On February 24, 1208 Francis of Assisi attended Mass in the little church of Saint Mary of the Angels. The priest read from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 10: Jesus sent out the twelve apostles with these instructions: You received without paying, now give without being paid. Don’t take along any gold, silver, or copper coins. And don’t carry a traveling bag or an extra shirt or sandals.

Those verses so moved Francis that he resolved to become an itinerant evangelist in the mold of the original apostles. He shared his burden with a few followers, and they devised a simple strategy: to wander through the country as poor men, preaching the gospel and attending those with needs. Francis put his thoughts into writing and traveled to Rome, seeking endorsement from Pope Innocent III. The pope hesitated. “My son,” he said, “your plan of life seems too hard and rough.” But he eventually acquiesced, and Francis later wrote: When the Lord entrusted brothers to me, nobody told me how to treat them, but the Most High revealed to me personally that I ought to live according to the norms of the Holy Gospel. I had it all written down in a few simple words, and the lord Pope approved it. And those who wished to embrace the life gave the poor everything they had and contented themselves with a tunic patched inside and out, and a belt and some underclothes. And we did not wish for anything more.

Within eight years Francis’s order numbered 5,000 men, and by the time he died from tuberculoid leprosy in his mid-forties, he was so beloved that his followers feared the masses would steal his body. So they entombed him beneath the altar of the Basilica of Saint Francis under a slab of granite, gravel, ten welded bands of iron, a 190-pound grill, and a 200-pound rock. They buried him so well, in fact, that his coffin wasn’t discovered until the 19th century. His followers, however, continued his mission, and today the Franciscan Order in all its branches is the largest religious order in the Roman Catholic Church.

As you go, announce that the kingdom of heaven will soon be here. … You received without paying, now give without being paid. Don’t take along any gold, silver, or copper coins. And don’t carry a traveling bag or an extra shirt or sandals or a walking stick. (Matthew 10:7-10)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 24.

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