One of the gifts of going on a pilgrimage is that you never know what will move you spiritually. You can anticipate significant sites being meaningful and memorable, but others impact you in surprising ways. The tomb of St Francis in the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy was one such site on my pilgrimage to Israel and Italy last October.
Assisi is a quaint little town with winding streets dotted with shops and restaurants. It’s an area I’d love to return to. Our pilgrimage brought us to the Basilica of Saint Francis where we attended mass in a rustic Franciscan chapel. We then went down to view the tombs of Saint Clare and Saint Francis.
Photos were not allowed near the unpretentious stone tombs, but at Saint Francis’ crypt I was moved more by what I felt than what I saw. A sensation of warmth, peace, and joy engulfed me. Even the memory of the shrine brings those feelings back to me.
Saint Francis was born in the Italian region of Umbria in 1181 or 1182 to a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro di Bernadone, and Lady Pica, who belonged to a noble family. He was baptized Giovanni and renamed Francesco by his father. Legend says that he was born in a stable and named Francesco because of his fondness of France. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, neither of these statements are likely as the family had wealth and the name Francesco was given to him in infancy.
Francis wasn’t fond of school, nor had he interest in his father’s business. However, he was charismatic, witty, and courteous. He was fun loving and lived extravagantly in his youth but well-liked and sympathized with the poor. At around twenty years of age, he joined townsmen to fight the Perugians and was taken prisoner, being held captive for more than a year.
In 1205, as a knight of Assisi, he decided to join the military. Two dreams encouraged him to change his mind. The next few years, Francis’ thoughts turned increasingly toward serving the poor, solitude, and prayer. While crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis encountered a leper. At first, he was repulsed. He then dismounted and embraced the man giving him all the money he had with him.
He made a pilgrimage to Rome and stopped at the tomb of Saint Peter. Once again, he emptied his purse. He then exchanged clothes with another man in rags and fasted among the beggars at the door of the basilica.
While praying before an ancient crucifix in the run-down chapel of Saint Damian, he heard a voice that said, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Taking the message literally, he went to his father’s shop and stole drapery selling both the fabric and his horse for money to physically restore the chapel. The priest officiating over the church refused Francis’ offering but Francis flung it at him.
Francis’ father was furious with his son’s actions. Fearful of his father’s wrath, Francis hid away in a cave near Saint Damian’s for a month. He returned to Assisi emaciated and filthy prompting townspeople to think he was crazy. They mocked him and threw mud and stones at him. Embarrassed, his father dragged Francis home, beat, bound, and locked him in a closet. His mother freed him, but his father brought him before the city consul and renounced his inheritance.
Francis surrendered all his possessions and wandered into the hills behind Assisi. He begged for stones to restore Saint Damian Chapel as well as the chapels of Saint Peter and Saint Mary of the Angels. He nursed the shunned lepers and donned a woolen tunic, the dress worn by the poorest peasants, and tied it with a knotted rope. He professed penance, love, and peace and preached the Gospels by not only words but also example.
Some were confounded by his behavior while others drew to him. Members of Francis’ order owned nothing, lived in small huts, and earned money to serve the poor by working in fields and begging. Francis usually preached out of doors, in the market-places, from church steps, and beyond the walls of castle court-yards.
His charismatic style of preaching drew crowds that listened intently, sang, and brought their sick to him for healing. He was so powerful that on one occasion, an entire congregation asked to join his order. He also assisted Saint Clare in establishing what is now known as the Poor Clares.
Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX, 16 July, 1228. Many miracles are recorded to have taken place at his tomb.
Saint Francis lived a radical life few emulate to that extent, but he continues to offer an example of following the teachings of Jesus through service, charity, and peace that we can do our best to strive towards.