Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Francis was born into a wealthy family at Assisi, Italy, the son of a cloth merchant. Francis received little formal education and during his youth was mostly preoccupied with having fun. As a young man, he was popular, charming, enjoyed practical jokes and was usually the life of the party.
Because of his wealth, he generally picked up the tab and thus attracted a following of fun loving, rowdy young men and promiscuous women.
When armed conflict broke out between the men of Assisi and a neighboring city in 1202, Francis eagerly volunteered for the cavalry but wound up getting captured after the first big battle and spent a year in captivity.
Francis returned to Assisi hailed as a hero, but unknown to his friends he had undergone a transformation in his outlook during his captivity. Although he was once again the life of the party, he was now questioning his reason for existence.
After much contemplation, including vivid dreams and mystic visions, he turned away from the pursuit of all worldly pleasures, sold all of his property and donated the money to the Church. He then began a lifelong passion of caring for society's castoffs, the sick and poor, including lepers.
His wealthy father reacted to his son's odd new lifestyle by disinheriting him. Thus Francis lived in utter poverty and even went without shoes. But his humbleness, extraordinary kindness and love for humanity attracted the attention of other young men and they also chose to give up worldly pleasures and follow him to spread the gospel and serve the poor.
Eventually, as the brotherhood grew, its members traveled to other parts of Europe to preach, including France, Germany, Spain and England. A separate order for women was formed, now known as the Franciscan Nuns or Poor Clares.
Francis had much love for animals with special fondness for the birds. He liked to refer to animals as his brothers and sisters. Legend has it that wild animals had no fear of Francis and even came to him seeking refuge from harm.
In 1224, Francis went up onto a mountain and began a 40-day fast. During that time he is said to have had a miraculous vision and received the marks of the nails and spear exactly as they appeared on the body of Jesus during his crucifixion.
After his death in 1226, Francis was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX. For several centuries thereafter, his Franciscan order experienced continuous growth and is still active today caring for the poor, educating youth, and performing many other good deeds.
On this day nineteen years ago I was episcopally consecrated in a Victorian church in Hertfordshire, England. I am pictured above receiving the kiss of peace from the assembled bishops on the feast of St Francis of Assisi 1991 after I had accepted the precious mitre. I have been close to St Francis since childhood, and he remains someone with whom I feel a particular affinity. He did not enter the priesthood and, despite claims that he was reluctantly diaconated, there is no evidence to support the contention that he was a deacon. He is, however, a shining example to us all..