As children and young adults we are regularly imprinted with memories that mark us forever. We see, for instance, how others treat the poor with compassion or dismiss them as lazy, and these experiences are like seeds that grow in us and form the basis for the critical decisions we make in our lives and lifestyles.
Something like this happened to St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today. Born into a merchant’s family, a new class of people that began to emerge after the year 1000 in Europe, Francis regularly traveled with his father to the cloth fairs of southern France where he encountered thousands of poor and homeless people who surrounded the great fairs begging. While most people could dismiss what they saw or patronize the poor as weak and lazy, Francis saw something else. At first, he did not know what he was feeling, but gradually he realized how awful he felt when he saw poor people, especially lepers. A seed of doubt about the dignity of the poor had been planted in his spirit, one that eventually would change him and his society forever.
Riding his horse one day, perhaps daydreaming, Francis came upon a leper. Compelled by grace he dismounted and kissed the leper and later exclaimed, “What before was bitter was turned into sweetness of body and soul.” Kissing the leper changed everything for Francis. The seed of discontent sowed in him at the cloth fairs of southern France was beginning to bear fruit. While others felt free to dismiss lepers as sinners and think of them as less than human, Francis, with a simple kiss, knew that he had become part of a new family. He would join the poor, the lepers, and the forgotten. He would take off the clothes his father gave him as a gift and don the garb on the poor as a pilgrim. His life and the life of those who eagerly followed him, would never be the same. All creation was holy, Francis proclaimed. Every person had dignity and the Gospel of simplicity, lived so powerfully in Jesus, was reborn for a new age.
Today we pause in joy and gratitude for the faith of St. Francis. Afraid, intimidated and resistive, he avoided God’s plan for more than 20 years, but eventually God won his heart and sent him forth as a herald of the great king and the dignity of the poor.
Pray that the seeds planted in you as a child will bear fruit for the good of the world. If this means rejecting the values that blinded you to the needs of others or letting the glory of God flower in you as you remember a compassionate, understanding and giving grandparent, let it be. Give God access to your heart and let God do God’s work.