stories , podcast , assisi

The Youth of Assisi

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Part 1, The Youth of St Francis

Of all the saints, St. Francis of Assisi stands out for his deep love for animals and nature. His day is celebrated on the 4th of October, and it's a time when people around the world remember his teachings of peace and kindness towards all creatures. He is best known for talking to animals, especially the birds, and seeing God in all forms of creation. He also was the first to set up a nativity creche to celebrate Christmas.

There are numerous delightful stories about Italy’s beloved saint. Ready to immerse yourself in the tales of this gentle saint?  Make yourself comfortable, settle back, and listen on.

In 1181, a boy was born in Assisi, amid the green hills of Umbria in central Italy.  His mother baptised him, Giovanni or John.  At the time, his father, a wealthy silk merchant, was away on business in France.  As soon as he returned, he declared that everyone should know his new son by the name of Francis - presumably because of his esteem for French business and fashion.

By all accounts, Francis was a wild brat in his youth. He loved fancy clothes, partying and leading a hedonistic life with his friends.

But then, out of the blue, he fell ill. His time stuck in bed was a chance to consider his life. When he began his recovery and walked outside, the world looked different.  The fields, trees, and flowers he once loved didn’t seem as beautiful anymore. He realised that he was changing and wanted more from life than just partying and fun.

Soon after, he heard that a nobleman was gathering a band of fighters to plunder a town called Apulia. Francis decided to join him on this adventure, hoping to share in the loot and glory. One night, before he was due to leave, he dreamed that his house was full of weapons, saddles, shields, lances and other warlike objects instead of the usual silks and fine materials.

When he awoke, Francis thought this dream meant he would become a great and famous warrior in Apulia.

One day, while preparing for his journey to Apulia, Francis stumbled upon an old, broken-down chapel in the countryside. He went inside, and as he knelt to pray, he felt a strange peace and warmth.

While he knelt there, lost in thought, he heard an inner voice:

"Francis, do you really want to serve a human master, or would you rather serve the Master of all, the one who loves everyone and everything?"

The voice, the ruined chapel, and the peace all seemed connected. He considered that the weapons of his dream might not be about war in Apulia. Instead, they might indicate a spiritual fight: to restore the crumbling church and to dedicate his life to the service of God.

But during this time, he kept his changed heart a secret.   He began to talk in riddles.  When he spoke to his friends and family of  “hidden treasure”,  he meant Heaven. And when he promised to  ‘marry someone more noble and beautiful than anyone could imagine’,  he meant that he would devote his life to God.

Filled with new energy, he sold his fine possessions in the market of a neighboring town. He even sold his horse!  With the money, he headed back home. On the way, he came across an old, crumbling church dedicated to St. Damian.

Inside the church, he met a humble priest. Francis gave him the money and asked if he could stay at the church. The priest was shocked! He remembered Francis as a fun-loving young man! After some convincing, the priest allowed Francis to stay but didn’t accept the money. Francis left it on a window sill.

When he failed to return home, his father gathered a group of friends and family to search the countryside for his lost son.

Francis heard that they were coming, and he hid in a cave.  He stayed an entire month in this cave, praying and living off a little food from a trusted friend.

Eventually, when ready to face the world, he emerged from the dark hiding place and headed home.

Of course, his appearance had changed quite dramatically.

A simple, coarse tunic replaced his once fine clothes. His hair, once fashionably styled, was now unkempt. His feet were dusty, and he had lost much weight. But as for his eyes  - people could not help noticing a new shine in them.

And when people spoke to him, the change was even more striking!

He chanted praises to God, speaking of love, compassion, and the beauty of simplicity.

Whispers spread around the town. "Is that Francis?" "What happened to him?" "Has he gone mad?"

His father was dismayed at his transformed son. Desperate to reclaim the Francis he once knew, he imprisoned him in a shadowy chamber, intent on binding his spirit with chains. Yet, even in that desolation, Francis's faith remained unwavering.

Soon, during one of his father's business trips, his mother released him from his chains.

Francis returned to his spiritual endeavours with even more fervour and dedication. But when his father discovered him, no longer shackled but instead fervently praying, his fury was like a tempest. He bore into Francis with clenched fists, ready to either reclaim his son or cast him out forever. Yet Francis faced him head-on, fearlessly declaring his unwavering commitment to Christ.

His father demanded:

“Where have you squandered my wealth?"

Francis, with a heavy heart, confessed, "I sold all I had and placed the money on the windowsill of a ruined old church in the countryside."

His father hastened to the church. There, untouched but veiled in a thin layer of dust, lay the money. As he looked upon the silver and gold coins, his fury waned.

Not long after, he took Francis before the Bishop of  Assisi to legally renounce all his possessions and sign them to him.

n the presence of the bishop, Francis tore off all his clothes. He stood there, bared to his soul, before all the bystanders. He did not even keep his drawers!  The bishop, deeply moved by Francis's determination and conviction, wrapped Francis in his mantel, embraced him, and declared:

“Behold he wrestles naked with his naked foe and, having cast off all that is of the world, is mindful of God's righteousness alone!”

Soon after this revealing incident, Francis was wandering through the woods, singing to the tunes of nature. As was his want, he chanted in French, the language of the troubadours.

rien ne reste dans la nuit.

Vivre avec Dieu dans le royaume

est une joie sans fin.

Les eaux dansent et célèbrent

Deep in the forest, a group of robbers approached him. "Who are you?" they demanded.

"I'm a messenger of the great King above!" Francis cheerfully responded.

The robbers laughed scornfully before dragging him to a deep, snowy pit and throwing him into it.

"Stay there, you clownish messenger of God!" They declared!

But Francis didn't stay down. When they had gone, he brushed off the snow and clambered out of the hole.   Then he went around the woods shouting even louder praises for everything in the world.

Consider, O man, how great the excellence in which the Lord has placed you because He has created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His own likeness according to the spirit.1 And all the creatures that are under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you

After a while, he found a monastery where he stayed doing kitchen chores, wearing only an old shirt and hoping for some soup. But none of the monks showed him kindness, and the Prior of the Monastery was too puffed up to give this ragged young man the time of day. So he left the monastery. Finally, he reached the town of Gubbio, where an old friend gave him a simple tunic.

Francis began his ministry in Gubbio, preaching and engaging in acts of charity, helping those in need. As he went about this work, stories of his deeds and words began to spread.

Among those who heard of Francis's growing reputation was the Prior of a particular Monastery. This was the very place where Francis had been given a cold reception.

The Prior, perhaps feeling remorse or perhaps fearing that Francis might say some bad words about him, sought out the young preacher. He came face to face with him and begged his forgiveness, which Francis gladly granted.

No soul was too lowly, outcast or forsaken for Francis. He spent time with those afflicted with leprosy. He selflessly helped them, caring for their wounds, cleaning them, and offering comfort. He recalled how, in the past, just seeing their homes from two miles away would make him cover his nose. Now, guided by God, he mustered the strength to approach a leper and kiss him.

Over the next two years, he dedicated himself to restoring local churches. He preferred to build on the foundations of the old rather than start everything anew.

Francis prayed at the small St. Damian church outside Assisi. During his prayers, he felt God telling him, “Francis, rebuild my church, which you see is falling into ruin.”

Obeying the command, he went around the city, collecting stones to repair St. Damian's chapel. He carried the stones and set them in place, eventually restoring the chapel. Then, he restored other neglected churches nearby. One was the abandoned Porziuncola, a tiny chapel on the plain below Assisi. Francis felt it was blessed with grace and visited by angels. He often said, "Prayers are powerful here.”

You can still visit the chapel housed within the huge basilica, ‘St Mary of the Angels’.

Over time, several men joined Francis. One of his earliest followers was a vastly wealthy man called Bernard. Brother Bernard sold all his belongings and gave the money to the needy. He was also joined by Brother Giles, a man renowned for his simplicity, integrity, and godliness, And Phillip, who, without formal training,  possessed profound wisdom and understanding of the scriptures.

Francis also helped found an order of nuns.

There was a wealthy lady of Assisi, Clare, who wanted to dedicate her life to poverty and Christ.

On the evening of Palm Sunday in 1212, when Clare was 18, she secretly left her family's house at night to meet Francis and his followers at the tiny chapel of the Porziuncula.

At the chapel, Francis cut off Clare's long, golden hair, signifying her rejection of worldly vanity. She then traded her rich gown for a rough habit and veil.

Her name, Clare, which means "bright", was fitting, for she who shone in name shone brighter in deeds and brightest in her unwavering faith.  Francis let her live at St. Damian's chapel, where she founded a religious order.

Her nuns were as pure as a string of pearls.  Every member of her order practised humility, valuing the blessings from Heaven.

St. Francis often met St. Clare in Assisi, giving her spiritual advice. Clare wanted to dine with him.

At last, he agreed to the meal at the Porziuncola.

He set up the meal on the ground, in his usual way. They began to eat, but soon, Francis started speaking about God. Everyone present felt a deep spiritual connection, as if in a trance.

Meanwhile, people from nearby areas saw what looked like a huge fire engulfing the chapel. Rushing to help, they found no fire. Instead, they discovered Francis, Clare, and their friends deep in contemplation. The locals realised it wasn't a physical fire but a divine sign of intense spiritual passion.

Francis sent his closest followers, now numbering eight,   in pairs to different parts of the world to spread peace and the message of repentance.

But soon, Francis missed his companions and prayed for their swift return. Miraculously, they all soon returned and rejoiced in each other's company without any prior arrangement.

More and more people heard about Francis and his followers.  The rich, the poor, the educated, and the unlearned alike were drawn to his message.

Francis wrote a simple rule for his group, based on Bible verses, “to follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.”

They had to decide: Should they live a life of quiet prayer in a monastery or among people? St. Francis chose to live among people. His mission was to help and guide others,

With eleven of his followers, Francis went to Rome to ask Pope Innocent III's permission to start a new religious group. Despite some doubts from the Pope's advisors, the Pope had a dream where he saw Francis holding up a church. Taking it as a sign, he officially approved Francis's group, the Friars Minor, on 16 April 1210.

The name "Friars Minor," translating to "Lesser Brothers," was a constant reminder of their humility. Guided by the core virtues of Poverty, Humility, and Service, these principles anchored all their actions.

Friars distinguished themselves from monks, because instead of retreating to a monastery and journeying inward, they went out into the world and guided people on their spiritual journey.

Like a star in morning's light,

Francis drove away the night.

The earth itself began to sing,

Landscapes transformed with a vibrant spring.

Fields once barren now burst with green,

while crops arose as if in a dream.

Vines once withered began to thrive,

bearing fruits with a scent divine,

blossoming sweetly under skies

From noble halls to village streets,

many heard the celestial beat,

and drawn by God's gentle call,

they flocked to Saint Francis, one and all.

Like the rain that quenches the thirsty earth,

He cultivated souls, nurturing rebirth.