St. Francis' Conversion

September 22 2006 | by

FRANCIS was born in Assisi, a small town in central Italy, in 1182. He lived to the age of 44, and yet, during his short but eventful life, he was able to found a movement which counts hundreds of thousands of adherents and millions of sympathisers. Francis' influence, however, extends well beyond his own movement, and people of all faiths, races, cultures and ideologies have drawn inspiration from his unique and somewhat revolutionary life and thought. He is seen as a non-violent social and religious reformer, and even as a forerunner of the environmentalist movement.

Ordinary man

One intriguing fact about this phenomenon is that Francis himself was a very simple, ordinary man. In fact, some historical sources claim that there was nothing particularly striking about his bodily appearance. He was short and physically unattractive and, during his youth, gave no evidence of possessing any particular gifts or capacities.
So one may well ask, 'When is it that Francis became the great 'Saint Francis of Assisi'? What was it that triggered such a simple, even insignificant man, to became one of the greatest reformers the world has ever known?
To unravel this enigma we must turn our attention to certain significant happenings which occurred to Francis 800 years ago, in 1206, when he was 24. It was then that Francis experienced a powerful conversion that enabled him to see in all clarity the sad truth about himself and his total dependence of God's overabundant grace. This year therefore marks the eighth centenary of this great conversion.

Father Vincenzo Coli

'That conversion brought forth an entirely new creature - a new man!' says Friar Vincenzo Coli, the Custodian of the great Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. This basilica, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and one of the great artistic treasures of humanity, was built at breakneck speed soon after Francis' death in 1226 to house his remains.
I asked Fr. Vincenzo for more details about the Poverello's conversion. 'The general public is unaware of the importance of Francis' conversion,' emphasises Fr. Vincenzo, 'yet it contains the germ of all that Francis and Franciscanism were to become, and it is impossible to understand both without first understanding the spiritual dynamics behind it.'

Was it a sudden conversion or a long-going process?
It was definitely a long-going process which spanned a period of about 3 or 4 years. It was the final outcome of a long process of meditation, of inner torment and repentance, but also of mysterious heavenly visitations, indicating the presence of the hand of God in the whole process.

What was Francis like before his conversion?
Many biographers have the tendency to describe the pre-conversion Francis as somewhat of a rogue and a libertine. In my opinion Francis was simply an ordinary human being. He had been spoiled by his adoring parents, and was much admired by his fellow citizens on account of his wealth, intelligence and friendliness. He was certainly a hedonist who loved feasts, merrymaking and adventures; he led a free and easy-going life, but we have no evidence that he actually indulged in vices or in evil-doing. Some biographers like to portray him as a scoundrel in order to create a stark contrast to the post-conversion Francis. This picture arises from a misreading of Francis' own Testament, a short written document dictated by the Saint a few days before his death, which occurred on October 4, 1226. In the Testament Francis writes, 'This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them.' The expression When I was in sin has led many a biographer into thinking that Francis was leading an overtly immoral life, but we have no documents to prove this. All we know about the pre-conversion Francis was that he was a lively, outgoing young man who loved to be among people and who cherished beauty, poetry and song. He was a romantic and a dreamer, and, above all, he was an idealist.

Was he of noble blood?
He belonged to the upper class, but not to the nobility. However, the young nobles of Assisi were very fond of him because of his noble traits, his friendliness and sensitivity. This was partly due to the education he received from his mother, Donna Pica, who had brought him up with great attention and ambition.
On the other hand Francis' father, Pietro Bernardone, was a cloth merchant; a practical man used to handling money and to making profits. He loved his work, but above all, he loved money and status. Francis was his natural heir, the one who was to continue the family business. He had started working with his father since boyhood, and for a while it really seemed as if he had a talent for commerce. However, Francis was far less attached to money, property and possessions than his father was. Being an idealist, he was also a cheerful giver - an unpardonable sin in the eyes of his grabbing father. Francis was not so much interested in a person's possessions than in the person itself. What mattered to him were values like friendship, courage, generosity, justice, fidelity to one's city, etc. Francis lived all this with so much enthusiasm that he was loved by almost everyone in Assisi, a fact which proves the fundamental goodness of his character.

Then why did he refer to his previous life as sinful?
Francis was a very humane person who loved life and who loved people. These are the basic ingredients for the vocation God had in store for him.
Francis referred to his former life as sinful because of his humility, but also because there is an abyss between the spiritual life and a worldly life where everything by way of fine clothes, good food, and spending money was his for the asking. To a man so deeply grounded in God a life based exclusively on enjoyments and selfishness appeared sinful.

Most conversion follow traumatic experiences. Is this the case with Francis, too?
Conversions are usually the outcome of particular experiences that force a person to do some hard soul-searching, and this is the case with Francis, too. At a certain point in his life Francis began to feel increasingly unsatisfied. He had everything going for him - wealth, health, friends, girls even, yet he was not happy. God was beginning to make His voice heard, and Francis began searching for something else.
This process seems to have started in 1202, when Francis was 20 years old. In that year, a war broke out between Assisi and the nearby city of Perugia. This was a common event between neighbouring cities in medieval Italy. Francis, having a natural disposition for chivalry, was one of the first to enlist in the army, and encouraged his friends to do the same. But Assisi lost the war and Francis was taken prisoner and locked away in the grim dungeons of Perugia for a whole year.
In those days prisons were often damp, inhospitable places, and prisoners were often treated with brutality. Francis, who was used to a life of comfort and luxury, must surely have been shocked by this experience. But God is able to draw good out of evil, and the interminable days spent in the darkness of the prison must have lit a light in his soul. He had plenty of time to reflect on his past life and his human condition. The harsh existence in the prison had taken a toll on his health, and Francis fell ill. When he was finally able to return home, this illness kept him away from his former lifestyle. Locked up in his own home, often bedridden, he began to see himself and his life with entirely new eyes. Under God's guidance, his meditations became almost continuous, not disturbed by his former work commitments or by his friends.

Was this when his conversion actually occurred?
This was only the beginning of his conversion. Initially, it appears that he was afraid of following God's call. He was aware that the new life that God was calling him to undertake was neither an easy nor a pleasant one, and he just didn't feel ready for it.
But the war, his confinement in prison and his illness had gradually wafted him away from the dream-like existence he had led thus far, and had introduced him to the harsh realities of life. He discovered that the world was filled with darkness and suffering; with poor, hungry, ill and marginalised people. Yet these people often had more interesting stories to tell than his easy going, shallow friends of his former days, whose sole purpose in life was enjoyment.
The first change Francis experienced was his discovery of the value of the human person, irrespective of wealth or social standing. He began to feel a deep inner kinship with the whole of humanity, but especially with the poor and the outcast. This new understanding of the human person is fundamentally identical to that found in the Gospels.

What other changes then took place?
When Francis finally recovered from his long illness, his worldly side again got the better of him. He decided to pursue worldly honour by joining the crusade led by Walter of Brienne, a Frenchmen of noble blood who had married the daughter of King Tancred. So in the spring of 1205, he enlisted in Walter's army and set forth for Puglia, in southern Italy. But God had other plans, and Francis did not travel far. As soon as he reached the nearby city of Spoleto, Francis had a very strange dream. God appeared to him and ordered him to return home. Amid the bewilderment of his friends, Francis left all and made his way back to Assisi.

What was the nature of these dreams and apparitions?
They were of a distinctly spiritual kind. A flurry of heavenly visitations and intuitions suddenly and forcefully broke into his life at this stage.
At Spoleto, Francis saw a man, whom he understood to be Jesus, who asked him, 'Francis, who can do more for you, the Master or the servant?' 'The Master,' Francis replied. The apparition then concluded, 'Return to Assisi, and I shall tell you what to do.'
From the earliest accounts it appears that this vision was received in a dream. For Francis, however, it was so real that he acted upon it immediately. To forsake a military adventure like that one could have been interpreted as an act of cowardice, and Francis would have preferred death rather than appear as a coward. But things had changed now, he was a different person, and he was sure that the message had come from God, and that it would lead him to other experiences.

Such as?
There were three decisive experiences. The first was a pilgrimage to St. Peter's in Rome. Francis decided to travel to the Eternal City to pray at the Tomb of the Chief of the Apostles. In other words, Francis felt the need to go to the fount of that Church it was his mission to reform.
It was while praying at Rome that, according to Thomas of Celano, the Saint's earliest biographer, Francis, under a spiritual inspiration, performed a highly significant deed. He freed himself of his precious silk clothing and exchanged them with those of a mendicant. He then mixed in with a crowd of poor pilgrims who were worshipping at the steps of St. Peter's, and lived with them for a number of days, living off alms received from passers-by. Francis was desirous of experiencing what it was like to be poor, because he had learned that Christ's Church belongs to them.
Then, once back in Assisi, he had a second significant experience. Thomas of Celano writes, 'Among all the horrors afflicting the human condition, the one Francis feared most was leprosy'. One day, while he was riding his horse in the valley below Assisi, Francis encountered a leper. Instinctively, he spurred his horse on to escape the disgusting sight, but was struck with remorse. So he turned his horse around and dismounted. He then gave some money to the leper, hugged him and kissed him. He then got on his horse again and left, his heart filled with gladness. While he was galloping away he turned to say goodbye, but the leper was gone. The man had mysteriously disappeared. This experience was fundamental for Francis, and is remembered in his Testament. Clearly, it is God who is acting here. He is present in the guise of a leper.
This encounter with the leper represents Francis' acceptance of suffering humanity. Lepers were kept at bay on account of their unsightly, contagious and stinking sores which covered their bodies. They were abhorred by everyone, and were compelled to live in ghettos on the outskirts of the cities. But, in Francis' eyes, however horrible their disease may have been, they remained human beings worthy of love, brothers and sisters in whom Christ was nonetheless present. Francis recalled the words of the Gospel, 'I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me'. And he was determined to put them into practice.
After the second experience, Francis was now ready for the decisive encounter. One day, when passing in front of the little church of San Damiano he felt the inner urge to enter. The church was abandoned and in a completely delapidated condition. Francis prostrated himself in front of the cricifix to pray. While deep in his meditations, the image of the crucifix suddenly came alive and said, 'Francis, go and rebuild my house, which is falling into ruins.'
This was the final revelation; the mission that Francis was to fulfil. It was the assignment of a precise task. At first, Francis interpreted the words in a literal sense; he started to repair the delapidated building, but he gradualy began to undesrtand the deeper meaning in God's command, which was to reform the Church spiritually by remaining within it as one of its members.
This is in its essence the sory of Francis' conversion.

What celebrations are being organised to remember the anniversary?
Unfortunately, the wide public is unaware of the importance of this event, but we Franciscans celebrate it every year. Being the 800th anniversary, every Franciscan community throughout the world is organising something. Here the bishop of Assisi has inaugurated a year of prayer and meditation. In other words, the recurrence is to be celebrated in a strictly spiritual way, without the clamour of noisy processions or fireworks.
By studying the conversion of Saint Francis, we learn to turn our spiritual gaze on the crucified Christ, and to see in that crucifixion an encouragement to conversion, to a change of outlook and mentality. The crucifix summons us to see life not from the point of view of the world, but from the piont of view of eternity.

Updated on October 06 2016