Much has been beautifully written on St. Francis, the lover of nature, his childlike simplicity, his ardent love of Christ Crucified, of his espousal of Poverty, of his filial obedience to the Vicar of Christ and the Catholic Hierarchy. These and many other virtues have gained for the Patriarch of Assisi, numerous friends and admirers in and out of the Church. Still there is one trait in the character of this sweet Saint which stands out in bold relief among his many other attractive characteristics, and that is his ardent desire for the glory of God and the salvation of God through the spread of God’s Kingdom among those “that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
When St. Francis saw, like the Patriarch Jacob of Old, that he would grow to be, a great people, that his sons, his followers, would be as numerous as the stars in the firmament, he wished that they should spread to the 4 regions of the world and that the splendid tree of his Order should stretch its branches to the extreme confines of the earth.
St. Francis was the founder of an Apostolic Order. The gospel was to be the model for himself and his followers. Ever and anon he puts special stress upon the evangelical mode of life.
The words of the gospel: “Go ye therefore into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature,” he made his own. When he met Cardinal Hugh, later Pope Gregory, at Florence, he said to him: “I am very uneasy for having sent my Brethren to distant countries to remain there.”
The Cardinal answered him: “And why did you send your Brethren as far away that they suffer so many hardships and die of hunger'( But St. Francis answered him in the spirit of prophecy and full of zeal: “Do you think the Lord has sent the Brethren only to these provinces ? In truth I say to you that the Lord has chosen and sent the Brethren for the salvation of the whole world; and they shall be received not only in the lands of the faithful, but also in the lands of the heathen; and if they keep what they have promised to the Lord, the Lord will grant them the things necessary not only in the lands of the faithful, but also in the lands of the heathen.”
St. Francis could not have expressed the vocation of his Order for the Missions more clearly.
He intended to reproduce the life of our Saviour and His Apostles within himself and his disciples.
His foundation was not to be a contemplative Order only; its members should devote themselves to the salvation of their fellowmen.
His followers were not to remain just at one place; in the midst of the tumult of the people and in public places they were to carry their cells, the solitude, within their hearts. This was a new idea which we do not find expressed in any Order founded up to that time. Following the example of Christ and his Apostles in living among and with the people, in sharing their joys and sorrows, to work and labor for them, but never to abandon the spirit of prayer and solitude.
Without a permanent abode, without property and riches and treasures, free from the care for their daily bread, since they had thrown all their care upon the Lord and were not solicitous about the following day; full of ardent zeal for the salvation of souls, without fear of perils and sufferings, inflamed by the desire to obtain the martyr’s crown, full of cheerfulness amid privations and sacrifices, they offered the Church the spectacle of a courageous troop, ever ready to hasten north and south and east and west to the confines of the earth.
Only a few years after he founded his Order, in 1212, St. Francis felt himself drawn towards heathen lands. He boarded a ship to go among the Saracens, but a storm forced the ship to the border of Slavonia, and he had to return to Italy.
Not in the least discouraged by this mishap, he hastened the following year to Spain, intending to visit Morocco; but sickness prevented him from doing so.
But all this did not impair his conviction that his Brethren were called by God to the Missions among the heathen.
For years he nourished the desire to preach the Gospel to the heathen and to obtain the crown of martyrdom among them. When the number of his adherents had become sufficiently large, he, like a valiant general, who proceeds to conquer the whole world, divided the countries of the earth among them and sent them, two and two, in every direction.
Only the founder of an Order who was convinced that his Order was called for the Missions in heathen lands could do this, placing the success of his venture in the hands of God and confiding upon his assistance.
In spite of the fact that his endeavors to go among the heathens himself had been frustrated, he decided again, in the year 1218 by his own example to give encouragement to the Friars in their arduous missionary vocation.
He manifested his resolve by saying: “Beloved Brethren: It is my duty to be a living example to all Brethren. Now if I send my brethren to distant countries to hardships and ignominy, to hunger and thirst and all kinds of sufferings, it seems proper that I also should go to a distant country, especially that the brethren may bear their sorrow with greater patience, proving that I am suffering the same hardships.”
Thus nothing could prevent him from going to the lands of the Saracens the same year in which he had sent his brethren into Asia and Africa.
He landed in Egypt, appeared among the Crusaders before Damiette, and could not be dissuaded from going before the Sultan himself to preach the Gospel to him.
But he did not obtain the martyr’s crown he so ardently desired. He was brought back by force to the army of the Crusaders. Thence he went to Syria where he remained till he was forced to return to Italy.
The heroic example of the founder of the Order did not fail to influence his sons.
Whilst he was going to Egypt, blessed Aegidius, one of his most beloved disciples, hastened to Tunis, St. Berard and his companions went to Morocco, others to Hungary and into various countries to the North. Yes, it was the expressed wish of St. Francis that some of his disciples should, if it were necessary, die the death of martyrs for their Holy’ Faith.
His desire was to be fulfilled sooner, perhaps, than he had anticipated. Only a year later, St. Berard and his 4 companions, the protomartyrs of the Order fell under the swords of the Saracens in Morocco. Upon hearing of their martyrdom, St. Francis exclaimed full of joy: “Now I may say in very truth that I have live Brothers.”
We must admire the individualism of St. Francis in venturing to place the example of the Apostles before his followers, telling them that they could and would be what the Apostles were. But this was his intention: not only to exemplify the evangelical life within himself, but also to carry it through the members of his Order into all the lands and to perpetuate it. To make it possible for his sons to go among the heathens in future times, and to make it certain that his intentions would be carried out as long as the Order would exist, he devoted a special chapter of his rule to the missionary endeavors of his brethren.
There he grants permission to all his brethren who deem themselves called to missionary labors, to go, with the consent of their superiors, to the Saracens. Under this term “Saracens” all heathens were included. The Saracens were those who were causing so much trouble to the Church and to whole Europe in those days, against whom the Crusades were organized, and to whom some of the brethren had been sent already.
By sending out these his first disciples as missionaries, the great Patriarch of the poor had inaugurated the extensive missionary activity of his Order; and during the 700 years of its existence there is no epoch in which it ceased to flourish. With unusual vigor and the courage of youth the missionary work was begun during the times of St. Francis, and even the first century of the Order produced missionaries who were by no means inferior to the great missionaries of other Orders.
Even according to the testimony of such scientists, as are not friendly towards our church, they displayed an epoch-making activity in geography, in ethnology, in church history and in profane history. Thus the success, the result has proven that the foundation of St. Francis considered the conversion of heathen people its own vocation.
A new impulse was given to the missionary activity of the Church, which assumed an extensiveness recalling the activity of the Apostles, against which neither the distant lands of the Tartars and Mongolians, nor foreign languages formed an effective barrier.
And this missionary activity is still in evidence today; the tree planted by St. Francis in missionary fields still bears fruit. Distance, difficulties, persecution even death offers no effectual barrier to the followers of St. Francis in the missionary field. The annals recording the work of their missionary activity is one glorious monument to the splendid “planting and watering” of the “Poor Man of Assisi,” to which God evidently has given increase. Today there are about 2500 Franciscans employed in mission fields in China, Japan and other Asiatic countries, in Africa, in South and North America.
35 periodicals, published in 10 different languages by Franciscans, aim to arouse and keep alive the missionary spirit enkindled by St. Francis. Our own Southwest numbers 23 Franciscan Fathers and 8 Lay Brothers laboring in the spirit of St. Francis to spread God’s Kingdom and knowledge among the aboriginal Indians and the descendants of the Indians and the early Spaniards, the Mexicans. Indians and Mexicans, with a mixed population of several nationalities offer difficulties, it is true, but also a fruitful field for missionary zeal. To record, foster and encourage this activity and assist in arousing a wider interest therein, is a part of the mission of this periodical. Should it succeed in this, it will have entered into the very spirit of our Holy Founder whose first care was directed toward one of the essential features of his Order, the missions among the heathen and the poor.
Source: The Franciscan Missions of the Southwest, Published annually by the Franciscan Fathers at Saint Michaels, Arizona, 1917.