When Egyptian Christians of the third century began to move into the desert to embrace the life of hermits, living lives of intense prayer and self-denial, they set a devotional pattern that has never quite lost its appeal to earnest Christians, even in our times.
St. Francis of Paola began his career as a hermit in the 15th century.
Francis was a native of Paola in Calabria, Southern Italy and the son of Giacomo and Vienna d’Alessio. Around 1430 he asked permission of his parents to establish a hermitage a few miles from his home. They did not interfere. Later on, he moved into a cave on the seashore. When he was 19, two other men joined him. Their neighbors were happy to build for the trio three small cells and a little chapel. From time to time a local priest would come and offer Mass for them.
In formulating a lifestyle for himself and his companions, as their small community developed into a new religious order, Francis was especially influenced by his patron saint, Francis of Assisi. He aimed, however, even to outstrip the Franciscan rule in austerity. He placed special stress on fasting. Indeed, his friars took an additional vow to observe a “Perpetual Lent,” abstaining always not only from meat but from meat products: eggs and milk. He also placed strong emphasis on charity (“Charity” was their motto), and on humility. Francis of Assisi had called the Franciscans “Friars Minor” (“lesser brother”). Francis of Paola went him one better; he named his friars “Minims” (i.e. “least brothers”).
As the order grew in size, its founder’s reputation increased as a holy man, a defender of the poor and the oppressed, and a worker of miracles. At one point, Pope Paul II sent one of his chamberlains to visit Francis and see what sort of man this hermit was. When the priest arrived, the founder was working with the masons laying stone for their church. The papal delegate tried to kiss his hands. St. Francis would not let him. “It is I,” he explained, “who should kiss the hands of a priest who has celebrated Mass for 30 years.” (“How did he know that I was ordained 30 years ago?” the Roman asked himself.) Nevertheless the delegate felt it his duty to warn this prophetic Minim to go easy on the austerities: “They are too severe,” he argued, “for human nature to bear.” To that the friar humbly replied that with God’s help any austerity could be borne. Reaching down into the fire, he grabbed a handful of red-hot coals and held them for some time. When he dropped them, he showed the visitor the palms of his hands. There was absolutely no evidence of burning. The papal chamberlain could not refute an argument like this, so he went back to Rome with a favorable report. The pope officially approved the rule of the Friars Minim in 1474.
Francis of Paola also set up other monasteries in southern Italy and eventually in France. His popularity spread, although at one moment a setback seemed in the making. This saint was no respecter of persons. Therefore, when King Ferdinand of Naples and his two sons began to flout the law of God, Francis did not hesitate to scold them roundly. Annoyed by this “impertinence”, King Ferdinand sent a police official to arrest the friar. But the official was so deeply impressed by the man that he returned home without him. He urged the king not to meddle with such a holy person.
By 1481 St. Francis’s fame was so widespread that King Louis XI of France, who had suffered a stroke and was frightened to die, got Pope Innocent IV to persuade the saint to come to France to cure him. Francis consented to go, but only under pressure. Once there, he told the king that he could not cure him: “The lives of kings are in God’s hands.” But by discussion and common prayer, he was finally able to bring the superstitious and erratic ruler back to a more Christian frame of mind about death.
Louis’s successors, Charles VIII and Louis XII, kept the friar in France, so much did they value his counsel even in political matters. Thus he spent “in exile” the last 25 years of his life.
Francis of Paola died at Tours, France, at the age of 91. His was a Passiontide death. He took ill on Palm Sunday and died on Good Friday. Thus the promoter of “perpetual Lent” spent Easter 1607 in perpetual light. There, “Lents,” so important for us who live, are no longer necessary.
–Father Robert F. McNamara