Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular of the Christian saints, known and admired even beyond the boundaries of the Church for his way with animals and his delight in the created world.
Francis was born in 1182 into a family of cloth merchants in medieval Italy at a time when Europe was growing in economic prosperity and power. In his ‘teens taking advantage of his father’s wealth to live fairly recklessly with his friends, by his early twenties he was beginning to tire of this life. The experiences of being held prisoner of war and of being brought face to face with those who were destitute and outcast from society paved the way for a series of encounters with God which radically changed him. Renouncing his family which failed to understand his transformation, he took to the hermit life and then to proclaiming the Gospel in all its simplicity and directness, living without possessions, serving lepers, and seeking peace.
At first ridiculed by his peers, before long some came to join him. Francis had no wish to join a religious order, but simply to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and when the number of the group of followers reached the significant number of twelve, they went to Rome to seek the Pope’s approval for this way of life. After initial suspicion towards them on the part of the Church authorities, they came to be seen as an opportunity for the Church’s renewal and were given permission to preach. They were called the Friars Minor, or Lesser Brothers, emphasising the simplicity and humility of their approach.
Numbers grew rapidly and communities of Friars spread across Europe as the message of reconciliation and a new faithfulness to Christ and the Gospel caught hold of people’s imagination. Francis’ own horizon was widened by his experience of nearly two years in the Near East. Travelling to Egypt in 1219 to join the Fifth Crusade against the Saracens, and with the intention of converting the Sultan of Egypt to Christianity, Francis found in Kamil al Malik to whom he preached Christ, not the violent enemy of the Church whom he had been expecting, but a wise and humane ruler. He failed in his attempt at conversion, but discovered a brother and returned home to Italy shaped by the honouring of the ‘names’ or attributes of God, and the call to prayer which are central to the religion of Islam. Francis’ willingness to learn from Muslims and to engage peaceably with them provides us with an example for our own time.
In 1212 Francis was joined by a young woman, Clare, daughter of the aristocratic Offreducio family of Assisi, who had experienced the effect Francis was having on the life of the city. She ‘escaped’ from the expectation of her family to make a good marriage and came to Francis to share his vision of the Gospel life. Although the convention of the age made it impossible for Clare to live physically with the brothers, she and those who joined her at the convent of San Damiano outside the city walls followed a life of simplicity, humility and prayer that was modelled on the inspiration of Francis.
At the Reformation, religious orders were abolished in the Church of England. However, in the 19th Century there was a revival of interest in medieval life. The example of St. Francis inspired many people caring for the poor. In the early 20th Century there were several groups in the Church of England inspired by St. Francis. In 1937 Fr. Algy brought several of these small orders together to create the Society of St. Francis.
Men and women today continue to be inspired by the life of Francis of Assisi, by his awareness of the love of God in Jesus and his desire to live the life of the gospel, by his simplicity and humility and his brotherhood with those who are poor and marginalised; by his joy in the giftedness of creation and his recognition of our interdependence with all creatures. There are many Franciscan communities in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Society of St Francis, of which Hilfield Friary is a part, is an Anglican Franciscan religious order for men and women. Further information about SSF and how to explore a call to Franciscan life can be found at www.franciscans.org.uk