Gregory IX in a manuscript miniature, XIII Century, from Wikipedia
How Pope Gregory IX was convinced of the Stigmata of St Francis
Pope Gregory was an old man when he became Pope, with a long career as a papal diplomat behind him, a man well-used to detecting deceit on the part of the rulers and generals he had to deal with. The editor of the Little Flowers tells us what convinced him that Francis’s stigmata was God’s doing. The stigmata certainly impressed many people as the work of God in the body of his servant Francis, But Gregory was not going to accept the wounds at face value simply on the say-so of the friars. These are the final words of the Little Flowers.
To conclude our consideration of the stigmata we should tell you that St. Francis appeared one night to Pope Gregory IX. (who doubted the wound in the side of St. Francis, as he afterward related).
Lifting up his right arm a little, Francis uncovered the wound in his side, and asked for a phial; and he caused it to be brought; and St. Francis caused it to be set under the wound in his side. It seemed to the Pope that, truly it was filled even unto the brim with blood mixed with water, which came forth from the said wound; and from then every doubt departed from him. And with the counsel of all the cardinals, he approved the most holy Stigmata of St. Francis; and this he did at Viterbo in the eleventh year of his pontificate; and afterward, in the twelfth year, he gave another more ample.
And may God give us grace so to follow our father St. Francis in this world that, by virtue of his glorious stigmata, we may merit to be saved with him in paradise.
To the praise of Jesus Christ and of the mendicant St. Francis. Amen.
Our final reading from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis. It speaks of the Communion of Saints and of the Good Shepherd granting Saint Francis’s prayer for his Franciscan brothers and sisters.
IN the Province of Rome, a very devout and holy friar saw this marvellous vision.
A certain friar, a very dear companion of his, having died one night, was buried in the morning before the entrance of the chapter-house; and, on the same day, after dinner, that friar betook himself into a corner of the chapter-house, to pray God and St. Francis devoutly for the soul of that dead friar his companion.
And, as he persevered in prayer with supplications and tears, at noon, when all the others were gone away to sleep, he heard a great noise as of one being dragged through the cloister; whereat immediately with great fear he turned his eyes toward the grave of his companion, and saw St. Francis standing there at the entrance of the chapter-house, and behind him a great multitude of friars round about the said grave. He looked beyond, and saw in the midst of the cloister a very great flaming fire, and in the flames was the soul of his companion who was dead.
He looked round the cloister and he saw Jesus Christ walking round the cloister with a great company of angels and of saints. And, while he gazed upon these things and marvelled much, he saw that, when Christ passed before the chapter-house, St. Francis kneeled down with all those friars and spake thus: “I beseech Thee, my dearest Father and Lord, that, through the inestimable charity which Thou didst show to the human race in Thy incarnation, Thou wilt have mercy on the soul of this my friar, who burneth in yonder flame”; and Christ answered him never a word but passed on.
And, when He returned, the second time, and passed before the chapter-house, St. Francis again kneeled him down with his friars, as at the first, and besought Him on this wise: “I pray Thee, merciful Father and Lord, through the boundless charity which Thou didst show to the human race when Thou didst die upon the wood of the cross, that Thou wilt have mercy on the soul of this my friar”; and Christ passed on as before and answered him not.
And going round the cloister He returned the third time and passed before the chapter-house, and then St. Francis, kneeling down as before, showed unto Him his hands and his feet and his side and spake thus: “I beseech Thee, merciful Father and Lord, by that great pain and great consolation which I endured when Thou didst set these Stigmata in my flesh, that Thou wilt have pity on the soul of this my friar that is in that fire of purgatory”.
O wonderful thing! No sooner was Christ prayed that third time by St. Francis in the name of his Stigmata, than He forthwith stayed His steps and, looking upon the stigmata, gave ear unto his prayer and spake thus: “To thee, Francis, I grant the soul of thy friar”. And in this, of a surety, He willed to honour and confirm the glorious Stigmata of St. Francis, and openly to signify that the souls of his friars, which go to Purgatory, can in no way be more easily delivered from their pains and brought to the glory of Paradise, than by virtue of his Stigmata, according unto the words which Christ spake unto St. Francis when He imprinted them upon him. Wherefore, as soon as these words had been spoken, that fire in the cloister vanished, and the dead friar came to St. Francis: and, together with him and with Christ, all that blessed company went up into heaven with their glorious King.
This friar his companion, who had prayed for him, was exceeding glad when he saw him delivered from his pains and taken to paradise; and thereafter he told all that vision in order to the other friars, and together with them gave praise and thanks to God.
Brother John was close to Francis in life. Perhaps this story should not greatly astonish us.
Saint Francis appeared on another occasion, on Mount Alvernia, to Brother John of Alvernia, a man of great sanctity, whilst he was in prayer, and spoke with him for a long time. And at last as he was about to depart, he said to him : ” Ask of me what thou wilt.”
And Brother John said : ” Father, I pray thee that thou wouldst tell me what I have desired to know for a long time, where thou wert and what thou wert doing when the seraph appeared to thee.’
Then St Francis answered : ” I was praying in that place where stands the chapel of Count Simon of Battifolle, and asked two graces of my Lord Jesus Christ; the first was that He would grant me in this life to feel in my soul and in my body, so far as possible, all the pains that He Himself felt during the time of His bitter Passion. The second grace which I asked of Him was like unto the first, that I might feel in my heart the excessive love which induced Him to suffer such a Passion for us sinners. And then God put it into my heart that He would give me to feel both the one and the other in so far as it was possible for a mere creature ; which thing indeed was fulfilled in me by the impression of the stigmas.”
Brother John asked him again if the secret words which the seraph had spoken to him were such as had been related by the holy brother aforesaid, who affirmed that he had so heard them from St Francis in the presence of eight brothers. And St Francis replied that this was the truth as the brother had said.
Then Brother John, taking courage through this general condescension to his requests, said : ” O father, I beseech thee let me see and kiss thy most holy and glorious stigmas, not that I doubt of aught, but solely for my consolation and because I have always so greatly desired this favour.” And St Francis with good will showed them and presented them to him, so that he both clearly saw and touched, and also kissed them. And finally Brother John asked : ” Father, what consolation didst thou not feel in thy soul when thou didst see Christ the blessed coming to thee to give thee the marks of His most sacred Passion ? Would to God that I might feel a little of the sweetness thereof! ” And St Francis answered: “Seest thou these nails ? ” Brother John said : ” Yes, father.”
Touch once again,” said St Francis, ” this nail in my hand.” Then Brother John with great reverence and fear touched the nail, and as soon as he had touched it there came forth so great a fragrance like to a cloud of incense, that, entering by his nostrils, it filled his soul and his body with such sweetness that immediately he was ravished in ecstasy and became insensible; and thus he remained rapt in God from the hour of terce, when this took place, until vespers.
And Brother John never spoke of this vision and familiar conversation with St Francis except to his confessor until, being near to death, he revealed it to several of the brothers.
We left our two friars welcoming two journeying friars to their monastery, to the kitchen, the warmest place in the house, where eight friars were already enjoying the fire.
After they had been a little while at the fire, they took the visitors aside to wash their feet, even as they had agreed together. And while that obedient and devout friar was washing the feet of the older friar, and removing the mud therefrom, for they were very muddy, he looked and saw that his feet were marked with the most holy Stigmata; and anon, for joy and wonder he embraced them closely, and began to cry aloud: “Either thou art Christ, or thou art Saint Francis”.
At that cry and at those words, the friars, which were at the fire, arose and came thither with great fear and reverence to see those glorious stigmata. And then, at their prayer, this ancient friar permitted them clearly to see and touch and kiss them. And, while they marvelled yet more for joy, he said unto them: “Doubt not and fear not, dearest friars and sons; I am your father Friar Francis, who, according to the will of God, founded three Orders. And seeing that, for eight years, I have been entreated by this friar, who is washing my feet, and to-day more fervently than ever before, that I would reveal unto him those secret words which the Seraph spake unto me when He gave me the stigmata, the which words I resolved never to reveal in my lifetime, to-day, by the commandment of God, by reason of his perseverance and the ready obedience with which he left the sweetness of contemplation, I am sent by God to reveal unto him, before you all, that which he asks.”
St Francis said: ” Know, most beloved brothers, that being on the mountain of Alvernia, wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the Passion of Christ, in that seraphic vision I was thus stigmatised in my own body by Christ Himself; and He said to me : “Knowest thou what I have done to thee ? I have given thee the marks of My Passion that thou mayest be My standard bearer. And as I, on the day of My death, descended into Limbo, and, by virtue of My stigmas, liberated all the souls I found there and conducted them to paradise, so also I grant to thee in this hour, in order that thou mayest be conformed to Me in thy death even as thou hast been in thy life, that when thou shalt have passed away from this life, every year on the anniversary of thy death thou shalt go into purgatory, and, by virtue of these stigmas which I have given thee, shalt liberate all the souls thou shalt find there belonging to thy three orders, Friars Minor, sisters and virgins, and over and above these all who have been devout to thee, and shalt lead them to paradise.’ These words of Christ I never revealed whilst I lived in this world.”
And having thus spoken St Francis and his companion suddenly disappeared. And many brothers afterwards heard these things from the eight brothers who were present during the vision and had heard the words of St Francis.
There was no doubt in the minds of the ten friars as to who had visited them. But contemplate for a moment the spontaneous decision of the two friars that we read yesterday, to wash the feet of their visitors, though they were very muddy. Love in action!
We return to the Little Flowers of Saint Francis for our last few extracts from this ancient text. It’s clear that the brothers did not know what to make of the stigmata, the marks of the Passion of Jesus seared onto his body, though they recognised it as a holy sign in a holy man. It was his life that was holy before any such marks were imposed on him. We start with a brother at prayer …
A devout and holy friar, while reading of Saint Francis’s most holy Stigmata, began with great travail of spirit to consider what those so secret words could have been, which Saint Francis said that he would not reveal to any one while he lived; which the Seraph had spoken to him. And this friar said within himself: “Saint Francis willed not to speak those words to any one during his lifetime; but now, after his bodily death, perchance he would tell them, if he were prayed devoutly so to do”. Thenceforward, the devout friar began to pray God and Saint Francis that they would reveal those words.
This friar continuing eight years in this prayer, until one day, after eating, thanks having been given in the church, he was in prayer in a certain part of the church, and was praying to God and Saint Francis touching this matter, more devoutly than he was wont, and with many tears; when he was called by another friar, who commanded him in the name of the Guardian to bear him company to the town for the good of the Place.
Doubting not that obedience is more meritorious than prayer, as soon as he had heard the commandment of his superior, he left off praying and went with that friar that called him. And, as God willed it, he, by this act of ready obedience, merited that which he had not merited by his long praying.
As soon as they had gone forth from the gate, they met two strange friars, who appeared to have come from a far country; and one of them seemed a young man and the other old and lean; and, by reason of the bad weather, they were all muddy and wet. Wherefore that obedient friar had great compassion for them, and said unto his companion: “O dearest brother mine, if the business whereon we are going may wait a little, inasmuch as these strange friars have great need to be charitably received, I beseech thee to permit me first to go and wash their feet, and especially those of this aged friar, who hath the greater need thereof; and you will be able to wash those of this younger one; and thereafter we will go about the business of the convent”.
They went back and received those strange friars very charitably, and took them into the kitchen to the fire to warm and dry themselves; at the which fire eight other friars of the Place were warming themselves.
Francis’s intuition was indeed a revelation; Madonna Jacopa was in good time to bring him a few treats before saying goodbye. Francis greatly loves her; he is sensitive enough to allow her to show her love for him in such an intimate fashion. She must have been a no-nonsense woman, taking herself straight up to the infirmary which would have been out of bounds to a woman, even the mother of senators.
And, while they continued thus, lo, after a little while, there was a great knocking at the door of the Place, and Saint Francis sent the doorkeeper to open it; and, when he had opened the door, behold, there was Madonna Jacopa, the noblest lady of Rome, with two of her sons, Senators of Rome, and with a great company of men on horseback; and they entered in; and Madonna Jacopa gat her straight to the infirmary, and came unto Saint Francis. Of whose coming St Francis had great joy and consolation, and she likewise, seeing him alive and speaking with him.
Then she told him how God had revealed unto her in Rome, while she was praying, the short span of his life, and how he would send for her, and ask for those things, all of which she said that she had brought; and she caused them to be brought to Saint Francis and gave him to eat thereof; and, when he had eaten and was much comforted, this Madonna Jacopa kneeled down at the feet of Saint Francis, and took those most holy feet, marked and adorned with the wounds of Christ, and kissed and bathed them with her tears, with such limitless devotion that to the friars which were standing by it seemed that they verily beheld the Magdalene at the feet of Jesus Christ; and on nowise might they draw her away from them.
And finally, after a long time, they raised her up and drew her aside, and asked her how she had come so duly and so well provided with all those things which were necessary for Saint Francis while yet he was alive, and for his burial.
Madonna Jacopa replied that, while she was praying one night in Rome, she heard a voice from heaven, which said: “If thou wouldest find Saint Francis alive, get thee to Assisi without delay, and take with thee those things which thou art wont to give him when he is sick, and those things which will be necessary for his burial; and I (said she) have done so”. So the said Madonna Jacopa abode there until Saint Francis passed from this life and was buried; and at his burial she did him very great honour, she and all her company; and she bore all the cost of whatsoever was needed. And thereafter, this noble lady returned to Rome; and there, within a little while, she died a holy death; and for devotion to Saint Francis she commanded that her body should be borne to Santa Maria degli Angeli and buried there; and so was it done.
This passage made Francis more attractive to me, to see him so close in friendship to Lady Jacopa and asking her for treats as well as the things needed for his burial. As the extract opens, he has just come home to St Mary of the Angels to die, but not before seeing her one last time.
And, when they arrived at Santa Maria degli Angeli, they bore him to the infirmary and there laid him down to rest. Then Saint Francis called unto him one of the companions and spake unto him thus: “Dearest friar, God hath revealed unto me that, of this sickness, on such a day, I shall depart from this life; and thou knowest that the well-beloved Madonna Jacopa di Settensoli, who is devoted to our Order, if she knew of my death and had not been present thereat, would be sore grieved; and therefore do thou send her word that, if she would see me alive, she come hither at once”. The friar made answer: “Father, thou sayest rightly; for in truth, by reason of the great love which she beareth thee, it would be most unseemly if she were not present at thy death”.
“Go, then,” said Saint Francis, “and bring me inkhorn and paper and pen, and write as I bid thee.” And, when he had brought them, Saint Francis dictated the letter on this wise: “To Madonna Jacopa, the servant of God, Friar Francis, the mendicant of Christ, greeting and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost in our Lord Jesus Christ: Know, well beloved, that Christ the blessed hath, of His grace, revealed unto me that the end of my life is at hand. Therefore, if thou wouldst find me alive, when thou hast seen this letter, arise and come to Santa Maria degli Angell; for, if thou art not come by such a day, thou wilt not find me alive; and bring with thee hair-cloth to wrap my body in, and the wax which is needed for my burial. Also I beseech thee to bring me some of that food which thou wast wont to give me to eat, when I was sick in Rome.”
And, while this letter was being written, it was revealed of God to Saint Francis that Madonna Jacopa was coming to him and was already nigh unto the place, and brought with her all those things which he was sending to ask for by the letter. Wherefore, when he had had this revelation, Saint Francis told the friar who was writing the letter, not to write further, because there was no need thereof, but to lay aside the letter; whereat the friars marvelled greatly, because he finished not the letter and would not have it sent.
We are now reading of Francis’s last days, after his epic journey to Assisi by donkey. The donkey and its master had gone back home and Francis could not have made his way down the hill from the bishop’s palace with its armed guards, to Santa Maria degli Angeli so the brothers carried him. It would have been a long way to carry him in their arms as the book tells us they did.
Then the friars took him up in their arms and so carried him; and many of the citizens accompanied them. And, coming to a hospice, which was by the way, Saint Francis said unto those who carried him: “Set me down on the ground, and turn me toward the city”. And, when he was set with his face toward Assisi, he blessed the city with many blessings, saying: “Blessed be thou of God, O holy city, for through thee many souls shall be saved, and in thee shall dwell many servants of God, and from thee many shall be chosen unto the Kingdom of Life Eternal”. And, when he had said these words, he caused them to carry him on to Santa Maria degli Angeli.
And, when they arrived at Santa Maria degli Angeli, they bore him to the infirmary and there laid him down to rest.
The photograph is not Assisi, of course, but the city of London, seen from Greenwich Park. If you know where to look on the left hand horizon you can make out Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It’s hard to imagine pronouncing a blessing like Francis’s over the capital of Mammon, but nevertheless, we can learn from Francis, for the Spirit blows where she will. So perhaps we should bless our home town whenever we enter it, walking down the hill, stepping off the train, sitting in a traffic jam.
Blessed be thou of God, O holy city!
And remembering Francis’s early escapades, let us build the Church and build the city of God.
This year we have been challenged not to take water for granted. Long weeks with little or no rain dried up fields and gardens, while rivers’ flow diminished. In one lake nearby many fish died from lack of oxygen.
It was a relief to come to the back of the old Harbledown leper hospital near Canterbury the week before the drought broke and to find the spring flowing in the holy well.
Edward, the Black Prince and Prince of Wales would have been happy, too. He attributed a cure he received to taking the water. He was devoted to Canterbury and was buried in the cathedral in 1376. The well is sometimes called the Black Prince’s Well, sometimes St Thomas’s. This was the last spot to water horses before descending into the city; a chance for riders, too, to take a cold drink and for the hospital to beg for alms.
Notice the Prince of Wales’s feathers carved on the capstone of the arch, an older example of this emblem, more formal than the version on British 2p coins and instantly recognisable to passers-by. The stone appears to be balanced on top of the arch rather than holding all of it together. Perhaps this sign of royal favour was enough to spare the well under the Tudor monarchs’ vandalism.
Let us pray with Saint Francis:
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
And let us remember how precious water is, and how impure it has become because we have despised its humility and taken it for granted.
Once again the friars are at a loss what to make of Francis in the face of his suffering and imminent death. Not everyone sings songs of praise on their deathbed, but we might if we were assured of eternal life within a few days. Firstly, a few words about another witness to the stigmata; we will meet Madonna Jacopa again later.
Madonna Jacopa di Settensoli of Rome, who was the greatest lady of her time in Rome and was most devoted to Saint Francis, saw them before he died, and, after his death, saw and kissed them many times with great reverence; for she came from Rome to Assisi, by Divine revelation, to the death-bed of Saint Francis; and her coming was after this manner.
For some days before his death, Saint Francis lay sick at Assisi in the palace of the Bishop, with some of his companions; and, notwithstanding his sickness, he often sang certain lauds of Christ. One day, one of his companions said unto him: “Father, thou knowest that these citizens have great faith in thee, and hold thee for a saintly man, and therefore they may think that, if thou art that which that they believe thee to be, thou shouldest, in this thine infirmity, think upon thy death, and rather weep than sing, in that thou art so exceeding sick; and know that thy singing and ours, which thou makest us to sing, is heard of many, both within and without the palace; for this palace is guarded on thy account by many armed men, who perchance may take bad ensample therefrom. Wherefore I believe (said this friar) that thou wouldest do well to depart hence, and that we should all of us return to Santa Maria degli Angeli; for this is no place for us, among seculars.”
Saint Francis answered him: “Dearest friar, thou knowest that two years ago, when we abode at Foligno, God revealed unto thee the term of my life; and in like manner also He revealed unto me that, a few days hence, the said term shall end, in this sickness; and in that revelation God made me certain of the remission of all my sins, and of the bliss of paradise.
“Until I had that revelation I bewailed death and my sins; but, since I have had that revelation, I am so full of gladness that I can weep no more; and therefore do I sing, yea, and will sing unto God, who hath given me the blessing of His grace and hath made me sure of the blessings of the glory of paradise. As touching our departure hence, I consent thereunto and it pleaseth me; but do ye find means to carry me, because, by reason of mine infirmity, I cannot walk.”