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The Franciscans

They have been working for eight centuries, in cities, towns and villages around the world. Their normal garb is a brown habit with a white-knotted cord - but in tropical areas, they may also wear a white habit, or whatever is suitable. You can find them in Parishes, Mission Stations, Colleges, Schools, Hospitals, Slums, Prisons… wherever there are people who need to be told that great Good News that God is alive and cares.

St. Francis of Assisi

These men are the followers of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1205, Francis was 23 years old, the son of a rich cloth merchant. He had everything a young man might want in life - Money, Friends, Opportunities. He was the Leader of youth in his town, and aspired to one day become a knight. But God had other plans for him.

One day, while on a military expedition to Apulia, he heard a Voice speaking to him and telling him to return to Assisi, where he would be told what to do. Francis returned. He waited and prayed for a whole year. Then he heard the Voice again. It spoke to him from the Crucifix in the Crumbling Little Church of San Damiano: "Francis, go and repair my house which is falling in to ruin."

Francis undertook the repairs of this little church, begging for stones and mortar and working with his own hands. This brought him into conflict with his father who finally disowned him. Francis was left penniless and homeless, but in God he found a new Father. Slowly God began to show Francis that he wanted him to live the Gospel of Jesus literally, in Poverty and in Service of the Poor.

Francis' example and way of life soon attracted other young men. When they were a group of twelve, Francis wrote for them a simple rule, which the Pope approved on 16th April 1209. The Franciscan Order was born. The Brothers live together in small fraternal groups, did hand labor for their livelihood, preached to people of the love of God, served lepers and other poor people.

Francis called his men the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.), the group of lesser brothers. Littleness and Brotherliness were to be the dominant features of his movement; his men were to be simple, approachable and always available to those in need; in their Apostolate if they have a preference, it should be for the poor, the lonely, the abandoned.

He was a great respecter of the individual. For Francis no two of his brothers were the same. Each one's talents, character and personality were important. He encouraged everyone to develop his God-given potentialities for better serving God and His people.

A Man of irrepressible joy, Francis wanted his men to be the same. "Sadness is for the devil," he used to say. "It belongs to you, my brothers, to be always joyful in the Lord". In moments of exuberant spiritual joy he would sing and dance, and taking two sticks of wood playfully draw one over the other as if accompanying himself on the violin. His last act on his death-bed was to start a song, which his brothers took up, while he joyfully entered paradise.

The Joy of Francis was not a kind of superficial cheerfulness, it was a deeper and inner joy purchased at the high price of self-renunciation and sacrifice. He took upon himself the pain and anguish of all the world and united them with those of Christ, thus participating in the compassion of Christ for all those in pain. Bought with suffering, his was the kind of joy and peace that only Christ can give, and the world can neither give nor take away.

Towards the end of his life this union with God became so intense that the five wounds of Christ were marked on his hands, feet and side. He spent his last days in close contact with God. This and the approach of death so filled him with happiness that he often broke out into music. Just after sunset on 3rd October 1226 Francis died, singing.

Repair My House

But neither his song nor his work ended there. Just as his brothers continued his song after his death, so too did they continue his work. When the crucifix of San Damiano said to him, "Francis, go and repair my house" he had taken it literally and repaired that church. It was towards the end of his life that he realized the command had a deeper significance: his life's task was not merely to repair the church of San Damiano with his hands, but to repair the universal Church of God with his life. This he did so magnificently that today, eight centuries after his death, the movement he started stands out in the Church as the largest single charism in its history, eighth over three million followers in three Orders; and still every year more books are written about him than about any other saint. Renan, the agnostic scholar, called him 'the most Christ-like man since Christ', and Lenin on his death-bed said, "I realize my mistake; what I should have given to the world was twelve Francices of Assisi !"

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