The Passover of our Holy Father Francis to eternal life
The text is variously taken from Francis's writings, Thomas of Celano's Lives, Bonaventure's Major Life and his Collationes, the Fioretti and other early sources. The lovely lament for the blessed father that Celano places on the lips of Clare and her sisters is from his First life, Chapter X.
We have retained here the narrative form which we ourselves usually share after Vespers of our Father's feast day. It requires seven voices: Narrator, Francis, Bonaventure, Pacifico, Elias, Leo & Father Guardian. Francis opening words are from his Testament, they may be omitted according to circumstances. Though we do not usually dramatize the whole text, we generally share in the marzipan that Francis gives to Bernard and we commemorate the agapé of Francis and his brothers by sharing a small loaf!
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis to begin to do penance in this way: while I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.
And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: 'We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless you, for through your holy cross you have redeemed the world.".. And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave to the poor everything which they were capable of possessing and they were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, with a cord and short trousers. And we had no desire for anything more.
And I used to work with my hands, and I still desire to work; and I firmly wish that all my brothers give themselves to honest work. Let those who do not know how to work learn, not from desire of receiving wages for their work but as an example and in order to avoid idleness. And when we are not paid for our work, let us have recourse to the table of the Lord, seeking alms from door to door. The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: "May the Lord give you peace.
Let the brothers beware that they by no means receive churches or poor dwellings or anything which is built for them, unless it is in harmony with that holy poverty which we have promised in the Rule, and let them always be guests there as pilgrims and strangers.
And let the brothers not say: this is another rule; because this is a remembrance, an admonition, an exhortation, and my testament, which I, little Brother Francis, prepare for all of you, my blessed brothers, so that we may observe in a more catholic manner the rule which we have promised the Lord.
And whoever shall have observed these things, may he be filled in heaven with the blessing of the most high Father and on earth with the blessing of his beloved Son with the most Holy Spirit the Paraclete and with all the powers of heaven and all the saints.
And I, little brother Francis, your servant, in as much as I can, confirm for you this most holy blessing both within and without.
Francis now hung body and soul upon the cross with Christ; the fervour of his Seraphic love raised him up to God, and he was consumed with zeal for souls, so that he shared the Lord’s thirst for their salvation.
He could no longer walk because of the nails protruding from his feet, and so he had himself carried, half-dead as he was, about the towns and villages. Like “the second angel coming up from the east” of whom St John speaks in the Apocalypse, he enkindled the hearts of God’s servants with a divine fire, and set their feet on the way of peace, marking their brows with the seal of the living God.
During the week in which the Blessed Francis died, the Lady Clare lay also close to death and those with her feared that she might die before the Blessed Father. To comfort her, he sent a letter to her and to all her sisters.
I, little Brother Francis
wish to follow the life and poverty
of our Most High Lord Jesus Christ
and of his most holy Mother
and to persevere in it until the end.
And I beseech you all, my ladies, and counsel you
always to live in this most holy life and poverty
and to watch yourselves well
lest through the teaching and advice of anybody
you ever depart from it in any way.
Francis sent Clare his blessing and absolved her of any fault she might have committed against his counsel and against the commands and teachings of the Son of God. And he was guided by the Holy Spirit to say to the friar whom he sent:
Go and tell the Lady Clare to put aside all sorrow and grief, for she cannot see me now, but promise her that before her death both she and her sisters shall certainly see me and be greatly comforted by it.
Some days before his death Francis was lying sick in the Bishop’s palace and Brother Pacifico, who was amongst those with him, had once had a dream in which he was carried away to Paradise. There he saw a great number of thrones, all of them occupied, and one higher than all the others, which was vacant. And he asked to whom it belonged, and he had been told that it belonged to Saint Francis. And gazing down at him in his poor, patched sacking habit, he said to him as though in jest:
How much would you charge the Lord Bishop for all your sackcloth? One day many canopies and silken palls will cover this little body of yours which is now clothed in sackcloth.
And Francis, inspired by the Holy Spirit, replied with tremendous enthusiasm and joy.
What you say is absolutely true, for it will be to the praise and glory of my Lord.
And despite his illness he and the brothers with him would often sing the praises of Christ and the Canticle of the Creatures with the new verse he had made to welcome Sister Death.
Father, you know that the people of this city have great faith in you and consider you a holy man, and so they may think that if you are as they believe, you should be thinking about death in this illness of yours and that you should be weeping rather than singing, since you are so seriously ill. Do you not think we had better go back to St Mary of the Angels?
Dearest Brother, you know that two years ago, when we were staying in Foligno, the Lord revealed to you the end of my life. Moreover, he has revealed to me that the end will come in a few days and he has given me assurance of the remission of all my sins, and of the happiness of Paradise. Before I knew this, I used to weep over death and over my sins, but now I am so full of joy that I cannot weep any more. And that is why I have sung, and I shall continue to sing to the Lord who has given me the gift of his grace and the certainty of the bliss of the glory of Paradise. But regarding our leaving here, I willingly agree.
The friars therefore took him in their arms and carried him on the way towards St Mary of the Angels. And when they were halfway there he said:
Francis: Set me down on the ground and turn me towards Assisi.
Narrator: And raising himself a little, he blessed the city.
Lord, this city was once known as the dwelling of brigands, but now in your own time and through your infinite mercy you have showered her with many special graces. Solely out of your goodness you have chosen her for your own, that she might become the home of those who know you in truth and glorify your holy Name as a witness to all men by a life fragrant with holiness, faith, and the fullness of the Gospel. I beg you, therefore, my Lord Jesus Christ and Father of all mercies, do not look on our ungratefulness but remember the kindness you have shown her, that she may be forever the dwelling-place of those who know you in truth and glorify your holy Name.
And when they arrived at St Mary’s they carried him to the infirmary, and laid him to rest there. Then St Francis called Brother Leo.
Dearest Brother, I know that I am soon to die and the Lady Jacopa who is so devoted to our Order would be extremely unhappy if she were not able to be present. So let us write to her that if she wants to see me alive she should come here at once.
You are right, Father. Because of her great devotion she would grieve intensely if she were not present at your death.
Bring the inkhorn and pen and write: To the Lady Jacopa, servant of God Brother Francis, the little poor man of Christ, sends his greeting in the Lord and fellowship in the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ! You must know, my very dear friend, that the blessed Christ has shown me by his grace that my life will soon end, so if you want to find me alive, make haste and come to St Mary of the Angels. For if you do not come by a certain day you will not find me alive. Bring with you a rough shroud and the candles for the funeral, and also some of the marzipan which you gave me to eat when I was sick in Rome....
But before the letter could be finished there was a sound of horses and of a crowd at the gate, and when the Brother went to open it, there was the Lady Jacopa with her sons and household, bringing with her those things for which Saint Francis had asked.
Blessed be God who has guided the Lady Jacopa our Brother to us. Open the door and let her in, the rule against women does not apply to our Brother Jacopa.
The Lady Jacopa came into the infirmary, and her arrival brought him great happiness and she was overjoyed to find him alive and that she could talk with him. She had the marzipan brought and fed some to Saint Francis.
This food would do Brother Bernard good, too. Send for him and ask him to come.
Narrator: And after he had eaten and was much consoled, the Lady Jacopa kissed the wounded feet of Saint Francis and bathed them with her tears. And she seemed to the Brothers like another Mary Magdalen, weeping and embracing and kissing the feet of another Christ.
After the example of Eternal Truth he was anxious to show that he no longer had anything in common with the world and he had himself laid naked on the bare earth, so that with all the fervour of his spirit he might struggle naked with his naked enemy in that last hour which is given to him to vent his wrath. As he lay there on the ground, stripped of his poor habit, he raised his eyes to heaven, as his custom was, and was lost in contemplation of its glory. He covered the wound in his right side with his left hand, to prevent it being seen, and he said to the Friars:
I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.
His companions were overcome with sorrow and wept bitterly; one of them whom the saint called his guardian was inspired by God and took a habit with a cord and trousers, and offered them to Christ’s beggar, for he realised this was what he wanted.
I am giving you the loan of these, as a beggar, and you are to take them in virtue of obedience.
The saint was delighted and his heart overflowed with happiness; this proved that he had kept his faith with Lady Poverty to the end. Christ hung upon his cross, poor and naked and in great pain, and Francis wanted to be like him in everything. That was why at the beginning of his religious life he stood naked before the bishop, and at the end he wished to leave the world naked.
Francis called to his brothers and blessed each one of them just like the Patriarch Jacob of old, and indeed like another Moses, who when he was about to ascend the mountain of God enriched the children of Israel with blessings. And he placed his hand on the head of each brother, saying:
Farewell all my sons, in the fear of the Lord, and may you remain in him always. A time of temptation and trouble will come in the future and blessed are they who will persevere in what they have begun. I am hastening to the Lord, to whose grace I commend you all.
And the holy Father commanded bread to be brought to him and giving thanks he blessed the bread and broke it, giving each a piece.
Surely he was the most Christ-like of men! His only desire was to be like Christ and imitate him perfectly, and he was found worthy to be adorned with the marks of his likeness; in his life he imitated the life of Christ and in his death he imitated his death, and he wished to be like him still when he was dead.
Bring the book of the Gospels, I beg you, and read that part of Saint John which begins: Before the feast of the Passover.
Before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end....
And Francis commanded that he once more be laid naked on the ground and that a hair shirt be put over him and he be sprinkled with ashes, saying:
Welcome, Sister Death.
And in a weak voice he intoned Psalm 141, and so he died, singing.
With all my voice I cry to the Lord,
with all my voice I entreat the Lord.
I pour out my trouble before him;
I tell him all my distress
while my spirit faints within me.
But you, O Lord, know my path.
On the way where I shall walk
they have hidden a snare to entrap me.
Look on my right and see:
there is no one who takes my part.
I have no means of escape,
not one who cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O Lord.
I have said: “You are my refuge,
all I have in the land of the living.’
Listen, then, to my cry
for I am in the depths of distress.
Rescue me from those who pursue me
for they are stronger than I.
Bring my soul out of this prison
and then I shall praise your name.
Around me the just will assemble
because of your goodness to me.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.
At last, when all God’s mysteries had been accomplished in him, his holy soul was freed from his body and assumed into the abyss of God’s glory, and Francis fell asleep in God. One of the friars, a disciple of his, saw his soul being borne on a white cloud over many waters to heaven, under the appearance of a radiant star.
Narrator: And later that evening a great flock of larks assemble above the roof of the place where he lay. And they circled round it in the form of a wheel, singing sweetly as they flew and seeming to praise God. Now Francis’ brothers and sons had gathered together with a great multitude of people from the cities nearby and spent the whole night in which the holy Father had died singing the praises of God, so much so that, because of the charms of the jubilation and the brightness of the lights, it seemed to be a wake of the angels. But when morning had come, a great multitude from the city of Assisi assembled with all the clergy, and taking Francis’ body from the place where he had died, they carried it amid great honour to the city with hymns and praises and sounding trumpets. And they all took up branches of olive trees and came to the place where he had himself first planted the religion and order of holy virgins and poor ladies, where they placed him in the church of St Damian, and they brought his body to the grille and Saint Clare and her sisters came forward and kissed his wounds. And their grief was so great that seeing them none could refrain from tears when the angels of peace wept so bitterly. And they made this lament:
Father, Father, what is now left for us?
Why do you leave us who mourn?
We are alone, where shall we turn?
O why did you not send us with joy ahead
to the place where you have gone,
we, who are left here in grief?
What would you have us do,
we that are imprisoned here,
to whom you will never come again?
All our consolation has gone with you
and there is no comfort left to us,
buried as we are to the world.
Who will uphold us in our great poverty?
For we are in virtue no less poor
than in the goods of earth.
O Father of the poor,
O lover of poverty
When we are tempted who will make us strong?
You who every temptation knew
and well knew how to overcome,
who will comfort us when we are tried?
You were our helper in times of distress.
O most bitter going forth!
O most feared farewell!
O most dreaded death
that lays low so many daughters and sons
bereft of a father who was so great;
by calling beyond recall
the gardener by whose work this little plant
was made to grow and flower.
Bonaventure: Those who abandon the Egypt of this world can follow Francis with complete confidence; the cross of Christ will part the waters of the sea for them like Moses’ rod, and they will traverse the desert to the promised land of the living, where they will enter by the miraculous power of the cross, having crossed the Jordan of our human mortality. May our Saviour and Leader, Jesus, bring us there, through the intercession of Saint Francis. To him be all praise and honour and glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit in perfect Trinity, for ever and ever. Amen.