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Saint Francis of Assisi:

Radical Revolutionary?


Alice C. Bateman

While a Brother, and as head of the Order established by St. Francis, I, Elias of Cortona, came to know this dynamic yet gentle man quite intimately. Some of his ideas, and changes brought about by these ideas, may even be thought radical, but I always think of him primarily as a sweet and gentle saint.

However, people who consider Francis a radical may have a point, because, as clearly as I can define a ‘radical’, it is one who causes a complete change through violent or extraordinary means. Francis used the immense powers of love to achieve his goal, and love could be regarded as an extraordinary way of instigating and carrying through a revolution.

After a period of wealth and debauchery, Francis gave himself completely into the hands of God and Our Lady Poverty. In our times, wealth is considered important, even by some of the members of the Church. Francis’ beliefs were quite contrary to what is now almost a worship of money.

To a future reader, who may not know too much about the miraculous events which seemed to occur whenever Francis was at hand, the following brief biography may help to illustrate why Francis was, in the sense that he was extraordinary, a radical revolutionary. And yet was not, in the usual concept of the phrase.

His early life and his youth are of little relevance, provided one realizes what a complete switch Francis took from the gaiety of his youth to the complete poverty, chastity, and obedience he observed after his conversion. {I am sure there will be many biographers after my time who will give you every detail of Francis’ background that you may seek.}

With the last money Francis ever dealt with {except to throw the money of Bernard to the poor}, he bought stone to rebuild the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Portion, as it is also known. He had been commanded by God to build up His Church, and, in the literal sense, as Francis took it, this meant to build up the little Chapel. The falling walls were strengthened with mortar and bricks, with the loving care of Francis, and with the guidance of God.

The building of chapels was not the only thing that received his loving care and attention. The poor, wretched and hated lepers were greatly loved by Francis, because he saw in them the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus. This love was so intense that he would cleanse the lepers with his own hands, and take them food and dressings for their bleeding sores once or twice a day. Many such lepers ‘live’ in a hospital just outside our town, and the majority of the townspeople find them repulsive and intolerable. In the beginning stages of his work, people regarded Francis as crazy for being, or so they thought, subservient to these unfortunate lepers.

After a while, some people began to realize that the life Francis was leading was the kind of life they wanted to lead. The first of the many disciples to join Francis was his good friend, Bernard. Bernard was also the first to witness Francis in the deep prayer to which we have now all become accustomed. The tremendous love that Francis showed, along with the devoted reverence, and, at times, the fear, during a night of prayer was what really moved Bernard to join in his way of life.

To decide whether Bernard really should join him, Francis, as he did in all things which were important, turned to the Gospel for guidance. The Priest, Father Peter, who read the excerpts which would decide which way Bernard would go, was so overwhelmed by Francis and his ideal that he became the second disciple. Now, it did not take long for others to join the growing numbers of what is now generally known as the Franciscan Order.

The work on the chapel now being finished, Francis began the preaching which was to change the lives of thousands of people. As for myself, I was in an aimless stage of life, travelling through a small village when I first encountered the well-known Francis of Assisi. Although I was quite far off from the spot where he was preaching, I distinctly heard every word he said, for the words seemed to flow from his soul to mine.

There was Francis, in the midst of a large crowd of people, speaking to them in a gentle and tender way, and addressing them as his Brothers and Sisters. I knew then that this was what I wanted, and I was immediately converted to the Franciscan way of life - a life of love for all things, including fire and many other of God’s creatures who are not entirely likable.

My friendship with Francis began right away, and Francis and I returned to the base, which was presently at the Little Portion. Here we had the very least of physical comforts, for Brother Body is, according to the Franciscan way of thinking, just a convenience to get us through life as we know it in this world. In fact, in later life, Francis referred to his body as Brother Ass, when it complained of fatigue or hunger. Franciscan Brothers live on just enough to sustain themselves, and quiet the complaints of the physical nature of man.

Although this may not seem to be the kind of life for a woman, one of Francis’ most ardent admirers, Clare Scifi, joined the Order. Soon after this, her sister and her cousin also joined, which created a need for larger and separate accommodations. This Second Order became the Order of Franciscan Nuns with Clare, who is sure to be canonized after her death for the countless saintly deeds she has performed, as the head of the Order.

Around the time that the Second Order was established, Francis himself was beginning to be considered a saint by the townspeople, not only of Assisi, but of every town he entered. People rushed into the streets to meet him, with flowers and song and rejoicing, as people did when Jesus Himself entered a town.

Now, as Francis preached in a town square, or by the roadside, or as a revered guest in a Church, great numbers of people at once would join Francis, sometimes whole towns at a time.

This made it essential to establish yet another Order, which we call the Third Order, and the members are known as Tertiaries.

Members of this Order are lay people, quite often married, who, of course, live by the Gospel and observe the rule of Poverty and Holy Obedience.

Francis now fully realized just how many people had been providentially put into his care. He considered himself an unworthy person, called himself a worm, and was forever worried about how he could help the poor sinners who needed to be forgiven.

From Pope Honorious, Francis recieved the Portiuncula Indulgence. This came about after one of Francis’ many visions of and words from God. During a wild storm, Francis was praying fervently in the Portiuncula, asking God to forgive man’s sins. Suddenly, amidst thunder and lightning, God, Jesus, and Mary appeared before Francis, and God asked him what he wished Him to do for the poor sinners here on earth.

Always thinking of others’ souls, Francis requested that all who entered that Chapel, after a good confession, would be forgiven their sins. He was granted this by the Heavenly Beings, but now had to bring it before the Pope. The day after he was Chosen Honorius granted this Indulgence also, but modified it so that everyone who visited the Portiuncula on one certain day each year would be absolved of their sins. So Francis was given what he had been praying for, the forgiveness of the sins of mankind.

About this time, Francis began to be worried over changes that were taking place in the Order. I, myself, though I agreed with his early simplicity, felt these changes were necessary, as the Order was becoming very large and needed some organization.

Many scholars were now Brothers, and many of us felt a growing need for some system of education for the less learned Brethren. The Order was now too large for it to live apart from the world, and it must now live in it, or it would lose any effect that it might have on the world. Although Francis felt that this would destroy the effectiveness of the whole original idea behind the Order, he finally accepted these changes. And, even though he knew that I was among those who wanted to change the Order, Francis still treated me as a friend, and I can’t remember him ever saying a harsh word to me in his whole life.

Francis, before he finally accepted the changes in the Order, made several attempts to unite the Brothers. One means of getting back to the early times, or so he thought, was to send the Brothers on missions to other countries. He thought that this would settle down any disputes, for a while, anyway. It was on the way to France, with a stop at Rome, that Francis sought the assistance of Cardinal Ugolino {Hugolin}, and he consented to help Francis in any way he could. Now, because the Order was so large, it became necessary for someone in the established Church to become a sort of ‘protector’. He had hoped to be able to go ahead with his mission to France himself, but Ugolino made Francis stay at home.

Unfortunately, those missions were not successful, and this was mainly because we Brethren had no papers {letters of recommendation} to prove that we were qualified to preach. Now, we who wanted education within the Order had a strong argument. If we had had papers, we would have been twice as effective, if we were effective at all, in those strange lands.

After yet another period of grumbling about a new Rule, Francis stood up and told us how we had been called by God to follow the path of Christ, and this was what we were going to do. Then following this speech, he asked for volunteers for new missions, without letters of recommendation. Hundreds volunteered, I among them. This shows how moving and powerful Francis’ speeches were. Francis himself was going to visit the Egyptians.

It was feared that he would lose his head if he entered the Moors camp, but the Sultan listened to our Little Father, and he spoke so lovingly about Jesus that the Sultan had him stay in the camp for several days. Francis and the others with him then journeyed on to the Holy Land. They brought Francis to me in Acre, as he was now almost blind, and sick. He had attacks of fever and could no longer stand or kneel. We inhabited an abandoned house {although Francis slept in a shed} and I cared for him the best way I could.

While here, a young Brother from Assisi came to us and told us how things were there. The Ministers who Francis had appointed were making strict rules for the Brothers to follow, and were imposing a strict monastic life on them. All this, as Francis said, was not according to the Gospel. {This was the first and only time I ever saw Francis angry.}

There were many other changes imposed on the Order, and, although I agreed with some of them because of their practicality, I did not like to see what news of them did to Francis, especially when he was so sick and weak. He broke down completely under the strain of what he had just heard, and fell into my arms weeping. He felt he had been abandoned by everyone, even the Pope and Cardinal Ugolino.

After returning to Rome, Francis spoke with Ugolino, who asked him to write a new Rule which Ugolino thought would save the Order and the Church. He consented to write the new Rule, because he had been convinced it was for the good of the Brothers, and then he resigned and appointed Peter Cathanii as head of the Order in his place. In the Spring, Francis, with heavy heart, delivered a draft of the new Rule to Cardinal Ugolino.

By summer, Peter had died, and I was made head of the Order. I knew how much the simplicity, poverty and humility of the Order meant to Francis, and I was troubled at the number of changes that were sought. But Francis seemed to have lost the will to fight against these things, and when I wrote to him about the guilt of so many of the Brothers, he just wrote back that I should accept what was happening.

However, Francis was soon to be compensated for all his sufferings, and he found great joy in his wounds because God had considered him worthy of the suffering and love of Jesus Christ.<9> On Mount Alverna, on Good Friday, Francis received the stigmata from Jesus Himself. As Francis knelt, it seemed as if the heavens opened, and great streams of Light and stars came down. A fiery figure of Christ on the cross flashed from Heaven and rested on a rock before Francis.

"Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from His Wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed Itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of Itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sand down, unconscious, in his blood." *{reference #1}

Near the end of the next winter, Francis again became very sick and half blind. He suffered a severe loss of blood, as his blood was flowing all the time from the stigmata wounds. Against his own will, I commanded him to go to Rieti to the good doctors, for I loved him and did not want him to die. On the way to Rieti, he became so ill that he had to stay at St. Damians with Sister Clare nursing him. It was here that he composed the beautiful "Canticle to the Creatures", which praises God and everything that God created.

He finally reached Rieti at the end of the summer, but all the fine doctors with their cures did not help him, but only made him worse. In the spring, the Cardinal sent him to Siena, where there was a famous eye specialist. This doctor was no help either, and Francis wanted to return to Assisi to die.

I accompanied him on this journey to Assisi, and he held my hand. I wanted to take him to Assisi, so that we could erect a beautiful basilica over his tomb. I did not mention this to Francis, for I knew he would not approve, but it seemed a shame to let such a beautiful and famous man come to his final rest in a small grave with just a cross, as Francis wanted.

Yesterday, when I sent word to Assisi that Francis lay dying, the people came running to see their saint in his last day of life on Earth. Just before he died, Francis looked very joyfully and lovingly at those around him, and wished to be laid naked on the bare ground where he would die peacefully.

We threw ashes over his body as he commanded, and Angelo and Leo once more sang to him the Canticle to the Creatures. Francis became fully awake for the last time, and sang his last hymn in this world. As he died, hundred of larks began to sing, and flew up into the sky as if they were carrying his soul to Heaven.

"Praised be my Lord for our brother fire, through whom Thou givest us light in the darkness; and he is bright and pleasant and strong." This excerpt from the Canticle of the Creatures is only one illustration of his extreme gentleness, his love for all things.

I as sure that no one who knew him would ever consider Francis a radical revolutionary, because he was so sweet and gentle and loving. Most people associate a radical revolutionary with a violent person who leads an army of people against the people who govern them.

However, included in the definition of radical is the word extraordinary, and one can’t deny that Francis changed our world by extraordinary means.

Signed: Elias of God, of Ortona, and of the Order of Franciscan Brethren

Reference 1: Timmermans, F.: Farrar, Staus and Young pg.306

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