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Saint Francis of Paula (April 2)

April 2, 2009

St. Francis of Paola/Paula (1416-1508)
The papacy was a mess. Decadence and nepotism (giving high positions to unqualified relatives) became commonplace in the hierarchy, and anarchy in Rome had driven Pope Clement V to seek refuge in France (the “Babylonian captivity”) in 1305. Practically, this meant that for about 70 years the papacy came under French control. Then, after Gregory XI finally moved back to Rome in 1377, squabbles among the cardinals (who were mostly French) resulted in first one, then two lines of antipopes competing with the true pope–each excommunicating the followers of the others. That was bad enough, but most people weren’t really sure who the true pope was. This chaos went on for almost forty years. This, on top of the 70-year Babylonian Captivity, meant that no one alive had any experience of the papacy as a stable, universal, godly source of leadership. Finally, in 1415, the lawful pope resigned, the antipopes were deposed and the Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V. Finally there was unity in Christendom! Of course, this still left people wondering who was really in charge–the pope or the Council that elected him (conciliarism). It took another thirty years or so for that question to be decided in favor of the pope. Even so, confidence in the papacy had been badly shaken–and reform was still badly needed. Devotion was still strong among the common people, but much prayer and sacrifice was needed to counter the scandal of many in positions of spiritual leadership.

It was into this volatile spiritual setting that today’s saint was born in 1416 in the town of Paola (also called Paula) on the southwestern coast of Italy (not far from Sicily). His pious parents, having suffered from infertility for several years, had prayed to St. Francis of Assisi for help and then named their firstborn after him (they later had two more children). They begged St. Francis’ intercession again when baby Francis suffered from a swelling that threatened his eyesight, promising that if he recovered, they would send him to a Franciscan convent for a year (not uncommon in those days). Francis did recover, and spent his thirteenth year in the convent in fulfillment of their vow. Although he did not take vows as a friar, he obeyed the Rule even more carefully than the monks, growing in holiness while he received an education. From that time on he gave up the use of linen and meat.

Upon leaving the convent, Francis joined his parents on a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi and other sacred sites. When they returned home, he gained his parents permission to live as a hermit in a remote part of their estate. When visits became too distracting, he retired to a cave on the seacoast where he spent the next 6 years in prayer and self-sacrifice, sleeping on bare rock (when he did sleep) and eating whatever he could gather from the woods or what friends brought to him. In France, St. Joan of Arc was leading the French army to throw off 100 years of English domination.

Before he was quite twenty years old, two devout men joined Francis, imitating his austere, prayerful lifestyle. Gradually the group grew. In 1454 (right around the time the printing press was being invented) Francis received permission from the local archbishop to build a large monastery and church to accommodate his followers. Enthusiasm for the project ran so high among the laity that even nobles pitched in to carry rocks. As the monastery took shape, so did the rule of life for its inhabitants. They were to be called “Minims”, least in the family of God, and to the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Francis added a fourth–to keep a perpetual Lenten fast (which in those days excluded dairy and eggs as well as meat) in order to make up for the many people who did not observe even the minimum sacrifices of Lent. He hoped that this silent witness would inspire them to repent.

Francis’ motto was “Charitas” (self-sacrificial love for God and man), but he and his order were best known for their humility, striving to be unknown and hidden from the world (in stark contrast to the luxury and pomp of many in the hierarchy). As word spread, Francis was called on to found more monasteries, eventually founding an order for women and a third order for laypeople.

In time miracles began to be reported. Healings, water from a rock for thirsty workmen, even resurrection from the dead were attributed to this godly man. He predicted the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, as well as other military victories and defeats. When a boatman refused him passage across the Straits of Messina to Sicily, he simply set his cloak on the water, tied one end to his staff and sailed across. This made Francis the patron of sailors and inspired one of Franz Liszt’s compositions, “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waters”.

In 1469 Pope Paul II sent one of his chamberlains to see if reports about Francis were true. In order to test his virtue, the chamberlain lectured Francis sternly on the illusions and dangers of miraculous gifts, criticizing the order for being too austere and exhorting him to lead a more ordinary religious life. When the chamberlain was not satisfied with his humble answers, Francis picked up burning coals from the fire in his bare hands, saying, “All creatures obey those who serve God with a perfect heart.”

Francis weathered other opposition too. The king of Naples (the region where Francis lived) was none too fond of him after Francis had the guts to challenge his immorality. Fortunately, the officer sent to arrest Francis was so impressed by Francis’ humility and readiness to be arrested that he returned empty-handed and persuaded the king to preserve Francis’ freedom. And when a famous preacher tried to expose him as a fraud, Francis again took coals in his hands, saying, “Come, Father Anthony, warm yourself, for you are shivering for want of a little charity.” Fr. Anthony begged his forgiveness and became as vocal in supporting Francis as he had been in denouncing him.

Louis XI, king of France, had other reasons for being interested in Francis. Domineering as he was, he realized that death was one thing he couldn’t control and it had him frantic. He sent for Francis to come to Tours to heal him. Francis refused. Louis asked Ferdinand, king of Naples to send Francis. Francis refused. Finally Louis got Pope Sixtus IV to order Francis to go, and he obeyed. Although Francis healed many during his journey through Italy and France, he did not to heal the king’s ailing body. By his prayers and persuasion, he healed the king’s soul, preparing him for a peaceful death. He also astonished the royal court when he threw a delicately seasoned, cooked trout back into the pool from which it came–and the fish swam away! Louis’ heir, King Charles VIII, kept Francis near him, consulting him on matters of state and building convents for him in France. Meanwhile, reports began to circulate of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of a New World beyond the ocean. King Louis XII, who succeeded Charles, also kept Francis from returning to Italy.

Francis, still in France, spent the last three months of his life in seclusion in his cell, preparing himself for death. On this date in 1907 (it was Good Friday that year), he asked his brothers to read the Passion according to St. John. With the words “Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit” on his lips, he passed into eternity. He was 91. Over 50 years later, Huguenots (French Protestants) broke into his tomb and found his body incorrupt. They burned it in a fire fueled by a large wooden crucifix, but Catholics managed to retrieve some of his bones, which are preserved in some of the churches of his order.

Francis’ own words:
“Fix your minds on the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Inflamed with love for us, He came down from Heaven to redeem us. For our sake He endured every torment of body and soul and shrank from no bodily pain. He Himself gave us an example of perfect patience and love. We, then, are to be patient in adversity.
“Take pains to refrain from sharp words. Pardon one another so that later on you will not remember the injury. The recollection of an injury is itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sins and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight.
“Be peace-loving. Peace is a precious treasure to be sought with great zeal. You are well aware that our sins arouse God’s anger. You must change your life, therefore, so that God in His mercy will pardon you. What we conceal from men is known to God. Be converted, then, with a sincere heart. Live your life that you may receive the blessing of the Lord. Then the peace of God our Father will be with you always.” – from a letter by Saint Francis of Paola,

St. Francis of Paula, pray for us, that your austerity, humility and love may inspire our Lenten fast and make us more like Christ.


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