Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.

“Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society” are the words of St. Francis of Assisi. I think he is, unarguably, the most universally known and loved of all the Catholic saints. Surprisingly, however, I never was especially attached to him even though I have a fountain with a St. Francis statue in my garden.

St. Jude, St. Therese, St. John Bosco and many other saints, whom I perceived as, more ‘exclusively’ Catholic held my interest and devotion. When I think of it, it was probably because St. Francis, portrayed surrounded by animals or dancing and singing happy songs, seemed to belong to the secular world. He seemed almost ‘disneyesque’. But then I read the quote: “Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.”, and the words spoke strongly to my heart and I felt compelled to find out more about the man who espoused these words. My search revealed St. Francis was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy. His father was a wealthy silk merchant and his mother was descended from a distinguished French family. A happy, carefree youth spent in extravagant living and pleasure seeking ended when Francis went gaily off to war at age twenty. Soon he was taken prisoner and when released went back to his carefree living, for a period during this time he did suffer a serious illness, but then returned to the war a few years later.

Two visions he had of Christ caused a drastic change in his attitude and entire way of living and the rest of his life was spent closely attuned to Christ and valiantly striving to fulfill God’s will. This is where his life, to me, becomes most interesting and I lament all the years of my blissful ignorance making no effort to become acquainted with this awesome saint. He totally embraced poverty, giving up every single material comfort. This greatly angered his father who disinherited him and had nothing more to do with him. The people in his hometown of Assisi considered him ‘a crazy’ and he was mocked and persecuted.

I can draw so many correlations from the time of St. Francis to our world of today. Evidently, then, times were good and many had accumulated wealth and the accouterments that go with it. In our era many of us find ourselves in a consumer oriented environment with most of our efforts geared toward making money to provide, what we consider, ‘must have’ comforts and luxuries. We never hear anyone reminding us of the words of Jesus: “Money is the root of all evil.” or from Mt. 6:34 “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘ What shall we drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ for your Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be given you besides.”

However, the words which most affected Francis and showed him the way of his life were from the gospel of the Mass on the feast of St. Matthias in 1209. “Do not carry any gold, silver or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the trip or an extra shirt or shoes or a walking stick. A worker should be given what he needs.” These words were the instructions Jesus gave His Apostles when He first sent them out to evangelize; and these words touched Francis deep within his heart. He gave away his shoes, staff and girdle and was left with a poor coat which he tied with a rope. (This undyed woolen dress of the shepherds and peasants in those parts became the habit he would give to his friars.) He became a counter-culture revolutionary who began going about preaching and his commitment to simplicity, humbleness, poverty and evangelical freedom soon attracted followers. When there were a dozen, he drew up a short informal rule, consisting chiefly of the gospel counsels of perfection. In not too many more years there were over 5000 members who wanted to live the life he lived. This tells me, though the books I read didn’t say it, that Francis had a very charismatic, winning personality but they do mention that he had a happy spirit and everyone likes to be around a happy person.

Rome approved his order, with poverty the foundation and, something I really like, his order was different from those of other poor Italian preachers of the time due to its respect for and obedience to Church authority and doctrinal orthodoxy.

Reading his life it all seems so easy, like one happening just slid into the next successful event but if you read between the lines you understand that there were long, hard, difficult days and periods of really tough times. The wonder of it all was Francis never lost his upbeat, happy spirit because he always kept his eye on the Lord and what was of real importance.

Toward the end of his life he retired to a small cell in semi seclusion and there on Sept. 14, 1224, he received the miracle of the stigmata. The stigmata is the exact wounds of Christ appearing on a person and Francis is the first recorded incidence of such an occurrence and the most famous example. It is at this time his biographers tell of the great physical suffering he endured, bearing the wounds of Christ, during the two years until his death in 1226. He chose to die as he lived with no creature comforts, lying on the ground, covered with an old habit. He had never been ordained a priest and was still in deacon’s orders.

Dear St. Francis, getting to know you has made me love you, and I am so sorry that I let the popular culture dupe me into regarding you as a trivial lightweight. True, you did leave a tradition of a lot of ‘fun things’ – things no one likes more than I do – popularizing the Christmas Creche/Manger, loving animals and all of nature, composing happy songs and introducing chocolate to the West. But there is so much more of your legacy that I can benefit from – your deep spirituality, showing it is possible to abandon the world and live just for God, your child like disposition and your simplicity, your unconcern with the sophistications of the world.

May I and all those who visit this Web Site follow your example and sanctify ourselves so that we may sanctify society.