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The first followers of St. Francis of Assisi were known as the “Mendicants from Assisi.” Yet as the group attracted men and women from all over Italy and beyond, a new name, not specific to Assisi, was needed. St. Francis named his brotherhood, in Latin, the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (O.F.M.). This is typically translated as the Order of Friars Minor, implying that there is an Order of Friars Major. A better translation would be the Order of Lesser Brothers. St. Francis wanted himself, and all of his brothers, to be less in everything. To be less prideful, less well known, less wealthy, less well fed, than everyone else.

In the fifteenth century, today’s saint, a holy priest from the town of Paola in southern Italy, baptized Francis by his parents, began a religious movement that would eventually be named the “Minim” friars. “Minim” means “less” or “least,” in the spirit of the “Lesser Brothers” that St. Francis of Assisi had founded centuries before. St. Francis of Paola desired humility, nothingness, and total self-abnegation. He lived, and mandated that those who joined his Order live as well, a perpetual Lent. All the Minims took the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But they also took a special fourth vow to abstain, all year long, from meat, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, and all dairy products. It was a continual, life-long fast. This was mortification on a heroic scale.

The vegan diet of the Minims was primarily mortification, putting the body in a subservient state of subjection to the intellect and will. But the strict diet was also motivated by a desire to do no harm to God’s creatures. Yet vegetarianism, much less veganism, was a step beyond what St. Francis of Assisi himself had lived. He ate what was set before him, including meat. He even criticized vegetarian brothers who refused meals with meat. St. Francis said these vegetarian brothers were questioning God’s providence, and presuming the future, when they rejected what they were fortunate enough to have freely received.

The contemporary trend of organic eating, of eating only unprocessed foods, has, besides purely health motivations, roots in an anti-industrial, farm centered vision of the simple life where one lives from the surrounding land and respectfully cares for that same land, or supports those who do. This organic, wholesome, and natural vision of life is admirable, but unfortunately often becomes an end in itself. It frequently adopts the language of religion, understands the environment as a system of meaning equivalent to God, and even judges harshly those who harm, wear, or profit from animals. Such modern thinking would have been utterly foreign to St. Francis of Paola. He loved nature, and did not want to harm it, because it reflected God’s glory, not because it was an end in and of itself. St. Francis of Paola joined his veganism, and respect for animals, to a strict moral code, a community life around the Sacraments, and a deep spirituality centered on Jesus Christ. To be “one with nature” does not mean to be morally ambiguous. To have respect for all creation does not necessitate a break with religious tradition nor acceptance of relativism. Today’s saint proves that.

St. Francis of Paola’s life was truly organic. One with God. One with nature. One with religious brothers. And all of these “ones” integrated into a seamless Catholic life, giving meaning to everything— prayer, relationships, food, art, clothes, music, doctrine, leisure, charity, and on and on and on. He lived one with the Church. Diets are not a creed. Food is not a Sacrament. These things play their roles in an integrated life, of course, but should be interpreted in light of the higher, stronger things. Just as in architecture, the big things hold up the small things, so in life. The big things— God, Church, the Sacraments— hold up the dependent things— food, clothes, shelter, etc… The Church keeps us in balance.

After a very long life of fasting, prayer, miracle working, and wide fame for his holiness, even outside of Italy, St. Francis of Paola died in the grace of the Lord. In 1562, Protestant Calvinists in France broke into his tomb and found his body incorrupt. They then proceeded to desecrate it, scattering his bones. St. Francis of Paola gave up everything in life, only to be strewn about like garbage in death. He wanted to be treated as the least of all. His desire was fulfilled.

St. Francis of Paola, you lived an integrated life at one with God, nature, and your fellow man. Intercede before God to assist all who appeal to you to see God and His creation as one expression of the goodness and love of our heavenly Father.