| Meditation by Father Michael Copps OFM, Spiritual
Director to the Guild
St Francis was born
in the Italian town of Assisi in 1182. He was the son
of a cloth merchant and dressed in such a way as to
display wealth and excess. He was fastidious and particularly
avoided ‘lepers’, whose smell and filth
were obnoxious to him. He would make a wide circuit
around the leprosarium which lay in the valley below
Assisi. In this he was in tune with the view of society
at that time that ‘lepers’ did not count
as people but were a menace to public health. There
was a stigma attached to the disease and this included
the judgement that ‘lepers’ were morally
Francis could have lived with this attitude except
that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had taken hold of him.
He pondered constantly words like “For if you
love those who love you, what right have you to claim
any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they
not?” One day while riding his horse on the plain
below Assisi he came across a ‘leper’. The
nagging inside came to crisis point in this meeting
and Francis answered the words of Christ by getting
off his horse and embracing the man.
Now he himself became a free man because there was
no longer anyone to avoid; he could be brother to all
people in following Christ.
He founded an Order of men called the Friars Minor
(which means ‘lesser brothers’) and the
very name shows what Francis desired. He wanted to live
as a lesser brother and for the Order to live in the
same way. He wanted to do this because his Master, Jesus
Christ, had come on earth in poverty to live as a brother
to all people.
Francis wanted to live as Jesus had, and he found
that he could be brother to everyone once he had freed
himself of his prejudices and natural dislikes. Thus
he has been described as a very catholic man –
not Catholic in a sectarian sense but quite the opposite
sense: a man with universal appeal.
St Francis is patron of the St Francis Leprosy Guild
which funds projects that actively seek out and care
for people affected by leprosy. The stigma attached
to the disease still exists and people who fear they
have contracted it hide away or are hidden away by relatives.
St Francis originally avoided contact with ‘lepers’,
but after meeting and nursing them the experience “was
changed into sweetness of soul and body”.
All of us have people that we dislike, despise, write
off as beyond the pale, and they become a challenge
to us. The Gospel standard Jesus sets for human loving
is, “You must therefore be perfect, just as your
heavenly Father is perfect”. The ‘leper’
is a symbol of any person we reduce to being a non-person;
as though they were not a creation of the loving Father.
When we embrace that person as Francis did, we take
hold of the freedom of the children of God and live
at peace with ourselves.