“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
–St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most famous Christian of the Second Millennium of the Church. He was born Giovanni Pietro di Bernadone (nicknamed Francesco) in the Umbrian town of Assisi in 1184. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and had plans for Francesco to inherit the family business of dealing in fine imported and domestic cloth in Central Italy.
One day as young Francesco was traveling along a mountain road he encountered a leper by the side of the road. Moved with compassion and impressed by his understanding of Matthew 25 (when you treat the poor well you are treating Christ well), Francis showed compassion for the leper on the road. After his brief encounter with the leper, he pressed on with his journey. Moments later as Francis turned around for a last look at the poor unfortunate by the road, he noticed that the leper had disappeared. It was in this moment that Francis was convinced that the leper he had encountered was none other than the Risen Christ.
Francis was profoundly moved. Upon returning to Assisi, he promptly marched up to his father in the town square, removed all his clothing, laid his possessions and his inheritance at his father’s feat and announced his intention to follow God by imitating Jesus and taking Christ at his words to “sell everything and give the money to the poor.” In fact, Francis had done just that with the valuable shipment of cloth he was transporting to Assisi when he had his encounter on the road.
Francis and a young girl of Assisi, Clare (also from a prominent family) soon formed a formidable team to help reconnect the people and the Church with the core teaching of Jesus. The Church in the early 13th century was suffering from an over abundance of prosperity and was, as some claimed, at risk of losing its identity with regard to how it was called to serve the poor and be a channel of God’s peace in the world.
Not long after the first followers of Francis and Clare established a house of dedicated religious on the oustkirts of Assisi, Francis had another experience in his ongoing conversion. At the crumbling chapel of San Damiano outside of town in 1205 Francis experienced the following;
One day out in the countryside to meditate. Finding himself near San Damiano, which threatened ruin, old as it was, driven by the impulse of the Holy Spirit, he entered to pray. Kneeling in prayer before the image of the Crucifix, he was invaded with a great spiritual consolation and, as he affixed his tearful eyes on the cross of the Lord, with the ears of his body he heard a voice descend to him from the cross and say three times Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruins!. On hearing that voice, Francis remained astonished and trembling, being in the church alone and, perceiving in his heart the power of divine language, felt kidnapped of his senses. Finally returning to his senses, he girded himself to obey, concentrated everything on the mission to repair the church of walls, although the divine word was referring principally to the Church which Christ purchased by his blood, as the Holy Spirit had made him understand and how he later revealed to his fellow monks.–Leggenda Maggiore di San Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, Translation by Simpliciano Olgiati, and notes by Feliciano Olgiati, in a website of Le Fonti Francescana of the Frati Minori dell’Umbria, Chapter 2, 1038.
Francis’s call to rebuild the church around the core teachings of Jesus and his deep connection to animals, plants, geography and the natural world are timely reminders for today’s Christians and the Church as the Body of Christ in the world to live into the quote which heads this entry. Should we face each day with this kind of approach, we can at our end of our days on this earth, pass the torch to the Christians and the Church of that day by repeating what were purported to be Francis’s dying words on this day in 1226;
“I have done what was mine to do. Now go and do what is yours to do.”–St. Francis 10/3/1226
Francis praying at San Damiano in 1205. The very cross he depicted in this fresco hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi today.