Summary: St Francis of Paola was born in 1416, died at Tours (France) on this day in 1507. He is remembered as a spiritual counsellor of kings and for his political peace making. (Australian Catholic lectionary) He is a patron of seafarers and is popular in Italy, France and Mexico.
St Francis of Paola was founder of a religious order known as the “Minimi” (“the least of all the world”) because of their humility.
Patrick Duffy tells his story.
From Paola in Calabria in Southern Italy
Francis was born, at Paola in Calabria on the toe of Italy, of parents remarkable for their holiness. Because he had poor eyesight, his parents vowed that they would give him for a whole year to a Franciscan convent and as a result of this vow he was instantly cured.
At thirteen he went for the year to a monastery near his home and from there went on to Assisi and Rome. When he came home aged nineteen in 1435, he dedicated himself to a life of solitude, setting himself up as a hermit in a cave by the sea near his parents’ home.
Hermits of St Francis of Assisi
A year later Francis was joined by two companions and they lived together in the spirit of St Francis, calling themselves the “Hermits of St. Francis of Assisi“. Others were quickly attracted to his way of life and came to be renowned for their charity and austerity as well as for their commitment to Franciscan ideals. Francis lived to see them recognised as the Order of Minims. As others came along and numbers increased, many communities were established with great popular support in Calabria and Sicily. In 1471, the Archibishop of Cosenza granted them exemption from his jurisdiction so that they could go further afield and in 1473 Pope Sixtus IV gave them the status of mendicant friars.
Miraculous Crossing to Messina
A story from this time tells that in the year 1464, after Francis and his companions were refused passage by a boatman while trying to cross the Strait of Messina to Sicily, he put out his cloak on the water, tied one end to his staff as a sail, and sailed across the strait with his companions. This has led to his being named as patron of seafarers.
“The Least of all the Faithful”
The charity and austerity of the brothers attracted many. They had a rule of perpetual abstinence from all flesh- and white-meat, except in case of grave illness and by order of a physician. Usually there was only one priest in each community. Their distinguishing mark was their humility, from which they came to be called the Minimi, ( “the least of all the faithful”. cf Matt 25:40).
Gifts of Discernment and Prophecy
After his order got approval from the Holy See, Francis became famous for his discernment of consciences and his gift of prophecy. When he rebuked the King of Naples for wrong-doing, he became a marked man, but his reputation for holiness became widespread.
In 1482 King Louis XI of France (1461-83) was facing death in great fear. He especially requested Francis of Paola to come to him. The pope of the time – Sixtus IV – commanded Francis to go. He arrived in time to prepare the king for his death and was with him when he died. Louis’s two successors, Charles VIII, who was only a boy of thirteen when he succeeded to the throne (1483-98), and later his cousin Louis XII (1498-1515), were keen to keep Francis at the French court, frequently consulting him. They built a monastery for the Minimi at Plessis and at other locations in France.
So the last twenty-five years of Francis’s life were spent entirely in France. Though he wished to return to Italy, he was unable to do so. He spent the last three months of his life in entire solitude, preparing for death and he died on Good Friday 1507 while the Passion according to St. John was being read to him. He was canonised in 1519.
The Order of the Minimi still exists today, especially in Italy. The story from his early years about Francis miraculously sailing on his cloak and staff across the Strait of Messina from Italy to Sicily led to his being declared a patron of seafarers in 1943.
A piano studio by Liszt entitled St Francis of Paola Walking on the Water is still a popular music piece today.