May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! Through it the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. I bear the brand marks of Jesus in my body. Brothers, may the favor of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Galatians 6: 14, 17-18)
From the beginning of his conversion our Seraphic Father Saint Francis had a very great devotion and veneration for Christ crucified and never ceased to preach this devotion till his death. In the year 1224 as he was rapt in deep contemplation on Mt. Alverna, Christ the Lord by a stupendous miracle imprinted the marks of His passion on the saint’s body. Pope Benedict XI permitted the Franciscan Order to celebrate annually on this day the memory of this extraordinary event attested by reliable witnesses.
What many do not think of or know about St. Francis is that he was a radical penitent! Many think of him as just a peaceful nature lover and he did see God’s awesomeness in creation but his spirituality was such that he desired to be a martyr. He went to preach to an islamic Sultan and if he had been martyrded in that attempt that would have pleased him. But he lived his martyrdom another way; he gave himself fully in another way, and ultimately he became so configured to Christ that the Holy Stigmata–the wounds of Christ–were imprinted on his body. St. Francis, pray for us and that we may live also all for Christ.
From the Legenda Minor of St. Bonaventure:
Two years before Francis, the faithful servant of Christ, gave his soul back to God, he was alone on the top of Mt. Alverna. There he had begun a fast of forty days in honor of the archangel Michael and was immersed more deeply than usual in the delights of heavenly contemplation. His soul became aglow with the ardor of fervent longing for heaven as he experienced within himself the operations of grace.
As he was drawn aloft through ardent longing for God one morning near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and was praying on the mountainside, he saw what appeared as a seraph with six bright wings gleaming like a fire descending from the heights of heaven. As this figure approached in swift flight and came near the man of God it appeared not only winged but also crucified. The sight of it amazed Francis and his soul experienced joy mingled with pain. He was delighted with the sight of Christ appearing to him so graciously and intimately and yet the awe-inspiring vision of Christ nailed to the cross aroused in his soul a joy of compassionate love.
When the vision vanished after a mysterious and intimate conversation it left Francis aglow with seraphic love in his soul. Externally, however, it left marks on his body like those of the Crucified as if the impression of a seal had been left on heated wag. The figures of the nails appeared immediately on his hands and feet. The heads of the nails were inside his hands but on top of his feet with their points extending through to the opposite side. His right side too showed a blood-red wound as if it had been pierced by a lance, and blood flowed frequently from it. Because of this new and astounding miracle unheard of in times past, Francis came down from the mountain a new man adorned with the sacred stigmata, bearing in his body the image of the Crucified not made by a craftsman in wood or stone , but fashioned in his members by the hand of the living God.
Francis and his followers travelled and preached all over Europe, gaining popularity and followers everywhere. Francis himself preached before the Pope and Cardinals at the Lateran in 1217 and met St. Dominic during that stay in Rome. Lay people were so moved by Francis’ preaching that they came to him pleading to join his order, once an entire congregation implored him en masse. At this point he devised his Third Order, which he intended as a middle state for people who weren’t ready or able to leave all for the cloister.
Many Franciscans also went to preach to the Muslims, Francis himself preached to the sultan as he and his army were faced by crudasers from Europe. Many of the friars who went to Muslim lands were martyred. Francis’ first rule was only approved verbally by Innocent III, and in written form it was overly long and not precise. After some relaxations in the austerity he desired for his friars and imposition of rules by outside or unauthorized people, Francis retired to solitude to entrust an official version of his rule of life to paper. (After he finished a first version it was promptly lost, and Francis was forced to retire again to re-write it.) The rule was pared down from 23 to 12 chapters, and was solemnly approved by Pope Honorius III on November 29, 1223. It was unique up to that time in that it stressed the vow of poverty, which it made absolute, and in the compromise between the secular and religious states in his Third Order.
HYMN from the Office of Readings
The mysteries of Jesus’ passion Shone forth on Mount Alverna’s height,
Where rays of merciful redemption Diffused their gentle saving light,
As Francis, rapt in contemplation, The Cross embraced throughout the night.
His fervent prayer in lone seclusion, His spirit soared to God on high;
The thought of Christ’s most bitter passion Evoked from him a painful sigh;
His urge to share Christ’s crucifixion Engulfed his soul in ecstasy.
Then, lo, there came the King from heaven In garb of Seraphim arrayed.
His form, in angel wings enfolded, A kindly countenance displayed;
But then the Cross that bore his members His bitter sufferings portrayed.
The servant gazed upon his Savior, Once suffering, now glorified;
The light and splendor of the Father, But now so lowly, gentle, tried.
He understood the mystic message To no mere human words allied.
The mountain peak burst forth in splendor, As neighbors wondered down below;
The heart of Francis throbbed intensely With flames of love for Christ aglow;
And presently upon his body Christ’s passion wounds began to show.
Unto the Crucified be glory, Who takes away our guilt and sin.
Him Francis greatly loved and honored, In cross and suffering made akin,
And through his grace the world despising The crown of glory strove to win.
Text taken from: Proper Offices of Franciscan Saints and Blesseds in the Liturgy of the Hours. September 17 – Feast of the Stigmata of our holy father Francis