THE BOY WHO CHOSE POVERTY *
FAR across the sea in beautiful Italy, in a walled city built on a mountain side, lived little Francis Bernadone with his father and mother. His father was one of the richest merchants of the little city of Assisi, and although he seemed a proud, hard man, he loved his little boy dearly. He used to tell him strange, unforgettable tales of brave knights and beautiful ladies, tales he himself had heard when he travelled to the great fair to buy his goods from the merchants of other countries. Francis loved these wonderful stories, and as he listened he longed to become a great man. He would not be a merchant like his father, but a brave knight, riding a splendid black charger.
As Francis grew from boy to man he made friends with some of the greatest and richest men in Assisi, the sons of counts and dukes and princes. Although they were of noble birth and he was only a merchant's son, they liked him because he wore fine clothes and had much money to spend; and besides no one laughed so merrily nor sang so sweetly as he. These lads lived a gay life, I assure you, until the neighbors said their conduct was too bad to be endured. This made Francis's mother, the Lady Pica, very sad, although she, who knew him best, would say with tears in her eyes, "However careless and wild he may be, he has a kind and loving heart."
In those days, more than seven hundred years ago, there were many terrible wars in Italy, and Francis soon had a chance to try his fortune as a soldier. When his friends asked him laughingly, "What is it makes you so merry?" he answered proudly, "I know that I am going to be a great prince." So he rode gaily away to the war, while his mother watched him with grave eyes and prayed that her boy might come back safe to her.
Then a great disappointment came to Francis Bernadone. He fell ill on the way, and his gay companions had to ride on to the war without him. As he lay ill, burning with fever and sleepless with pain, a change slowly came over him. Instead of all his old love of a soldier's life and his old desire to become a great prince, a new love and a new desire were born in his heart; a love for all the ragged and hungry and sick and sorrowful people in the world, and a desire to clothe and feed and heal and comfort them all. It seemed to him that he must go everywhere and tell people to love and help each other. For himself, he must give up all his wealth and high position, so that by living in poverty he might truly be a brother to all those who were suffering and wretched. By sharing their life, he would help them to bear their burdens.
When he grew strong again, it took more than a soldier's courage to go back to his father and old friends and tell them of the new life he now wished to lead. His father was terribly angry and would not listen to him or to the Lady Pica, who wished to make peace between them. Francis went to an old friend, the bishop, and told him his troubles. At last there was a strange scene. Before a crowd of people, Francis stripped off the clothes he wore and laid them, with the little money he had, at the bishop's feet, and this is what he said, "Listen, all of you, and understand. Now I must serve God. I give back to my earthly father all my money and my clothing and everything which I have had from him, and from this time forth I shall say only, 'Our Father Who art in heaven.'"
We must remember that Francis longed to be at peace with his father, but he heard quite plainly a voice telling him that he must henceforth give up his gay and easy life, and take care of the sick and the hungry.
Slowly the love, the gentleness and the sweetness of Francis's life as he lived and worked among the poor, drew others to live with him, and serve as he did. These men he called his brothers, for were they not all children of the same Heavenly Father? Some of them, like Francis, had left homes of wealth and ease, but now they went all alike about the streets, barefooted and bareheaded, clad in dust-colored robes with a rope around the waist, helping the sick and the unhappy. No work was too hard or too humble for them, and the people of Assisi loved them. Their hearts rejoiced to serve God so, and never did they regret the life of riches left behind, Francis and his brothers, "the Little Poor Men of God."