In the General Audience this morning, Pope Benedict XVI gave his catechesis on the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi. Calling him a veritable "giant" of holiness, the Holy Father said that his outreach to Muslims can serve as a model for Christian-Muslim relations today.
St. Francis was born in the late 12th century to a wealthy family and at 20 years old took part in a military campaign at which time he was taken prisoner, explained the Pope. After falling ill, he was freed and made his way back to his native Assisi.
"After his return... a slow process of spiritual conversion began in him which made him gradually abandon the worldly lifestyle that he had practiced until then," he recounted.
This is when "the celebrated episodes" we know the saint for today began to happen, said Benedict XVI.
Among these events was the time that Christ spoke to Francis from the Crucifix in St. Damian's Church, then in ruins.
"This simple event of the Word of the Lord heard in the church... hides a profound symbolism"... the ruinous state of the church was a symbol of the "dramatic and worrying" situation the Church was experiencing at that time, the Pope remarked.
St. Francis answered that call and rebuilt St. Damian's. Later, he renewed the greater Church, not "without or against the Pope, but only in communion with him," Benedict XVI pointed out.
"The two realities went together: Peter's Successor, the bishops and the Church founded on apostolic succession, and the new charism that the Spirit had created at that moment to renew the Church."
The Pope said that there has been much philosophical debate among philosophers regarding the "historical" or "traditional" role of Francis, but he only "wished to follow the Word of Christ ... in all its radical truth," and that St. Francis was “aware that Christ is never 'mine' but 'ours,' that 'I' can never possess Him, that 'I' can never rebuild against the Church, her will and her teaching."
While the saint's intention was not to create an official Church order, added the Holy Father, he would eventually conform and come to understand "that everything must have its order and that the law of the Church is necessary to give form to renewal.
"Thus he entered ... with all his heart into communion with the Church, with the Pope and the bishops."
Pope Benedict also recounted Francis' trip to Egypt to preach the Gospel and start dialogue with Muslims "armed only with the faith and his personal gentleness."
"His is a model which even today must inspire relations between Christian and Muslims: to promote dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding," the Pope stated.
In addition to these actions, the Holy Father highlighted other elements that characterized his faith such as a great interior and exterior poverty, his dedication to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and his sense of universal fraternity and love for nature.
This saint died, said the Pope, representing an "alter Christus" which "was, in fact, his ideal, ... to imitate Christ's virtues."
In closing, Pope Benedict described St. Francis as a "a great saint and a joyful man," saying that there exists an "indissoluble bond between sanctity and joy." Quoting a French author who explained this phenomenon, Benedict XVI said, 'only one sadness exists in the world: that of not being saints.'