By John P. Walsh
Come la notte Francesco pregando nella selva incontro il lebbroso – How St. Francis praying one night meets a leper.
Starting at 38:15, the dramatic five-minute scene in the middle of Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 Italian film Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester or The Flowers of St. Francis) shows the medieval St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) seeking out and embracing a leper, the time-honored social outcast. Following their embrace—an encounter Francis up to this point in his life had assiduously avoided—the saint falls to the ground and, out of the depths of his being, in tears he utters: “My God. My Lord and my all! O great God!”
While this event is dramatized in Rossellini’s film after Francis’s brotherhood is established, historically it occurred at the beginning of the Italian saint’s conversion. In Francis’s own Testament written in 1225—one year before his death at 44 or 45 years old—the saint stated his embrace of the leper became the cause of his conversion. As Francis put it he “exercised mercy” to the leper not because he had been converted but that the leper— a common sight in medieval Europe and one that filled Francis with horror whenever he came upon one—became the astonishing means for his conversion.
In the thirteenth century in Europe, lepers by law had to live apart from the rest of society owing to their contagious infectious disease. Yet from at least the seventh century in Italy onward there was special orders of knights who took care of them. For a rich young man such as Francis seeking glory in military arms, he naturally despised this dastardly contagion and diligently avoided lepers. In the time period that Rossellini’s poignant film scene is set— it is either 1205 or 1206—there existed tens of thousands of church-run leper “hospitals” in Europe including one that was only a short walk outside Assisi’s town walls called San Salvatore delle Pareti.
Before this famous encounter of embracing the leper in the life of St. Francis, Francis, who was around 24 years old, had worked up to the crucial moment only gradually. After he had given up his several quests to be a soldier and returned to Assisi for good, he was welcomed back by his family and friends. But for the same reasons that he abandoned his military career before it even started, these also prompted him to walk tentatively out of Assisi along the road to the leper hospital (whose site today is a farm field) to interact with its challenging pastoral activity of caring for these patients which stretched back 600 years to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). Sometimes it was the sickening smell peculiar to the leper hospital that would waft into Francis’s nostrils and make him flee. Other times, young Francis—who by now was living mostly as a hermit— after venturing to the leper hospital to give them a charitable gift vanished as bell-clanging patients appeared. He left his gift on the roadside because he did not desire to come into any closer quarters with these outcasts.
It took much more time, effort and prayers in solitude which Francis believed were eventually answered by God until he discovered his courage and confidence to embrace a leper as dramatized in Rossellini’s film. Following a lifetime spent in heroic Franciscan mendicancy, the now world-famous Umbrian saint proclaimed that it was at this moment—as he conquered his fears and embraced the other in love no matter how apparently godforsaken—that his life in and for God truly started.
SOURCE: St Francis of Assisi: A Biography by Johannes Jørgensen (1912). Translated from the Danish with the author’s sanction by T. O’Conor Sloane, Image books, 1955.
Sassetta (c.1392-c.1451), St. Francis in Ecstasy, back of the Sansepolcro altarpiece, 1437-44, Panel, 80 3/4 x 48 inches. Villa I Tatti, Florence.