Recently we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Reflecting on him and his place in my life, I realized that sometimes we pick a patron Saint, and sometimes they pick us…or both.
I find it interesting and amazing how many times St Francis of Assisi has shown himself to be, other than the Blessed Mother, the most influential of the communion of Saints in my re-conversion process. While Jesus warns us against fixating on signs more than faith, sometimes those signals are so real as to be hitting us in the face (or on the posterior if necessary). I have certainly found this to be the case with Francis. Read on:
Sometimes Saints Pick Us
I returned to the Church on October 4, 2005, 14 years ago and the Memorial Feast of St Francis of Assisi. I had no idea. God did, however. The Saint of Assisi did as well. The parish where I went to Reconciliation that life-changing day was St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis, MN. He was the King of Norway and lived long before St. Francis. This parish, however, has the only outdoor Assisi garden in the heart of Minneapolis. It is directly on parish property and a historic downtown landmark. I had no clue on that day that St. Olaf Catholic Church had any Franciscan connections. Sometimes they pick us.
I had begun watching EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), a few months earlier. As I now know, but not then, the Franciscans of the Eternal Word operate and manage this TV network, and have done so ever since its founding by Mother Angelica. This worldwide Catholic media group, other than attending Mass and personal study, was my mainstay then for re-learning the Catholic faith in the months preceding my return and still is a huge part of my walk with Christ and the Church.
I soon signed up for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), which was starting just two weeks later at this same parish. The leaders of the RCIA group, a couple who were lay Franciscans and a tall, portable San Damiano Crucifix (a replica of the crucifix where Jesus appeared to St Francis) was front and center each session.
I then learned that that the city of San Francisco was named for this Saint and that his national Shrine is there. Many consider SF to be the “gayest” city in the world—something I was very aware of–and a huge part of my re-conversion included God calling me to celibacy and away from a homosexual lifestyle. I believe St. Francis was smiling when it began to happen. Sometimes they pick us.
After several RCIA sessions, we were asked to begin thinking about who we wished as our patron saints when we became confirmed the following spring. I was already developing an affinity for this gentle saint and found myself very drawn to him, then and now. The next week, I arrived early and Anne Marie, one of the RCIA instructors, was the only one there. The first thing she asked was if I had thought about who I wanted as a saint, and I told her “St Francis.” She immediately reached into her supply folder, bringing out a small San Damiano Cross. It was quite weather-worn, but she gifted her well-loved miniature crucifix to me at once.
What I did not know then was that now-St. John Paul II had personally blessed it, apparently when she and Mark, the other RCIA instructor, had a private audience with him in Rome. Another unexpected welcome from my Assisi saint. I was already long past believing in coincidences, but this was a quite amazing gift and still hangs on my wall. We pick them, but sometimes, they pick us first.
A few weeks into the RCIA program, I decided to inform my siblings and other family members about this major steppingstone on my faith journey. My sister Renee contacted me immediately and told me that the following week she was going to the Vatican, a place she had never been to before and that she too had begun regularly attending the Catholic Church after many years away. I had no idea.
She offered to bring me a gift, so I requested a St. Francis medal which I then carried in my pocket at my confirmation. If I had written that letter to family a week or so later, I would have missed out. It was, naturally, blessed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. St. Francis had guided me to two Popes, and I was not even confirmed yet.
St. Padre Pio
This Capuchin friar (an order of Franciscan priests and brothers), worked many miracles in both his own lifetime and beyond. I write elsewhere of some of the amazing things my family experienced due to his intercession. But, just to name one, I happen to collect stamps, and while looking for something else entirely found an old postcard I had inherited from my mother in 1991 after her death. It was from a priest she had written to in 1945, and was a blessing for her from the unnamed priest in question. The postmark was a place by the name of San Giovanni Rotundo in then-Fascist Italy, and the priest was none other than Padre Pio!
Although the request was not recorded on the card, we believe it was for the safe return of her sister Anastasia, who was a nun but had not taken her final vows. Stasia was missing in Nazi-occupied France at the time and returned home safely within the year, eventually marrying, and having eight children. She passed away around three weeks after I returned to Rome, and outlived all her siblings.
There is much more I do not remember or even know of, but by this time I began to realize that I was forging a lifetime friendship with St Francis of Assisi and that he, not me, had initiated the process. Sometimes they pick us indeed.
My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noah that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God (Little Flowers of St. Francis, Sermon to the Birds).