One steamy day the summer of my 12th year, I sought refuge in the cool basement of my childhood home and spent an afternoon devouring Felix Timmermans’ The Perfect Joy of St. Francis.
Since Mom is an evangelical and Dad is Jewish, I’ve no idea how this book came to be on our shelves, nor do I recall what attracted me to it. But three hours later the myth that Catholics don’t believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was shattered forever in my mind.
My path to Catholicism would take seven more years, but that’s where it began, and Holy Francis has had a way of making his presence known to me throughout my life.
There was a life-size portrait of St. Francis in our living room growing up. My mom painted it, inspired by a picture she just liked. It wasn’t until after my conversion that I noticed the saint had hovered in the background of our family life my entire childhood.
Three days in Assisi during a semester abroad left a deep impression on me. A profound experience of the presence of God during prayer before the crucifix that spoke to St. Francis lowered the defensive walls that I’d constructed against all my Catholic friends who were quite obviously “working on” me.
During time in Rome doing volunteer work after college, I was granted the privilege of reading for one of John Paul II’s weekly audiences. This singular grace was conceded me on October 4, 1989.
A year later, I was feeling stuck in routine and discouragement in my apostolate in Rome and wishing I could have a “mental health day.” After morning Mass with the community where I was living, a director asked me if I could please accompany some guests on their day-trip to Assisi.
Could I?! Only later did I realize the day was October 4.
Not every grace has been as dramatic as those, but I find I look forward to this day each year!
What I love about him is that he was a man of strong passions and poor judgment—even after his conversion this remained so—and the Lord nonetheless used him to renew the Church of his age.
His holiness doesn’t consist in never having made any mistakes (he and his followers often drove the Church hierarchy crazy), but in directing every power within him toward the Lord, while readily accepting the direction and correction of the Church.
I admire his passionate love for Christ, expressed particularly in Eucharistic devotion, discovering Christ in the gospels, and striving to imitate Jesus at every moment.
Francis didn’t actually love animals all that much. He loved Jesus, and therefore all creation spoke to Francis of Jesus.
I am always chastened by Francis’ radiant charity towards every human person. Everyone remembers the moment early in his conversion that Francis overcame natural revulsion and embraced a leper (which I’m not sure was really wise!), but his whole life and rule is filled with exquisite details of charity.
He admonished his friars, for example, always to sit at the lowest places so that any beggar could join them and feel himself among equals. They were to do nothing that would make any man feel ashamed of his poverty.
His prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” strikes me as one of the most perfect hymns of Christian charity, even if we lose its full meaning from overuse.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love…
That’s a hard prayer to say and really mean, but I think if we can really mean it, we will have taken a huge step forward in holiness.
And of course, there is his “perfect joy,” which he expressed thus:
“It is not fitting, when one is in God’s service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look.”
What a radiant example of what it is to be a Christian! By being what he was, he transformed the world and became, as Chesterton writes in his marvelous short biography, the embodiment of Christian culture.
[Note: a modified version of this column first appeared at FaithandFamilylive.com]
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.