Saint Francis of Assisi
One of the most remarkable saints of any period of Christian history was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 but was nicknamed Francesco (“Frenchy”) by his Francophile father, a prosperous merchant of Assisi. Francis was a popular young man of no particular distinction until a sudden religious experience in his teens convinced him to live a life of poverty. He consorted with lepers, dressed as a beggar, giving away his own clothes, and donating so much of his father’s wealth to the poor that the older man objected. In a spectacular act of renunciation, Francis stripped himself naked in the public square and gave back everything he possessed to his father. For a time he lived as a hermit, but in 1209 he began to preach and began a mission that soon attracted followers eager to imitate his example. Francis sought permission of Pope Innocent III (see above) to begin a new religious order dedicated to poverty and contact with the poor. He and his followers became the Order of Friars Minor, soon to be known as the Franciscans.
In the early thirteenth century the Church was at its highest point in terms of political power and wealth; Innocent III was the dominant figure in Europe, deposing kings and emperors at his pleasure. The Church hierarchy, however, had lost touch with the spiritual needs of the faithful, many of whom were defecting to heretical groups such as the Waldensians or Cathars. Priests were poor expositors of the religion, serving primarily as dispensers of the sacrament and ignorant of doctrine and preaching. In the Franciscans, and their fellow mendicants the Dominicans, the Church hoped to find a way to reach the poor again.
Francis preached not only in Italy but also in North Africa where he accompanied the Fifth Crusade in 1219 to Egypt. He marched into the Islamic camp and apparently met the Sultan who entertained him for a few days before returning him to the invading army.
Back in Italy the Franciscan Order was becoming rapidly larger and a new more sophisticated Rule had to be imposed to better organize the friars, all of whom were meant to live by begging. By 1220 Francis turned over control of the Order to others and lived only for preaching and praying. In 1224 Francis received the stigmata, the marks of five bleeding wounds suffered on the cross by Christ and in 1226 he died. Almost immediately he was proclaimed a saint and is considered the patron of Italy.
The contributions of Francis and his Order are incalculable. They were able wandering preachers, opponents of heresy; they staffed the faculties of the new universities; they helped to run the Inquisition. Their example of poverty helped to deepen the devotion of medieval Europeans to Christianity. Francis staged the first live Christmas creche and Franciscans wrote the first Christmas carols. The love of St Francis for nature that lead him to preach to fish and animals has made him the patron saint of the ecological movement.
2006 Murder of five Amish children
On October 2, 2006, an employed church-going husband and loving father named Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and took the teacher and students hostage. After allowing some of his prisoners to leave, Roberts then lined up the remaining ten students, all girls, and began to shoot them. He killed five and wounded five others before killing himself as police broke in to the building. His suicide notes gave a variety of reasons for his actions, including a history of sexual molestation and anger at God.
What astonished the world after these deaths was the reaction of the local Amish community which reacted not with anger or frustrated calls for vengeance but with compassion for the killer and pity for his family. A spokesman said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Amish residents attended Roberts’s’ funeral and embraced his relatives. These extraordinary examples of Christian behaviour helped healing in the lives of all concerned. The killer’s wife, Marie Roberts, said that she and her three young children had been overwhelmed by the community support. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need,” she wrote. “Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. … Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” Terri Roberts, the killer’s mother, still volunteers to care for one of the victims, confined to a wheel-chair for life.
St Theresa of Lisieux
There is nothing to say that saints have to live long and arduous lives; hagiographies are full of the tales of young people who have been canonized for flashes of sanctitude or a single action. Few saints of tender years can have had so great an influence as this French woman who died at the age of 24 after a long battle with tuberculosis.
Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-97) was born into a pious middle-class family in northwestern France and decided at an early age she wished to be a nun, a resolve that strengthened when she experienced a vision of the Virgin. At 15 she entered the Discalced (Shoeless or Barefoot) Carmelites, a contemplative order of cloistered women with a house at Lisieux, Normandy which her sisters had already joined. She took the religious name Theresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. The rest of her short life she spent inside the walls of her convent, praying, serving and writing.
Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.
It is through her exposition of “the little way” that made Theresa famous, winning her sainthood after her death and the title Doctor of the Church. In her poetry and her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Theresa advocated a life of child-like trust and small loving actions. She is the patroness of African missions, those suffering from AIDS or tuberculosis, air crews and florists.