His radically countercultural life continues to inspire Christians down to the present day
The basic outline of St. Francis’ life is familiar to many Catholics, as is the philosophy of poverty and simplicity he warmly embraced. Raised in a wealthy and permissive merchant family, the young Francis enjoyed a life of partying and sought earthly glory as a knight on the battlefield. A strange dream on his way to the Fourth Crusade set his life on a different path, however, and as he grew closer to God through prayer and sacrifice, Francis renounced his life of pleasure to beg and preach instead.
Poverty became the hallmark of Francis’s spirituality, along with an abiding joy and a deep respect for God’s natural creation. He told friends he was married to “Lady Poverty” and considered detachment from earthly possessions to be a kind of freedom, saying, “If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.” He was direct and a man of quick action, so that at times he made mistakes, but his humility, compassion, and generosity always more than made up for his occasional missteps.
An outside observer might look at this roaming barefoot beggar, who sang and rejoiced as he spoke always of the Gospel, and conclude he was insane. Indeed there was a kind of holy madness to Francis’ radical renunciation of earthly goods and wholehearted commitment to the Gospel. But it was precisely this honest “madness” that made Francis’ love for Christ so appealing. He won more souls for God than perhaps any other saint since the apostles.
Francis’ legacy lives on today not only through the religious order he founded, the Franciscans, but in the Nativity scenes we see every Christmas; in the continued presence of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, where they were permitted because of Francis’ friendship with an Egyptian sultan; in the repeated urgings of recent popes to protect and care for the environment, as Francis taught his followers to do; and even in other Christian churches, which honor him and celebrate his life too. St. Francis, pray for us!