Francis: the saint who saw the world upside down

06 May 2009

By The Record

Pope says St Francis offers hope for those lost in the slavery of sin while Record reporter Anthony Barich tells of how two Perth women were inspired help the poor by the saint’s example.


The Basilica of St Francis in Assisi as it appears today. The Basilica stands above a smaller chapel holding the tomb of the beloved peter rosengren


By John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – At first glance, the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI – sometimes dubbed “the Pope of reason” – might seem an unlikely devotee of St Francis of Assisi, the mystic friar of simple faith.
Yet the German Pope has found in St Francis something that goes beyond the saint’s popular image as the patron of peace, the environment and animals.
For him, St Francis offers a model of radical conversion to Christ.
An earlier pontiff, Pope Innocent III, approved the founding of St Francis’ religious order 800 years ago, and in mid-April Franciscans from all over the world converged on the Italian hill town of Assisi to celebrate the anniversary.
Assisi has gained a reputation as a place for spiritual seekers of every stripe, and its inter-religious gatherings in recent years have drawn criticism from some conservative quarters of the Church.
Pope Benedict, however, has lauded the “spirit of Assisi” and its emphasis on dialogue and interfaith bridge-building.
At the same time, he has encouraged Franciscans to highlight the fact that St Francis’ spiritual path began with a life-changing encounter with Christ.
Today’s pilgrims need to understand that connection, he said. “It’s not enough that they admire Francis: Through him they should be able to encounter Christ,” the Pope said during a visit to Assisi in 2007.
It’s instructive to see how Pope Benedict views the life of St Francis.
During the same visit, the Pope described the young Francis as a “king of partying” who grew disillusioned with the clothes, music and relatively easy life afforded him by his economic status in the 13th century. In his first 25 years, the Pope said, Francis was mainly out for fun and entertainment in life. He was vain and placed a lot of emphasis on image.
The Pope’s portrait of the young Francis was not a flattering one: a self-absorbed man who wandered the towns of central Italy looking for material pleasure.
Then a change came, as tradition recounts, triggered by small encounters with the poor and the sick.
The Pope compared Francis’ conversion to that of St Paul.
Although Francis’ journey was more gradual, he said, it was just as intense as St Paul being knocked off his horse and blinded by the light of Christ.
Francis began to have visions and to withdraw in prayerful solitude. He told friends he was about to be married – to a bride called “Lady Poverty.”
He encountered a leper on the road and, after first drawing away in disgust, went toward him and embraced him. He came to Rome, prayed at the tomb of St Peter and gave away all his money.
His conversion is sometimes pinpointed to the moment when, praying before a crucifix, he heard God’s voice telling him to “repair my house.”
He then wandered the hills trying to rebuild churches, but this was far from an idyllic lifestyle: Francis was mocked as a madman, pelted with stones, locked up at times by his angry father and often went hungry and cold.
It was in 1208 that Francis clearly understood his vocation, while listening to the Gospel account of Christ’s instructions to his disciples: to renounce all material things and to roam the land, calling people to penance and peace.
He experienced these words of Scripture as a personal calling.
By now, ridicule among the local people was turning to respect, and Francis began to attract followers.
He wrote the first “rule,” a collection of Gospel principles on which his order would be founded; the exact form of that text is unknown today, but it was approved orally by Pope Innocent III in 1209 – despite reported resistance by the Roman Curia to such a radical mode of religious life.
This year’s commemoration in Assisi marks the approval of the first rule of St Francis, and it will no doubt be followed by others in a kind of “rolling anniversary” of Franciscan milestones, including Francis’ death in 1226.
He was canonised only two years after he died, and has become the patron saint of Italy, of the Italian lay movement Catholic Action and many other groups, as well as of animals and the environment. For Pope Benedict, St Francis is relevant today not only because of his eco-friendly image.  The key to his vocation was the figure of Christ, the Pope said, and if seen strictly through the lens of social activism the saint suffers a “type of mutilation.”
That St Francis suffered the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – was an eloquent sign of this, he said. “He fell in love with Christ. The wounds of the crucified one wounded his heart before leaving their marks on his body on Mount La Verna. He could truly say with Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,’” the Pope said.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the figure of St Francis appear in Pope Benedict’s upcoming social encyclical, which is expected to treat the questions of charity and the Christian response to economic injustice.
As the Pope has said, St Francis’ radical rejection of material comfort was part of his “quest for Christ in the faces of the poor.”


In WA, third order imitates Christ

By Anthony Barich
WHEN Karrinyup pensioner Eileen Gomm was born in 1933, Australia was in the grip of The Great Depression, yet two Perth women inspired by St Francis of Assisi were already helping the poorest of the poor in his name.
Growing up in Norseman, some 720km south east of Perth, Eileen, now 75, had no idea this “Third Order of St Francis” even existed.
But when she saw some of her mates from St Joseph’s parish in Subiaco marching behind a Secular Franciscan banner at a Eucharistic Congress on the Feast of Christ the King – popular in those days – in Perth in 1961, she knew she had to join.
The Secular Franciscan Order (SFO), formerly called the Third Order of St Francis, was established at the Cathedral Parish in July 1930, by Kathleen Lewis and Emilie Furse, a governess who educated poor children in her home.
Two diocesan priests acted as spiritual directors until 1950 when Franciscan Friars Minor arrived in WA and established fraternities in Collie, Dardanup, Geraldton and Midland, while Capuchin Friars started a Balcatta Fraternity.
By the time Eileen “gate-crashed” her first SFO meeting in 1961, the movement was booming with 365 members, though many of whom were isolated due to age, infirmity and distance. Up to 70, however, regularly attended the monthly Fraternity meetings.
Eileen said that joining the SFO is one of the best graces that has happened to her. Globally, the SFO is a community of Roman Catholic men and women who seek to pattern their lives after Christ in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis himself started the organisation.
In the early ’60s Eileen was a typist’s clerk, despised, she says, by the broader community but embraced whole-heartedly by the SFO, even by well-to-do people like lawyers, professors and doctors who frequented the meetings.
Though her mother and brother were still hundreds of kilometers away in Norseman, the SFO became her surrogate family of sorts, giving her the sense of belonging to a family that she craved.
The lives the SFO helped like Eileen numbered in the hundreds in WA alone, but it was not surprising for a group inspired by St Francis, who renounced his possessions and gave his life for the poor of Assisi.
In a similar way, the SFO’s two foundresses gave what little they had to help Perth’s poor. There were many poor and needy people to be helped during the Depression, so Emilie Furse founded a Sunday School hour for children, helped with their religious education and gave them small gifts of clothing, fruit and sweets supplied by the fraternity, which also helped at Castledare Boys’ Home with sewing, mending, knitting and various other ways.
The Perth Fraternity organised nativity plays, picnic days and theatrical entertainment.  In 1942, during the War Years, a Third Order Social Club was to spread the Franciscan message to the secular community and attracting even more members.
The group also has a strong link to the famous priest-architect of the Depression era, Monsignor John Hawes, who built over 20 churches and other buildings around the Geraldton diocese between 1915 and 1939.
With fundraising and prayers, the SFO supported the Monsignor, who became known as Father Jerome when he retired to Cat Island in the Bahamas as a Franciscan Friar. The small church he built on Cat Island bears the inscription: “This church was built with donations sent from the Tertiaries of the Third Order of St Francis in Perth, Western Australia.” 
He also donated a painting of Cat Island to the Perth branch of the SFO movement.
On the back of the watercolour painting itself is written: “St Francis’ Church, Cat Island, The Bahamas, Architect ‘Fra Jerome’ (Monsignor Hawes).”
Today the SFO in WA has 92 members who are mostly pensioners who meet monthly as a prayer group, with two biannual reflection days and an annual retreat.
The Rule of St Francis that demands living out the Gospel, attending Mass more than once a week and modesty in material possessions.
The Perth fraternity, originally known as St Mary’s Fraternity, celebrated its 75th anniversary on July 24, 2005 with a sung Mass at St Mary’s Cathdral in Perth celebrated by the cathedral Dean, Monsignor Thomas McDonald. Some members have even progressed to being consecrated Religious Friars or Sisters.
Perth retired Magistrate Michael McGrath, who was baptised by a Franciscan and attended a Franciscan convent boarding school in Sydney, and is now a proud Secular Franciscan, says the SFO is “a hidden treasure of the Catholic Church”.
“The rule says you don’t go driving around in Rolls Royces or building massive houses, but it depends I suppose on how fair dinkum you are about Christ,” he told The Record.