Malankara World

The Life and Legends of Saint Francis of Assisi

By Father Candide Chalippe


We have yet to mention what the Holy See did to glorify St. Francis and to make his name memorable for all times. Pope Honorius III died on the 18th of March, 1227, to the great grief of the entire Church. He dearly loved St. Francis and had approved the Rule of the Friars Minor. The morning after his death the cardinals assembled and elected Cardinal Ugolini as his successor, who took unto himself the name of Gregory IX. Cardinal Ugolini was the intimate friend of Francis, the Protector of his Order and the founder of several Franciscan Convents; as was recorded above, St. Francis predicted his Pontificate.

A riot at Rome shortly after caused the Holy Father to flee to Rieti, he then went to Spoleto, and from thence to Assisi. At Assisi he was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm by the people. His deep piety prompted him to visit the grave of our Saint, where he spent a long time in prayer. At the general chapter held at Rome, June 7, 1227, in which Brother Elias was re-elected, His Holiness was petitioned by all present to canonize Francis whom God already made illustrious by many miracles. Now a favorable opportunity presented itself to pay special heed to this petition. He caused a rigorous examination to be made of all the miracles attributed to the intercession of the Saint after his death. This was not a difficult matter for there were a great number of witnesses in the city and neighboring places. In the meanwhile the Holy Father went to Perugia to attend to some affairs of state. When the validity of the proofs regarding the miracles and virtues of St. Francis could in no way be questioned, Gregory returned to Assisi.

The canonization took place with the greatest solemnity on Sunday July 16th, in the Church of St. George, where the body of the Saint reposed. Amidst an immense assembly of cardinals, bishops, priests, clerics, members of the Franciscan Orders, knights, lords, and dignitaries of the, provinces and a vast multitude of people the Sovereign Pontiff pronounced from his throne, the following solemn words:

"To the glory of the Most High God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the glorious Virgin Mary, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and to the honor of the whole Roman Church, we have resolved, in concert with our brethren and other prelates, to inscribe in the catalogue of the saints, the blessed Father Francis, whom God has glorified in Heaven, and whom we venerate on earth. His feast shall be celebrated on the day of his death."

At once the cardinals intoned the Te Deum, the people responded by their cries and shouts of joy. Thereupon prayers of thanksgiving were recited and then the august Pontiff celebrated Holy Mass. It was a day of grace, of exultation and triumph for Assisi, for the Franciscan Family and for the whole Church. Thus was St. Francis canonized but a few years after his death.

The humble Saint had asked to be interred on the "Infernal Hill," the hill on which criminals were buried. Up to the present his desire could not be fulfilled. The City of Assisi waited to make that place of ignominy a worthy abode for the remains of its most saintly and illustrious citizen. A magnificent double-church was erected on the spot. The Sovereign Pontiff declared that henceforth the place shall be called "Hill of Paradise" and later on laid the corner-stone for the new edifice. The lower church was completed in 1230. The elaborate portal is a plan of Baccio Pontelli. The stained glass windows by Bonino, a native of Assisi, render a soft and mellow harmony of light no less charming than that of the mosaic interior of San Marco, Venice. Famous frescoes which influenced all the great movements of art that followed, cover the walls of the church. Those in the sanctuary by Giotto are particularly fine. They represent St. Francis espousing Humility, Charity, and Poverty. The gold and blue of the backgrounds upon which the numerous scenes are painted, harmonize beautifully in the general color scheme of the sacred edifice. In the fourteenth century nine chapels were added along the walls of the lower church, mostly memorial chapels of cardinals and bishops.

Two years after the construction of the lower church with its vaulted top, the building of the upper church began. The Gothic form of architecture was chosen for the building, so that the high and pointed arches be emblematic of the lofty spirit of St. Francis, and of the towering strength of his followers, whose object it is to raise the spirit of men to a higher standard of religion and devotion. After its completion in the year 1253 Pope Innocent IV came in person to Assisi and consecrated the upper and lower church. At the same time the Holy Father, who resided in the monastery at Assisi with the Franciscan Fathers for five months, solemnly canonized the Bishop and Martyr Stanislaus of Cracow. The upper church again afforded the genius of artists ample opportunity to blossom forth. Zimabue enriched the sanctuary with brilliant frescoes from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary whom St. Francis had chosen to be the Patroness and Protectress of his three orders for all future times. The choir-picture, the Assumption of the Virgin, is the finest of the series. In the apse are frescoes of St. Peter and St. Paul to whose tomb (at Rome) St. Francis made a pilgrimage to ask for grace and light at the beginning of his conversion. Other frescoes of Zimabue, also in the apse of the church, represent various passages of the Apocalypse, relative to the rejuvenation of the Church; St. Francis was called and appointed by God to restore the church which was falling into ruins. Along the lower wall-spaces of the nave are twenty-eight large frescoes from the life of St. Francis by Giotto, Taddio, Gaddi and Giunto Pisano; the upper spaces have representations of the Old and New Testament by Pietro Cavallini and his school. These upper paintings are now in ruins, but even in their ruins they are precious pearls of mediaeval art. The stained glass windows are of such exceptional beauty and artistic correctness that their equal cannot be found in all Italy. Speaking of the Church of St. Francis at Assisi, a traveller says in substance as follows: In its tremendous proportions the gigantic Church of St. Francis can only be compared to the pyramids of Egypt; and both are symbolic of their times. The pyramids were erected by the iron will and the cruel might of the Pharaohs, the blood of nations stain every stone and they are bedewed with many tears. The Church of St. Francis was built by the self-sacrificing love and heartfelt gratitude of nations. Its stones are worn by the footsteps and the tears of millions and millions of people, who came there, perhaps sad and weary, but returned with the love and the peace of the Saint in their heart.

When the lower church was completed (1230), the venerable remains of St. Francis were translated to their new resting-place. Such numbers were present at this translation, that many had to sleep out under tents during the night, the walls of Assisi not being able to contain so vast a multitude. The people of Assisi, having observed a commotion in the crowd, began to fear that an attempt was being made to deprive them of their sacred treasure: accordingly they rushed to the bier, took possession of the Saint's body, entered the church, locked the doors, and interred the body, without allowing any of the clergy, religious, or people to enter. In consequence of this event, an impenetrable veil of secrecy long hung over the place where the body had been laid. In 1818, Pope Pius VII gave permission to the General of the Conventual Minors to make researches under the high altar. Many previous researches had been made; they grew to such gigantic proportions that the foundations of the massive structure were partly undermined. To prevent the ruin of the basilica at Assisi, the Holy See finally forbade all further researches without the special consent of the Sovereign Pontiff. When Pope Pius VII gave the necessary permission, the researches were again taken up, but very carefully and in great secrecy. The workmen were employed for fifty-two nights in hard labor. At length, after having broken through rocks and massive walls, an iron grating was discovered, beneath which was a skeleton in a stone coffin, which when opened, exhaled the most fragrant odor. The Holy Father deputed the Bishops of Assisi, Nocera, Spoleto, Perugia, and Foligno, to make a juridical examination, to certify the authenticity of the body. Then, in accordance with a decree of the Council of Trent, he named a commission of cardinals and theologians, and, all being settled, on the 5th of December, 1820, he declared in a Brief that "this body is verily the body of Saint Francis of Assisi, Founder of the Order of Friars Minor." The sacred body of St. Francis now lies beneath the main altar of the lower church, mentioned before, in an exquisitely beautiful little chapel hewn out of the solid rock. The remains repose in their original sarcophagus, which is bound by broad girders of steel.

Seven hundred years have elapsed since the death of this humble servant of God. His memory has outlived all the storms that have agitated the world. The good seed that he sowed is still bringing forth fruit a hundredfold. Like the Apostles of old, he labored in the vineyard of the Lord, and opened up to others, Heavenly treasures of untold value. Yet more, in the person of St. Francis, Jesus of Nazareth lived again for the instruction and edification of the whole world, as He had never done in any individual, since the great Apostle of the Gentiles. At the word of St. Francis a revival of primitive Christianity sprang into existence at a time when all civilization seemed unhinged on account of the almost universal decay in morals. He taught men afresh that the commands of Jesus Christ could be literally obeyed and that the Sermon on the Mount was as applicable to the men of the middle and all succeeding ages as to the first age of Christian history. This New Abraham begot through the Gospel the largest family of Christ's followers and of missionaries the Catholic Church has ever produced. It is well known that the history of the Church from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century was largely the history of the rise and growth of Franciscanism in every part of Europe. To-day, after seven centuries have elapsed, we find no symptoms of decay in the great Franciscan Family. The priests and laybrothers of the First Order are to be found laboring assiduously in every country. In efficiency and number their active missionaries are second to none. They are storming the strongholds of Satan from one end of the world to the other. The Second Order stands before us as of old, a beautiful lily in the Sanctuary of God. The Holy Virgins, of the Second Order, called "Poor Clares," seek voluntary oblivion and by their pure and pious life of the greatest austerity, of seclusion, silence, penance and prayer, daily open the floodgates of God's graces to mankind. The wonderful and healthy growth of the Third Order, especially since the great Encyclical on St. Francis and on the Third Order by Pope Leo XIII (1882), need not be mentioned; it is a fact known to all. Since the work of the Seraphic Saint is so prosperous at present, we need not doubt about the future. As we have previously seen God Himself revealed to St. Francis that his institution shall remain till the end of times. Thus the Most High glorified and rewarded the poor, humble man of Assisi, "the greatest of sinners," as he loved to call himself. St. Francis now reigns in Heaven, brilliant as the Morning Star, and showers his blessings upon his many children. Let us praise God for the grace and glory He gave his humble Servant and let us deeply impress upon our mind the words of the Holy Ghost: "God resists the proud, but gives his graces to the humble." "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

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