He was born as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in Assisi, Italy, in 1181 or 1182 and died at the age of 44 in 1226. In spite of his given name, his father was traveling in France at the time of his birth, so he opted to call him Francesco, which means “the Frenchman.” We, of course, know him as St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrate on Oct. 4. To say that he is among the most revered of our Catholic saints would be an understatement.
In their pastoral letter Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “After Jesus, we look to Mary as an ideal steward.” Our Catholic saints also provide us examples of what it means to be a steward, but perhaps none more than St. Francis of Assisi. Like the Lord and His Blessed Mother, St. Francis exemplified stewardship.
We were reminded of that fact when our Holy Father chose the name Francis. The pope explained his choice in this way: “For me he [Francis] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards Creation. He is a man who gives us this spirit of peace.” From the time he was a boy, Francis recognized that he was gifted — he also understood that he needed to put his gifts at the service of God and others. One of his followers, Brother Leo, was fond of telling that he could hear Francis praying at night, and that St. Francis used the same prayer over and over. It was, “Oh God, Who are You, and who am I?”
Striving to come to an understanding of his relationship with God, and his role as a disciple of the Lord, St. Francis tried to rid himself of all the things that might prevent him from discovering his role in the Kingdom. Early on, he embraced poverty as a way of life. By eschewing possessions, Francis maintained that his voluntary poverty gave him freedom, freedom from owing anyone other than God, and thus giving him the complete freedom to serve God.
We speak of the Four Pillars of Stewardship — Hospitality, Prayer, Formation and Service. The life St. Francis embraced and the life he lived can almost be defined by those pillars. Francis and the community he developed did not accept money — they worked for enough food to eat for that day, or for water, or for a place to sleep. His example coerces us to ask, “Are there possessions that restrict us, that hinder our ability to be a disciple?”
St. Francis dedicated his entire life to imitating the life of Christ and to carrying out the work of the Lord as he, Francis, perceived Christ would do it. Of course, St. Francis had ultimate love of the Eucharist, and great respect for the priests who carried out this sacrament. As stated, poverty became a way of life for him. In fact, in his last written work, The Testament, Francis stated that personal and corporate poverty were essential as the lifestyle for the members of his Order.
Francis was a steward of all creation. He believed that nature and what it represented was the “mirror of God.” Most representations we see of Francis have animals with him and surrounding him. He called all creatures his “sisters” and “brothers.” He had particular love of birds, and was known to preach to them. As a steward and a disciple of Christ, St. Francis viewed all people with love and respect. He said, “How can I be a friend of Christ if I do not cherish those for whom Christ died?”
It is difficult to assess all the ways that St. Francis has influenced our faith and our practice of it. His desire to be Christ-like provides a stewardship example to us that makes clear to us how to move toward holiness. He had the humility of a complete servant. He once said, “If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.” Although the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis is most likely not a direct quote from him, it well represents his philosophy and his sense of stewardship. In part it states, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive.” Through stewardship, we give — and what we receive in return, just as was the case with St. Francis of Assisi, is beyond our comprehension.