We were so blessed last May on our parish pilgrimage to Italy to celebrate Mass together at the tomb of St Francis.

Assisi has been preserved very well considering the huge numbers of pilgrims and tourists who trek there every year.

The Cloister at San Damiano

You can still glimpse the medieval town beneath the layers of tourist trappings and crowds of pilgrims. The spirit of Francis and Clare are there, and the best place to capture their spirit is at San Damiano–just a short hike from the town itself.

When you read the life of St Francis–and Chesterton’s little book is still one of the best–you can see the remarkable paradoxes in the man. On the one hand he was the lover of nature’s beauties, the poetic soul, the “jongleur de Dieu” and the prince of poverty.

On the other hand he was a tough ascetic, an uncompromising John the Baptist and a hard liner.

Francis has always been one of those saints that we think we know, but in fact, we have so often simply projected our own personality on to him.

So how do you find Francis?

The temptation is always to sentimentalize him. He was more than the little poor brother, the preacher to birds and the singer of songs to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

Furthermore, in today’s sentimentalized age it is all too easy to turn St Francis into the poster boy for fashionable causes. Yes, he loved nature and stands for our proper stewardship of the world’s resources, but he is not just a proto-environmentalist. Yes, he was for poverty, but he really lived it. He didn’t just show off and pretend he was poor.

The question of poverty and riches is as potent and controversial in our age as it has ever been. While we admire St Francis and the Franciscans for their love of poverty, we also realize that many who seem rich are in fact very poor while many who seem poor are rich. We can never judge by outward appearances.

Furthermore, material wealth is not bad in itself just as poverty is not good in and of itself. The question is not how much money we have, but what we do with it. The question is not how wealthy we are, but whether we are prepared to leave it all behind because one day we will indeed leave it all behind.

They don’t put pockets in shrouds.

Everything Francis loved, he loved because it drew him closer to the Lord he loved. He loved his brothers because he saw Jesus in them. He loved nature because he saw the creator there. He loved poverty because he saw the one who had no place to lay his head.

He was tender, but he was also tough. He was little and therefore great. He was a gentle, courageous, romantic, realistic, mystic.

I think Francis draws us closer to the Lord, but the Lord also draws us closer to Francis. As we come closer to Christ we come closer to understanding the mystery and marvel of the saints. We get to know them. We come to understand what makes them tick.

That is my wish, that I will really see him as he really is, and that this beautiful saint will draw me closer to the Lord, and that he will not be sentimentalized and turned into some kind of hippy, a happy clappy Christian or a sappy statue with a bird bath.