How St. Francis of Assisi Dealt With His Difficult Father
When our relationship with a family member goes wrong, can we rise above it and still respond charitably?
I recently read a biography of St. Francis of Assisi and was struck by the author’s account of how Francis dealt with his difficult father. The author of this particular biography, Thomas of Celano, was a contemporary of St. Francis who joined the Franciscan order around 1215 and wrote (for Pope Gregory IX) the earliest view of Francis. Although using language of his time more flowery than ours today, Thomas recounts many admirable characteristics of Francis — but what might be of most use today, particularly to our youth, is his description of how Francis responded to his father’s ill treatment of him.
Our parents are so important to us. But when a significant relationship goes wrong and leaves us in a less-than-desirable position, can we rise above it and still respond charitably? Here St. Francis is our role model. Francis has undergone a conversion, turned his life over to Christ, and as Thomas of Celano puts it, is “unbroken and unchanged by any injuries, gives thanks for all to the Lord. For in vain does the unrighteous persecute one who is making for virtue, since the more he is buffeted the more mightily will he triumph. Indignity (as someone says) strengthens a generous spirit.”
The father of St. Francis is not impressed with this positive change in his son. Thomas of Celano writes that Francis’ father had decided …
… to ruin him, and, casting all moderation aside, he rushed on him like a wolf on a sheep, and, looking at him with malign and cruel countenance, laid hands on him very shamelessly and disgracefully, and carried him off to his own house. And so, without any mercy, he shut him up for several days in a dark place, and thinking to bend his son's spirit to his own will, urged him at first by words, and then by stripes and chains. But this made Francis the readier and stronger to carry out his holy purpose, nor, though insulted by words and wearied by chains, did he flinch from endurance. For he who is bidden to rejoice in tribulation, though he be scourged and bound, can neither decline from his right intent and posture of mind, nor be led away from Christ's flock: nor does he quake in the overflowing of many waters whose refuge in distress is the Son of God, who, in order that we might not think our troubles hard, ever showed that those He endured were greater.
The family situation intensifies when Francis’ mother decides to help him. Thomas of Celano details the response by St. Francis’ father:
His father came back, and not finding his son, heaped sin on sin and turned round to upbraid his wife. Then, raging and blustering, he ran to the place where his son was, so that, if he could not call him back, he might at least drive him out of the province. But (for that the fear of the Lord is confidence of strength) when the son of grace heard his carnal father coming to him, he went of his own accord to meet him fearless and joyful, crying with free speech that he cared nothing for his father's chains and stripes. He averred moreover that he would gladly undergo any, evils for the name of Christ.
As is common in today’s increasingly secular society, the ultimate issue between Francis and his father was money. Thomas of Celano tells us:
Therefore when the money was found which that greatest despiser of earthly things and that most eager searcher after heavenly riches had thrown aside into the dust of the window, the raging father's fury was somewhat appeased, and the thirst of his avarice in some sort allayed by the dew of discovery. Then he brought his son before the bishop of the city, so that by a formal renunciation of all his property in the bishop's presence he might give up all he had. And Francis not only did not refuse to do this, but, greatly, rejoicing, made haste with ready mind to perform what had been demanded of him.
And to make matters worse, Francis’ father is unashamed in his greed to see St. Francis publicly humiliated. Thomas of Celano notes:
When brought before the bishop, Francis would brook no delay nor hesitation in anything: nay, without waiting to be spoken to and without speaking he immediately put off and cast aside all his garments and gave them back to his father. Moreover, he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders.
And Francis’ father is content to receive the expensive clothes back from him and leave his son naked. Nevertheless, St. Francis maintains his joy and love of the Lord as he begins his new life of detachment, not only from material goods, but also from having a reliable family.
The love of family members is a joy and a means of sustenance for us. But as I look at the continual high statistics of deterioration among our youth, the weakening of family relationships is more than likely a cause of this sad behavior. Could learning about the abandonment of St. Francis of Assisi encourage many teenagers to have hope that God does have a plan for us even when family is not there?
I so admire the man described in the brief biography of Thomas of Celano. I believe that this account of the family relationship of St. Francis could especially be related when we teach Catholic school children about the love of God the Father for all of us, a Father like no other no matter who our earthly fathers may be.
Christ tells us in Matthew 6:
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
This is the spirit and faith of St. Francis, a prime role model for our teens.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!