Monday, October 4, 2021

The Conversion and Vocation of Saint Francis

Today is the celebration of one of the very greatest of all the Church's saints: Francis of Assisi. 

Some years ago (April 2015), I wrote in my monthly column in Magnificat the story of how this "rich young man" began to follow Jesus on a path that would radically change his life and all of human history. There are many well-known parts of the famous story of Saint Francis's conversion and renunciation of his wealth, especially the dramatic moment when he stripped himself, returned his clothes to his father, and knelt before the bishop. The cloak which the bishop used to cover Francis became the prototype for the Franciscan religious habit. What we don't often hear about, however, is the importance of the mentoring relationship of Bishop Guido of Assisi to this extraordinary young man entrusted to his care: how he humbly aided, encouraged, and supported the vocation of Saint Francis.

Here is the text of my article on the conversion story of Francesco Bernardone, the Umbrian merchant who left everything for Christ, only to find imperishable riches and to give a witness that enlightens us even to this day:
The outlines of St. Francis’s conversion from a rich young man and would-be knight to a great saint are well known. We recall his lavish and frivolous youth, his military misadventures, and his return to Assisi in 1205 after imprisonment, illness, and a mysterious experience that drew him to a greater service. 
In these days, at the dawn of one of the greatest vocations in all history, God’s grace worked powerfully but mysteriously to lead the searching young Francis to the awakening of religious devotion. Francis went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and then returned not to his former life of comfort and pleasure, but to a time of solitude in the forests and the mountains outside the city, which led him in the end to the chapel and the now famous cross of San Damiano, where he heard the words of Jesus, to “rebuild My church.” 
Christian and non-Christian interpretations of St. Francis often depict him as a man who left worldly life and its distractions so as to commune in a kind of isolation with God (or “nature”). Historians sometimes portray Francis as a spiritual maverick who transcended all institutions including the Church and her human ministers. But the life of St. Francis was not like the wandering of medieval heretical sectarians or today’s uncommitted spiritualists. 
Rather, St. Francis was always entirely attached to the Catholic faith and obedience to the Church. In the year 1205, when Francis returned from Rome searching for God’s will, he found a person, a friend, who remained a crucial figure in the development of his vocation, a figure whose significance is seldom given its due weight: the bishop of Assisi. 
Bishop Guido is known to history as the man who covered the naked Francis with his episcopal cloak after the young man publicly renounced his inheritance and all his property by returning even his clothes to his outraged father. But Francis and the bishop already knew one another by that time. 
It was Bishop Guido who probably first advised Francis to seek solitude, not to wander but to pray, following the tradition of the desert fathers. After Francis heard Jesus in a vision from the cross of San Damiano, he probably met again with the bishop. By the time his father came with his lawsuit, Francis appealed to the Church’s protection and the bishop’s judgment. Guido knew well already the young man who shocked so many others by embracing total poverty, and who would later draw them to follow his sanctity. 
Some accounts say that Francis, after giving back his clothes to his father, said that henceforth he would call only God his Father. But Francis also knew that God had become man, and that God’s fatherhood would draw close to him through the Church, concretely, through Bishop Guido. The bishop became Francis’s “spiritual father,” advisor, and sponsor as he embraced poverty and gathered his first followers. Guido did not try to manipulate Francis. He supported him as the grace of this new way of life unfolded. He was the ecclesiastical authority, but also a true friend. And it was bishop Guido, in Rome, who first sponsored the ragtag “lesser brothers” to a cardinal of the papal court, where Innocent III met the man sent by God “to rebuild My Church.”