Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
The first followers of St. Francis of Assisi were known as the “Mendicants from Assisi.” Yet as the group attracted men and women from all over Italy and beyond, a new name, not specific to Assisi, was needed. St. Francis named his brotherhood, in Latin, the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (O.F.M.). This is typically translated as the Order of Friars Minor, implying that there is an Order of Friars Major. A better translation would be the Order of Lesser Brothers. St. Francis wanted himself, and all of his brothers, to be less in everything. To be less prideful, less well known, less wealthy, less well fed, than everyone else.
In the fifteenth century, today’s saint, a holy priest from the town of Paola in southern Italy, baptized Francis by his parents, began a religious movement that would eventually be named the “Minim” friars. “Minim” means “less” or “least,” in the spirit of the “Lesser Brothers” that St. Francis of Assisi had founded centuries before. St. Francis of Paola desired humility, nothingness, and total self-abnegation. He lived, and mandated that those who joined his Order live as well, a perpetual Lent. All the Minims took the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But they also took a special fourth vow to abstain, all year long, from meat, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, and all dairy products. It was a continual, life-long fast. This was mortification on a heroic scale.
The vegan diet of the Minims was primarily mortification, putting the body in a subservient state of subjection to the intellect and will. But the strict diet was also motivated by a desire to do no harm to God’s creatures. Yet vegetarianism, much less veganism, was a step beyond what St. Francis of Assisi himself had lived. He ate what was set before him, including meat. He even criticized vegetarian brothers who refused meals with meat. St. Francis said these vegetarian brothers were questioning God’s providence, and presuming the future, when they rejected what they were fortunate enough to have freely received.
The contemporary trend of organic eating, of eating only unprocessed foods, has, besides purely health motivations, roots in an anti-industrial, farm centered vision of the simple life where one lives from the surrounding land and respectfully cares for that same land, or supports those who do. This organic, wholesome, and natural vision of life is admirable, but unfortunately often becomes an end in itself. It frequently adopts the language of religion, understands the environment as a system of meaning equivalent to God, and even judges harshly those who harm, wear, or profit from animals. Such modern thinking would have been utterly foreign to St. Francis of Paola. He loved nature, and did not want to harm it, because it reflected God’s glory, not because it was an end in and of itself. St. Francis of Paola joined his veganism, and respect for animals, to a strict moral code, a community life around the Sacraments, and a deep spirituality centered on Jesus Christ. To be “one with nature” does not mean to be morally ambiguous. To have respect for all creation does not necessitate a break with religious tradition nor acceptance of relativism. Today’s saint proves that.
St. Francis of Paola’s life was truly organic. One with God. One with nature. One with religious brothers. And all of these “ones” integrated into a seamless Catholic life, giving meaning to everything— prayer, relationships, food, art, clothes, music, doctrine, leisure, charity, and on and on and on. He lived one with the Church. Diets are not a creed. Food is not a Sacrament. These things play their roles in an integrated life, of course, but should be interpreted in light of the higher, stronger things. Just as in architecture, the big things hold up the small things, so in life. The big things— God, Church, the Sacraments— hold up the dependent things— food, clothes, shelter, etc… The Church keeps us in balance.
After a very long life of fasting, prayer, miracle working, and wide fame for his holiness, even outside of Italy, St. Francis of Paola died in the grace of the Lord. In 1562, Protestant Calvinists in France broke into his tomb and found his body incorrupt. They then proceeded to desecrate it, scattering his bones. St. Francis of Paola gave up everything in life, only to be strewn about like garbage in death. He wanted to be treated as the least of all. His desire was fulfilled.
St. Francis of Paola, you lived an integrated life at one with God, nature, and your fellow man. Intercede before God to assist all who appeal to you to see God and His creation as one expression of the goodness and love of our heavenly Father.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
AT the age of fifteen Francis left his poor home at Paula in Calabria, to live as a hermit in a cave by the sea-coast. In time disciples gathered round him, and with them, in 1436, he founded the “Minims,” so called to show that they were the least of monastic Orders. They observed a perpetual Lent, and never touched meat, fish, eggs, or milk. Francis himself made the rock his bed; his best garment was a hair-shirt, and boiled herbs his only fare. As his body withered his faith grew powerful, and he “did all things in Him Who strengthened him.” He cured the sick, raised the dead, averted plagues, expelled evil spirits, and brought sinners to penance. A famous preacher, instigated by a few misguided monks, set to work to preach against St. Francis and his miracles. The Saint took no notice of it, and the preacher, finding that he made no way with his hearers, determined to see this poor hermit and confound him in person. The Saint received him kindly, gave him a seat by the fire, and listened to a long exposition of his own frauds. He then quietly took some glowing embers from the fire, and closing his hands upon them unhurt, said, “Come, Father Anthony, warm yourself, for you are shivering for want of a little charity” Father Anthony, falling at the Saint’s feet, asked for pardon, and then, having received his embrace, quitted him, to become his panegyrist and attain himself to great perfection. When the avaricious King Ferdinand of Naples offered him money for his convent, Francis told him to give it back to his oppressed subjects, and softened his heart by causing blood to flow from the ill-gotten coin. Louis XI. of France, trembling at the approach of death, sent for the poor hermit to ward off the foe whose advance neither his fortresses nor his guards could check. Francis went by the Pope’s command, and prepared the king for a holy death. The successors of Louis showered favors on the Saint, his Order spread throughout Europe, and his name was reverenced through the Christian world. He died at the age of ninety-one, on Good Friday, 1507, with the crucifix in his hand, and the last words of Jesus on his lips, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
Reflection.—Rely in all difficulties upon God. That which enabled St. Francis to work miracles will in proportion do wonders for yourself, by giving you strength and consolation.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.