For Catholics it is only their love for Mary and Joseph that excels their devotion to St. Francis. Most of us have heard the story of how his father brought Francis to court over having used their family’s money to aid the poor. We have heard how right there in court, Francis stripped himself of the clothing he had from his father, becoming one of the poor. But, let’s hold back from picturing that father as a cruel businessman.
Like any head of a large family, Francis’s father Pietro had to keep watch over his expenses. He was a merchant who dealt in the fine fabrics woven from thread arriving at Assisi, the western end of the silk-road from China. Pietro had expanded his business to where he was a supplier of fine brocades to many of France’s elite, and in his stays in France he had become enamored of the Moorish themes and melodies taking hold there.
At first, merchants like Pietro scoffed at the Troubadour songs for the way they glorified the lives of the knights. The merchants knew the knights to be low-living, unwanted younger sons of the barons. They were boys trained for nothing but brawling. But for all that, people couldn’t resist the charm of the songs that were picturing the knights as pure gentlemen who performed noble feats for the honor of fair ladies. Then, by an odd reversal of trends, the knights themselves came to believe in the fables about their chivalry, and they took to cleaning up their acts.
Pietro had been away in France when his seventh child was born. And at his return, on hearing that his wife had seen to having the baby baptized as John, he nixed that. His affection for the French troubadours had him renaming the boy Francis. And Francis, from his early teens, took to living out his father’s fantasies. He and his companions dressed up for playing the games of courtly love. They were caught up in a Cultural Revolution.
The troubadour spirit in a different guise fired Francis after his conversion. He became a knight fighting for the honor of his Lady Poverty. His Canticle of God’s Creatures, the first masterpiece composed in Italian, was the song of a sanctified troubadour.
I can’t here present anything like a biography of St. Francis, so let me make two points. For one thing, he gave a reminder of the simple life of Jesus to a church encrusted with Feudal pomp. Then, secondly, he provided the Church with much- needed popular devotions. It was Francis who set up the first Christmas manger. He was the first to lead people in the Stations of the Cross.