooking the valleys of two rivers. The hilly town has narrow, winding streets and is surrounded by medieval walls.


The Font where Francis and Claire were baptized

Francis was not brought up to be particularly holy. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a merchant. In fact, when he came home from a long business trip and found that his wife had named the baby after John the Baptist, he renamed him Francesco (Frenchman) after his beloved France. He didn’t want his son to be a churchman! As a child, Francis worshipped in the Church of St George which is now a part of the Basilica of St Claire. The font where both he and St Clair were baptized was moved to the Cathedral of St Ruffino.

As he became an adult, Francis was the leader of a group of young people who enjoyed wild parties, “addicted to evil and accustomed to vice” according to a contemporary biographer, Thomas of Celano who knew him well. He was good at business but wanted to be a nobleman, a knight. So he joined the army when Assisi declared war on the nearby city of Pelugia. Francis became a prisoner of war, held in for a year a dungeon waiting to be ransomed. He went back to his old life of business and partying, but still craved glory. His next chance for fame and fortune came with the fourth crusade, and off went the 25 year old Francis  in a rich cloak and gold trimmed armour on a new horse, saying he’d come back a prince.

God Intervenes

a copy of the San Damiano Crucifix

But God had other ideas. Just one day out of Assisi, God spoke to him in a dream, saying he had it all wrong and to go home. Which he did. Can you imagine how the townspeople would have derided him and called him a coward?  He started spending more time in prayer, while still working in his Father’s shop. It was in the ancient run down church of St Damiano on the hills outside Assisi that his life changed again. He was meditating in front of an icon of the crucifix, when he heard speak to him: from the crucifix:  “Francis, repair my church”,

Assuming this was church with a small c and referred to the building,, he took fabric from his father’s store and sold it to buy building materials to repair the church. His father accuse him of theft and took him before the Bishop for judgement. The Bishop told Francis to return the money and that God would provide. Francis not only gave his father the money, he took off all his clothes, also provided by his father, and gave those back. Wearing nothing but a hair shirt, he announced that “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father” and set off into the freezing woods, joyfully singing. This was a turning point in his life. From then on, he had nothing, but he had everything. Begging for stones, he carried on what he believed was his calling, to rebuild the church of San Damiano with his own hands.

The Franciscan Order

He started preaching and soon had a following of people who wanted to follow his simple life, living in the open, begging for food and loving God. This was the start of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. Realising that, with the growth of followers he needed to provide them with some direction for the new life, he opened his Bible in three places and read how Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to see everything and give to the poor, how he told his disciples to take nothing on their journey, and his command to take up one’s cross daily. Here is our rule, he said!

It would take too long to follow the life of St Francis in detail, so I’m just going to pick out a few key areas

Franciscan Alternative Orthodoxy

One of the things that drew people to Francis was that he offered an alternative to the established Catholic Church, which at that time had become fraught by scandals, greed and heresies.

The large, ornate Basilica of St Francis, built shortly after his death, is typical of churches of that time

His life of poverty and simplicity was the antidote many needed. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on the church – he eventually realized that his calling was to reform the capital C Church, which he did by calling people back to the Gospel as demonstrated by Jesus. He was grounded in the Church, believing the essential doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation etc. His genius, or his gift from God, was sorting out what was perennial wisdom from what was merely cultural (and sometimes downright destructive).

An Alternative Orthodoxy

Rather than rejecting traditional Christian images, history or culture, Francis, and his later followers, chose to focus on what they found deep and life giving. This is recognized by the Catholic Church as an “alternative orthodoxy”. It has much in common with Celtic spirituality. They see God in his first “Bible”, his creation; they understand Christ’s death, not as a vengeful God sending Jesus to be punished as a response to Adam sinning and tainting all of us (substitutionary atonement) but as a loving God’s initial plan from before creation to show us how much he loves us. The Incarnation was a very important part of Francis faith; he saw in Christ the mystical union of the physical and spiritual worlds. When our outer world and our inner world come together, we are whole; we are holy. Part of the genius of Francis is that he was at home in both worlds at the same time and thus made them, in his life, into one world. He lived the gospel in radical simplicity. 

Talking of the incarnation, t’s interesting that he was the first to use a nativity scene (with live animals and a real baby).  To Francis, this represented the hardships Jesus went through in his earthly life. There is now a beautiful church in Greccio, Italy where Francis assembled this first Nativity scene during a Christmas Mass which was held in a cave, so different from the church there now.  The church at Greccio is filled with nativity scenes of different types – statures, pictures, carvings, stained glass, etc.

Francis and the Church

Francis’ Robe

Francis relations with the Church were not limited to differences in lifestyle and alternative theology. The Catholic elite saw Francis as a threat to the infrastructure — for he was not about power, he was about responsibility. Many people of Assisi had left the traditional church to follow the poor out-of-towner, known as El Poverello, the poor little man. The elite was losing money. They went as far as to burn down his church outside Assisi. Summoned by Pope Innocent III, Francis and his companions walked over 100 miles through rocky hilly country to reach Rome.  Everyone expected Francis to get firmly told off by the Pope. But tradition has it that the Pope was so moved by Francis humility and charity,  that he abandoned his golden throne, stepped down to the “audience hall”, fell to his knees, and in an act  of complete humility, kissed the feet of barefooted  Francis.

Francis’ relevance to today

What did the Pope see in Francis? What do we see in Francis? If we look beyond the sentimental pictures of Francis preaching to the birds, we see a man living his faith as he saw Jesus live, in poverty, in simplicity and in joy.  We see a man (and in his companion Claire of Assisi, a woman) born into the world at a time when Western civilization began to move into intellectualism, into consumerism as sufficient for human meaning, and also into a world of perpetual war. The Church was materialistic and power hungry; Italy was in a state of permanent conflict between city states; society was moving into consumerism.

During the 13th century, the modern commercial infrastructure developed in the Italian City states, with double-entry bookkeeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Sounds familiar?  Francis himself had been a soldier, and sold his trader father’s cloth. He came from the very world he was then able to critique, but he offered a positive alternative to these systems, right at the beginning of their now-eight centuries of world dominance. He moved from the common economy of merit to the scary and wondrous economy of grace, where God does not do any counting, but only gives.

Exactly when we began to centralize and organize everything at high levels of control and fashion, Francis, like a divine trickster, said, “Who cares!” Right when Roman Catholicism under Pope Innocent III reached the absolute height of papal and worldly power, he said in effect, “There’s another, better way!” Exactly when our society began a style of production and consumption that would eventually ravage planet earth, he decided to love the earth and live simply and barefoot upon it. He epitomized the saying “You do not think yourself into a new way of living; you live yourself into a new way of thinking.”

The Way of Simplicity

Francis lived a life of simplicity and service – that’s one very good way to start. I’m not suggesting any of us should give away even our clothes and set out barefoot and clothed only in rags – although if that is your calling go for it! But we can decide to live simply, not buying or hording more than we need, sharing what we have with those who have less, giving of our time and abilities to others. Franciscan alternative orthodoxy asks us to let go, to recognize that there is enough to go around and meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. Having more of anything or more frenetic doing will not fill up our longing and restlessness. Francis knew that climbing ladders to nowhere would never make us happy nor create peace and justice on this earth. Too many have to stay at the bottom of the ladder so we can be at the top.  So he embraced simplicity, which he called poverty. Simplicity levels the playing field so that there is enough for everyone – a worthy aim for anyone who seeks to follow Christ. So let’s stop trying to think our way to happiness, but let love show us the way to live into a new way of thinking, and Francis way of simplicity is an excellent way to start.