The figure of Francis of Paula seems incongruous against the background of fifteenth-century Italy. That was the time of the Italian Renaissance, the rebirth of learning and beauty, when men glorified human knowledge and scoffed at strict morality. Through the purity of his life, Francis reminded men once again that what is good and true and beautiful is a reflection of God.
Francis had been dedicated to God almost from the beginning of his life. He was born in the year 1416 in Paula, a small town in Calabria, Italy. While still an infant, he suffered from a swelling that threatened the sight of one of his eyes. His parents prayed to Saint Francis of Assisi to cure their son, promising that the boy would spend a year in a Franciscan monastery; the swelling immediately disappeared. At thirteen, Francis fulfilled his parents’ vow and entered a nearby Franciscan monastery, where he was outstanding for his obedience to the monastic rule. A year later he made a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi; then, returning home and deciding to become a hermit, he went to live in a secluded cave overlooking the sea. There for about six years, he slept on stone and ate only food that was given him or that he himself could gather in the woods. In 1435 he was joined by two other men who, with Francis, formed the nucleus of the future Order of Minims.
For over forty years Francis wandered throughout southern and central Italy, gathering a large number of disciples, founding monasteries and churches. Wherever he went, he preached his own dynamic concept of charity, of living love through fasting and mortification. Penances, charity, and humility formed the basis of the Minims’ life, and to the usual three vows taken by monks Francis added a fourth: perpetual abstinence from meat. At one time Church authorities attempted to make him retract this fourth rule, as too difficult for human nature to observe. In answer to this, Francis grasped some hot coals in his hands, holding them without pain or damage to himself, insisting that nothing is impossible to one who undertakes penances for the love of God.
Aside from the many miracles he performed, Francis was endowed with the gift of prophecy. He predicted the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, several years before the event took place. Although all Italy spoke of him as a wonder worker, a prophet, and a saint, Francis’ new order was not sanctioned by the Holy See until 1474. At that time the order was composed of uneducated men with only one priest. They were called the Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi, but in · 1492, at Francis’ request, their name was changed to Minims; that is, the least in the household of God. Because of the strictness of their life, the Minims have always been one of the smallest orders in the Church.
In 1482, at the command of Pope Sixtus IV, Francis traveled to the castle at Plessis-les-Tours, France, where King Louis XI lay dying. Terrified by the thought of death, Louis had hoped that Francis might work a miracle to restore his health, but the saint would do nothing but assure him that the lives of all men were in the hands of God. Through Francis’ prayers and counsel, Louis died peacefully. Louis’ successor, Charles VIII, found Francis such an invaluable advisor and spiritual director that he erected a monastery for him at Plessis-les-Tours to keep him near the court. Charles’ esteem for the saint was shared by Louis XII, who came to the throne in 1498, so Francis was never permitted to return to Italy.
Francis spent the last three months of his life in his cell preparing himself for death. He became grievously ill at the beginning of Holy Week in 1507 and died on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon. He was canonized twelve years later, in 1519, by Pope Leo X. Most of Francis’ relics were destroyed by the French Calvinists in 1562; the ones that remain are enshrined in various churches of the Order of Minims.
Saint Francis de Paula – 303 Encino Street; Tularosa NM 88352 (575) 585-2793
Saint Francis de Paula Parish – 401 South Victoria St; San Diego TX 78384 (361) 279-3596