As has been noted in previous editions of this column, each work of art in our lovely church has a story.
Each of the windows along the sides of the building is dedicated to an important person of the Catholic faith.
After Jesus, the holy family and apostles, there probably is no saint more revered than Giovanni di Bernardone.
“Who is he?” you ask. Hey, he’s right up there on the left side of the church, just before the grand piano. You probably don’t recognize him by his real name, but you certainly know him as St. Francis of Assisi.
The son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Pietro, and a French woman named Pica, Francis got his nickname, Francesco, from his dad, some say because of his mom’s nationality or his father’s success in trade there (actually, Francis was born while his father was in France), others say because he could speak and sing in French.
He enjoyed every advantage that the son of a wealthy man could in those days (he was born in 1181 or 1182). You might even say he was a medieval “bad boy.” He liked hanging out with his rowdy friends, carousing and fancy clothes and followed the troubadours (kind of the rock stars of his era). He even fought in the skirmishes between Assisi and Perugia across the valley wearing the finest armor the Bernardone money could buy.
Unfortunately, clothes may make the man but they don’t necessarily make a good soldier, and Francis was captured and imprisoned in a Perugino dungeon where he languished and became ill. It is said that it was during this period is when the young Francesco had his first religious revelation.
In any case, when he was released he came back a changed man. He began to question the relevance of worldly possessions and his relationship to the poor and destitute. He was scolded by his father after one day after work he chased down a beggar and offered him all the money in his pockets.
Once again Francesco decided he would try a military career, and again he had another revelation in a dream where he saw a huge castle hall bedecked with shields bearing a cross. A voice said to him that “these are for you and your men.” The young soldier first took that to mean that he would become a great knight, but a second illness made him turn back to Assisi.
This time, Francesco started to get on his friends’ nerves. He became distant, and when asked if he was thinking about some girl he planned to marry, he said he was about to marry someone of unsurpassed beauty. His friends thought he was referring to some local bombshell, but Francis was referring to “Lady Poverty.”
Pietro lost his patience with his crazy son when one day he sold a goodly amount of inventory and a donkey that carried it for cash to rebuild the dilapidated church of San Damiano. (Francis believed he had heard the voice of God to “rebuild” His church). Pietro brought his son before the bishop and swore he would disinherit him, to which Francesco replied that up to that time Pietro had been his “earthly father” and he now would only belong to his “Heavenly Father,” and in front of the bishop he gave him everything he owned, including the clothes off his back.
Mamma mia! Che vergogna! (My goodness! What an embarrassment!)
So, Francis began his life of poverty begging for materials to rebuild San Damiano helping the destitute and caring for the lepers. He saw the beauty in the world around him as a manifestation of the glory of God. It really was a revolutionary perspective in a world that conceived of a wrathful deity who punished severely.
He began to preach locally and he soon had quite a following. Since he had no “real” permission to preach (he never became a priest), in 1209 he and his 11 closest followers went to Rome to ask the pope to recognize the new order of friars. After several days the pope agreed to give his “informal” blessings until such time that the group grew in number to merit recognition.
Francis made trips throughout central Italy and even abroad to spread his teaching. He even traveled to Egypt in attempt to convert the Sultan. Although he may not have achieved that, he was able to approach the leader and was allowed to leave unharmed even though there was a war going on between the Christians and Muslims. One story says that the Sultan did make a death-bed conversion after all.
St. Francis is one of the patron saints of Italy (the other is St. Catherine of Siena). He is one of the earliest writers in the Italian vernacular. His “Canticle of Creation” still is sung today.
He also is the patron saint also of animals and of the environment. There are stories of how he preached to his “brothers,” the birds, and how he negotiated a truce between a wolf that was ravaging the town of Gubbio and its citizens. In his canticle he praises the sun, the moon, water, wind, fire and even death as gifts from God.
Laudato sii, mio Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, dalla quale nullo omo vivente può scampare; guai a quelli che morranno nei pecati mortali! Beati quelli che si troveranno nelle tue santissime voluntati, ché la morte seconda non farà loro male.
(Praised are you my Lord, for our sister corporal death, from which no man can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are those who find themselves in Your holy will, for the second death (to the soul) will not harm them.)
His revolutionary teachings, his respect for nature, his care for the less fortunate, his efforts to rebuild dilapidated churches, his rejection of worldly goods and his modeling of his own life after that of Christ had a profound influence on our faith.
In effect, he is responsible for not just rebuilding “a” church, but THE Church. And so he goes down in history as one of our greatest saints.