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October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, who was sainted just two years after his death, on July 16, 1228, by his former protector, Pope Gregory IX.
Hagiographers will be challenged to paint a full picture of St. Francis, his representing so many things to so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Standard texts record that St. Francis was born in 1182 in the Italian town of Assisi. He enjoyed a carefree youth but renounced his paternal wealth and committed himself to God after traumatic experiences in battle. He founded a rule of brothers, nuns and a society of laypeople that survives to this day. He died in 1226.
Perhaps in between these lines, some semblance of the beloved man and saint can be found.
Once when St. Francis was praying — alone — in front of a crucifix in an abandoned chapel of San Damiano, located down the hill from Assisi, he heard words of Christ coming from the cross: "Francis, repair my house, which is falling into ruin."
Saint Francis took it upon himself to begin repairing chapel of San Damiano but realized later that it was a much bigger house — the Catholic Church itself — that Christ was asking him to rebuild. Those words would result in three orders of Franciscans, including the Poor Clares that St. Francis began with St. Clare, that bear testimony to their longevity.
Francis also once beheld a vision of a seraph, after which there appeared on his body the visible marks of the five wounds of the crucified which, says an early writer, "had long since been impressed upon his heart."
Compliments of Br. Leo, a disciple, secretary and confessor to St. Francis, who was with St. Francis when he received the stigmata, an extant note attests to the saint's stigmata, preserved at Assisi, as an account of the miracle.
Brother Leo describes the saint's right side as bearing on open wound which looked as if made by a lance, while through his hands and feet were black nails of flesh, the points of which were bent backward.
After he received the stigmata, Francis suffered increasing pains throughout his frail body, already broken by his continual fasting and self-denial.
The origin of the nativity creche is credited to St. Francis. In his book The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure writes that when St. Francis was visiting the small town of Greccio to celebrate Christmas, it became apparent that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for midnight Mass.
So St. Francis found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar for Mass. Saint Francis prepared a manger, brought hay, an ox and an ass to the niche.
According to St. Bonaventure, St. Francis "preached to the people around the nativity of the poor king; and being unable to utter His name for tenderness of his love he called Him the 'Babe of Bethlehem.'"
Saint Francis is also known for his love of animals — and the blessing of the animals is carried out in many parishes around the world on St. Francis' feast day.
The Flowers of St. Francis, a 14th-century collection of stories about St. Francis and his companions, records St. Francis' love of animals: "Of the birds in the woods, the sheep in the fields, the ass on which he rode, the bees, the hares, the rabbits, he always spoke of his 'brothers' and 'sisters.'"
"During his visit to a town called Gubbio, St. Francis scolded a wolf for killing the townspeople's sheep," according to the collection.
"The whole town is complaining about you," he says to the wolf, adding:
But I want to make peace between you and the people. And so I promise that I will have food given to you regularly, Brother Wolf, by the people of this town so that you will no longer suffer hunger. And I want you, Brother Wolf, to promise that you will never harm any human person or animal.
Francis asked townspeople if they will promise to provide food for the wolf regularly.
"Then the wolf, lifting his right paw, placed it in the hand of Saint Francis," a sign that he would no longer inflict harm upon the people or animals of Gubbio.
Saint Francis didn't love nature apart from God — he loved God through nature.
In imitation of Jesus, St. Francis had bread brought to him and had it broken.
This he distributed among those present, blessing Bernard of Quintaville, his first companion; Elias, his vicar; and all the others in order.
"I have done my part," he said next, "may Christ teach you to do yours."
Then Francis removed his habit and lay down on the ground, covered with a borrowed cloth, keeping faith with his Lady Poverty to his earthly end.
He asked to have read to him the Passion according to St. John's Gospel; then he recited psalm 142 which includes:
I stretched forth my hands to thee: my soul is as earth without water unto thee. Hear me speedily, O Lord: my spirit hath fainted away. Turn not away thy face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit. Cause me to hear thy mercy in the morning; for in thee have I hoped.
Franciscans continue to pay homage to St. Francis' passing in a vigil service called Transitus.
Saint Francis' life defies encapsulation — so many roles he embodied in his 45-year life. Although he was noted for generosity to the weaknesses of others, he was unsparing towards himself being compelled to beg pardon of "Brother Ass," the name he gave his body, for having treated it so harshly.
Saint Francis was a composer, spouse of Lady Poverty, dreamer, an ascetic, mystic, friend to lepers, founder of religious orders, traveler, protector of animals, cherisher of "the pleasant sounds his dear land," writer, an ordained deacon, miracle worker and preacher of joyful love.
Reciting the Litany of St. Francis Our Seraphic Patriarch online reveals many more titles attributed to St. Francis.