John Bernadone has influenced many lives, communities and groups for over 800 years. Many of you have seen seen pictures or statues of this little man in a long brown or grey robe with birds sitting on his arms or on his head and maybe a wolf at his side. These romantic pictures though having a pinch of truth in them, do not really tell the complex story of a very complex and yet simple figure.
Who was John and what made this young man become so famous in the annuls of Church history?
John was undoubtedly somewhat of a rebellious young man, who gave up both wealth and status, the wearing of designer label clothing for the wearing of a shabby un-cool garment associated with the poor and then leaving his well-to-do home to live among the homeless and marginalized folk of the middle ages? What or who made him do this?
The answer is…..Jesus Christ!
John like the Apostle Paul got ambushed and caught up into the wonderful furious love of God, so much so, that he with the Paul could say, everything he had before Christ was nothing but dung!
John fell in love with Jesus after being ambushed by Him. John deepest desire was to imitate his Crucified Lord, by living the Gospel in absolute simplicity. It is impossible to understand John apart from Jesus. With this in mind, let us take a brief look at the life of this young man.
John (Giovanni - in Italian) was born in the Italian hillside town of Assisi in 1182, to Pietro and Picca Bernardone. Pietro was a merchant of high quality cloth and possibly one of the richest men in Assisi. He anticipated even more wealth as the young John grew up and demonstrated keen business skills and a flair for adventure!
Pietro loved to travel to France where he not only sold but bought his high quality merchandise. It was here too (so it is believed) that Pietro met his wife Picca and because of his romance and love of France and all things French, he nick-named his son ‘Francesco’ or as we say today in English, ‘Francis’ - meaning his little Frenchman. John, however, was much more a dreamer than a cloth merchant, and had little if any interest in his father business.
John..(Francis) was very easy and carefree with money, especially his father’s money - and he would spend it freely, as fast as he received it.
John enjoyed being with people and had many young friends with whom he associated. Known to be a youthful romantic and one who loved singing as well as adventure, he set out in his late teens to become a knight and in 1205, went off fighting for Pope Innocent III. John jumped at the opportunity to be a knight, but he was soon captured in battle and soon after fell very ill and was laid up for many months, before his father bought his release.
It was while John was recuperating, he heard the voice of Jesus speak to him: "John, who can do more for you the lord or the servant?"
John answered, “the lord”.
Jesus said to him, "Then why do you leave the Lord for the servant, a rich Lord for a poor man?"
And so John asked, "Lord, what would you have me do?"
Jesus is said to have told him, "When you return home you will be told what to do."
This was the start of a new love affair for young Francesco who began from that moment to turn away from his old way of life and follow the voice of The Spirit.
John's’ encounter with Jesus while recuperating changed him from the inside out. Now a new battle began in his heart, a new vision and adventure was being born.
John started to see that wealth could become a snare if it possessed your heart and so he began to embrace a life free of all possessions. It was not that he was against those who possessed wealth or material things, but he saw that like the rich young ruler in the gospel story, worldly riches can easily ensnare, entrap and possess you. He sought only to be possessed by his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
In around 1206, while John was on a journey, he came face to face with a leper and was repulsed by what he saw; but his revulsion turned to compassion. As he stood looking at the leper he saw Jesus in him and without further thought reached out and embraced the leper. John later went and ministered to the lepers saying, what had formerly been bitter to him, had become sweet; and what was formerly sweet, had become bitter.
As his conversion continued to deepen, he came to recognize Jesus in the poorest and most despised and saw God’s beauty and providence in all of nature and all of creation.
One day while John was praying in the a very dilapidated (but now famous) chapel of San Damiano before the crucifix that hung there, Jesus again spoke to him; "John, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is in a terrible state." John thought that this call was to repair the building he was in and so he immediately set about rebuilding the chapel, stone by stone. After this he went on to repair many other crumbling and dilapidated churches and chapels in the area. However he later realized that the Lord had been speaking about the medieval Church which had become corrupt in many parts.
At first people mocked the crazy Franceso thinking he was insane, but his love and simple witness to the Gospel soon inspired a small band of followers which included former friends, some nobles, and even some priests. John even won the support of Bishop Guido of Assisi who seemed to recognize the fruit and grace of the Holy Spirit at work in him.
However John's father, became angry and annoyed at what he believed to be his son’s insane, foolish and wasteful lifestyle and tried without success to restrain him.
In 1209, after praying, John was listening to the scriptures being read and heard three verses which caught his attention, they were as follows:
‘If you would be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and follow me’;
Take nothing with you for the journey; and
If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
John was now determined that he (and his little flock) would observe these words from the scriptures simply and without interpretation, and that he and those who followed with him would be known as the Little or Lesser Brothers, Penitents of Assisi.
In 1210, John was reluctantly persuaded to go to Rome with his companions, to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III.
Initially Pope Innocent III dismissed John and the Little Brothers seeing only a shabby group of rather dirty, crazy young men, following an idealistic and romantic fool, but later it is told that he too saw the hand of God on John and gave approval for the establishment of a religious Community within the Roman Catholic Church.
John was asked to write a Rule for this new Community, which he did under pressure from Rome, with much reluctance, as his original vision was that the Gospel alone was to be his/their only rule! But in obedience to the pope and the local bishop, and with pressure now even from those within the new Order, he drew up a rule for the Community. (Today, Roman Catholic, Anglican and a few other Franciscan Communities observe another rule which was written and approved later on).
John came to the realization that God had called him not merely to restore stone buildings, but to rebuild and help restore the Church which had been weakened and damaged by men who had allowed the spirit of the world to enter in and damage the living stones of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately John was never able to fully realize his original vision. In part it was due to pressures from within the new Community/Order but also from the Church’s controlling religious system which John could not shake off.
John's humility, love and faith grew stronger (though his his health sadly deteriorated) and his life of preaching the love of God for all and to all creation, his prayerful and penitential life, continued to inspire many who found the Good News again to be Good and many who had lost their way found it again in the furious love of God.
John became more and more disillusioned with the control, manipulation and domination that was going on within the new Order and his health suffered and was not helped by his severe self denial.
Through an unusual grace of God, in 1224, (around the feast of the Holy Cross), while John was praying at his favourite retreat on Mount La Verna, Jesus appeared to Him as a fiery seraph and impressed His precious wounds, on the hands, feet, and side of the praying John.
John's health deteriorated and soon afterwards he started to suffer a series of bitter and debilitating sicknesses. To make matters worse, the tensions within the new Community were causing great sadness for John at this time. He had seen the Community grow by leaps and bounds, but he now more than ever, longed for the simplicity of his original vision.
John though suffering greatly remained a constant witness to the Good News of Jesus, always inspiring and drawing people to a deeper love of God and one another.
The spirit of John - Francis of Assisi - lives on today within the Franciscan family, in all the different Orders, Communities and formations, dispersed around the world.
John died on the eve of October 4, 1226 having asked his little brothers to lay him naked on the bare floor, poor in the eyes of men, but rich in God’s abundant grace and love….Naked he came into the world and naked he would return…
His feast day is observed by all Franciscans on October 4th. It is told that among his last words was a call to continue the work of renewal in the Church: "Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have made little or no progress."
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way."
(St. Francis of Assisi. Legend of the Three Companions)