Was he crazy? Peter Bernadone, feeling ready to explode with anger, thought his son had gone absolutely stark raving mad. Francis, for his part, thought his father was the one who was foolish. It was time for father and son to walk different ways, however painful that might be.
Peter, a wealthy cloth merchant, had been a doting father. When Francis dreamed of knighthood, honour and glory, Peter spent more than was reasonable as he twice equipped him for war. The first time, after a battle against Assisi’s neighbouring city of Perugia, his son had ended up languishing in prison until Peter ransomed him. The second time, he simply gave up before reaching his destination and returned to Assisi telling a story about a dream, a voice and shields. Instead of working for his father, Francis spent long hours praying in a cave. That would not have been too great a problem had not the young man exchanged his clothes with a beggar, inviting ridicule from the townsfolk as he walked home through the streets of Assisi.
Francis, the one-time leader of Assisi youth, no longer saw the world through the materialistic eyes of Peter Bernadone. God was asking something more. No longer looking for fame and fortune, he believed that the crucified Jesus had spoken to him in the ruined church of San Damiano. “Francis, rebuild my Church, which, as you can see, has fallen into disrepair.” The young man took those words literally. He sold some of his father’s bales of very expensive cloth for less than their worth and gave the money to the priest at San Damiano.
Peter, exasperated beyond his limits, dragged Francis to the courtyard outside the bishop’s palace, hoping to settle matters once and for all. What happened next was beyond his worst nightmares. Not only did his son return whatever money was in his possession. In front of the curious crowd, gathered to see what would happen, Francis removed his clothes and gave them to his father saying, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now I have called Peter Bernadone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on: ‘Our Father who are in heaven ,’ and not ‘My father, Peter Bernadone.’” The bishop covered the half-naked young man with his cloak and led him away.
The film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, showed the unforgettable moment when the young Francis of Assisi undressed before his heartbroken parents, the people and the bishop of Assisi and walked into the sunshine of his new-found vocation. Renouncing his father’s hopes and dreams, in a single gesture, he abandoned the life of wealth, comfort and fame that could have been his. Instead, he stepped out into a new world of uncertainty, hardship, poverty and controversy. 800 years later, the world still recalls and celebrates that pivotal moment which cost ‘not less than everything’. As far as we know, Peter and Francis were never reconciled.
“Just after he was elected Pope I sent him a letter on behalf of the diocese, reminding him that, as Bishop of Assisi, I live in the place where Francis undressed before his speechless father, Peter Bernadone, eight centuries ago, to free himself entirely for God and for his brothers.” Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino will welcome Pope Francis to the home of his namesake on 4 October. “I took the liberty of saying to Francis: “So Father, it would be great if among your many other commitments today, you came here at least to say the Our Father, as Francis did 800 years ago.” The Pope’s answer really threw me. He said: “The Our Father? But I want to talk about how the Church should undress and somehow repeat that gesture Francis made and the values inherent in this gesture.”
It is no coincidence that Pope Francis should visit Assisi on the feast of his patron. At World Youth Day in Brazil, he recalled, “Slowly but surely, Francis came to realise that it was not a question of repairing a stone building, but about doing his part for the life of the Church.” He told the young people that the Church they are called to help build is not “a little chapel, which holds only a small group of persons”, but rather a “church so large that it can hold all of humanity”. For Saint Francis, and for all of us, what is important is “being at the service of the Church, loving her and working to make the countenance of Christ shine ever more brightly in her”.
The message which the Pope will proclaim to the world is that of the importance of falling head-over-heels in love with God. When St Francis returned his clothes to his father, Peter, he gave himself totally, heart, body and soul, to God. Pope Francis will encourage us to imitate the saint in discarding everything hindering our love affair with God.
St Francis, in a unique way, knew Jesus. His friend Bernard said of him that “he did not so much pray as become himself a prayer”. Two years before his death on 3 October 1226, he was marked with the Stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Jesus. As his Pope Francis recently remarked at Mass, “It is not enough to know [Jesus] with the mind: it is a step. However, it is necessary to get to know Jesus in dialogue with him, talking with him in prayer, kneeling. If you do not pray, if you do not talk with Jesus, you do not know him. You know things about Jesus, but you do not go with that knowledge, which he gives your heart in prayer. Know Jesus with the mind... know Jesus with the heart - in prayer, in dialogue with him... There is a third way to know Jesus: it is by following him. Go with him, walk with him... Here, then, is how you can really know Jesus: with these three languages - of the mind, heart and action.”
Uniquely, St Francis, the ‘little poor man of Assisi’, knew Jesus. He emptied himself so completely that God filled him completely... Pope Francis will tell us to know Jesus by following him, going with him and walking with him. He will encourage us to imitate St Francis’ total openness and obedience to everything God asked of him. He will invite us to unite with St Francis as he prayed, “My God and my all.” Perhaps most importantly, he will stress the all-embracing love which welcomed the leper at the roadside, treating him as a human being with his own unique dignity. We will be once again challenged to focus on the needy and the helpless, the small and insignificant in the eyes of the world. In the very place where St Francis instructed his followers to greet people with the words, “May God give you peace”, Pope Francis will commission us as instruments of peace and love in our troubled world of today.