By Bret Thoman, OFS
These were the words St. Francis of Assisi heard spoken to him through a crucifix in 1205 [San Damiano cross] when he was just 23 years old. While much has been of the reasons why our new Pope took the name of the Saint of Assisi, little mention has been made of this significant event in St. Francis’s life. And, with all the challenges and scandals that have come out of our Church, I believe it is quite significant.
Francis of Assisi heard these words during a time of transition in the young, not-quite-yet-saintly life. Just a short period earlier, Francis had desired more than anything to become a knight. He grew up in a privileged household of ease and luxury, his merchant father having amassed a fortune in the then booming cloth business. Francis was enamored by the chivalric deeds recounted by the wandering minstrels who passed through Assisi singing chansons of the great knights like Galahad, Arthur, Lancelot, and Tristan. These knights rode on horseback and fought for honor, mercy, courtesy, courage, justice. Their mottos were the protection of the weakest, amour, courtly love, gallantry toward women, and service to God. So Francis sought to prove himself on the battlefield in hopes of becoming knighted.
For Francis, however, the reality of war proved not quite so romantic. After the Assisian army he was fighting with was ambushed by the Perugians, he spent a year in a dungeon in Perugia and became quite sickly. After recovering somewhat, he once again set out to fight – this time in the Crusades in southern Italy. That, too, proved a failure when he turned back after only one day’s journey. In a dream, he heard a voice tell him it was better to serve the Lord rather than servants. So he laid down his arms and sought to follow the true Lord. Now, Francis, the once carefree playboy who had been the life of the parties, spent his time praying in caves, wearing a penitential horsehair shirt, giving alms, and serving lepers.
During this time, he passed by a little run-down church outside the old medieval city walls of Assisi when he felt prompted to go inside. The ruined church was dedicated to the twin physician saintly brothers from eastern Europe, Saints Cosmos and Damian. Francis knelt down before the crucifix which spoke to him saying, Francisce vade, et repara domum meam, quae, ut cernis, tota destruitur (Francis, go, and repair my house, which, as you can see, is totally destroyed). Immediately, he set out to do just that — literally.
Francis went to his father’s warehouse, took a bolt of fine cloth, and set out on horseback to the nearby town of Foligno. There he sold his cloth and horse and took the money back to the church of San Damiano with the naïve intent of rebuilding the church. The priest there, however, knowing of the ill temper of Francis’s father would not accept the money. That event proved the final rift between father and son and would soon lead to their permanent and irreconcilable separation. Soon thereafter, Francis would disinherit himself from his earthly father claiming only one Father — Our Father who art in Heaven. Francis then set out to rebuild the little church of San Damiano one stone at a time. He later rebuilt several other ruined churches around Assisi in addition to churches elsewhere in central Italy.