Among children, especially primary school children, Saint Francis of Assisi is regarded as one of the favourites. At my own school, one of our houses was dedicated to him and so he was looked upon for guidance and his feast day was superbly celebrated. Even now as a teacher at a Catholic primary school, I encourage the children to better understand the sacrifice Francis made and his dedication to service. One difficulty with children is to move past his title of ‘patron of animal’, and look more closely at his love for people.
Francis was born in 1181 into a family of Italian cloth merchants and enjoyed a rich and easy life due to his father’s wealth. Francis grew to be a much loved man and people cared for him, even if he did not share the same regards for others. In his youth, Francis spent his nights at wild parties, wore the finest of clothes and did not lead a simple and pure life; Francis always felt he was meant for more. God appeared to Francis in a dream which prompted his conversion as he spent more time in prayer, acknowledged his sins and felt truly overwhelmed by God’s joy. His attitude to the poor also changed as he kissed the hand of a leper while riding out in the countryside. When this sign of peace was returned to Francis he felt his relationship with God restored. Christ spoke to Francis in the church of San Damiano, instructing him to “repair my Church”. In response to this, Francis took the fabric from his father’s shop and sold it to repair the ancient church building. His father was so upset with him that he denounced him as his heir and called him a thief. Francis returned all of the money and stripped away his fine clothes to live a more simple life. Francis spent the rest of his life trying to react to Christ’s call to repair the Church my preaching that we should return to God through obedience to the Church. Francis attracted a following who all wanted to partake in this calling for a simple yet fulfilled life and so Francis acknowledged that we should lead a life in the service of others if we were to follow in the examples and likeness of Christ.
Even Pope Francis picks up on Francis’ real impact, stating that he chose to be named after the Italian saint;
“the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation, the same created world with which we don’t have such a good relationship”.
Pope Francis is obviously responding to Christ’s direction to “repair my Church” by walking in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi as he best serves the Church with such a demand for guidance for many Catholics around the world.
It is this message of service that should define Saint Francis of Assisi before all else. Francis believed that being free from possessions and material concerns allowed him to spend more like in prayer and helping those who were truly in need of his assistance. While this idea of ‘radical poverty’ is not relevant for children, I do believe that they can all learn something from the example of Francis. Children are far more reflective than we give them credit for and we should be encouraging them to consider how they may answer the call from Christ, using Francis’ example. It may be giving some of their pocket money to CAFOD to help families around the world, it could be to make a thoughtful card for someone who is ill or simply thinking about what they actually need sometimes instead of demanding that they get want they want immediately. All of these things should be carried out with the same love in our hearts that Francis felt when kissing the hand of that leper 800 years ago; knowing that it is all done for the glory and goodness of God.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is is dying that we are born to eternal life.