By John P. Walsh
Come la notte Francesco pregando nella selva incontro il lebbroso —or, in English, “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 the time-honored social outcast—a leper.
Following their embrace—an encounter Francis up to this point in his life had assiduously avoided—the saint falls to the ground and, in tears he utters: “My God. My Lord and my all! O great God!”
Is the film scene historically accurate?
While the event of the embrace is historically accurate, it is dramatized in Rossellini’s film after Francis’s brotherhood is established. In fact, it occurred at the start of the Italian saint’s conversion. This is an important distinction since the embrace was most significant for St. Francis. It could even be argued that without it, there would be no St. Francis of Assisi at all.
In Francis’s own Testament written in 1225—one year before his death at 44 or 45 years old—the saint stated directly that his embrace of the leper became the cause of his conversion.
For a rich young man such as Francis seeking glory in military arms, he naturally despised the contagion of leprosy and diligently avoided lepers. As Francis put it, he “exercised mercy” to the leper as Francis bridged his religious doubt with trust. In that way, the leper— a common sight in medieval Europe and one that filled Francis with horror—became the astonishing means for the saint’s abounding conversion of faith.
Special order of knights founded by pope cared for lepers in Italy.
In the thirteenth century in Europe, lepers by law had to live apart from the rest of society owing to their contagious infectious disease. From at least the seventh century in Italy forward there was special orders of knights who took care of them. In the time period that Rossellini’s poignant film scene is set— it is either 1205 or 1206—there existed tens of thousands of these church-run leper “hospitals” in Europe. There was one only a short walk outside Assisi’s town walls called San Salvatore delle Pareti (the site today is a farm field).
Before his famous encounter of embracing the leper, Francis —then around 24 years old—had worked up to that crucial moment only gradually. After he had given up his quests to be a soldier and returned to Assisi disappointed and disenchanted, he found refuge in the welcome of family and old friends. But following his impulses that led Francis to abandon his military career even before it started, he followed his promptings to walk out of Assisi along the road to the leper hospital.
Young Francis visits the leper hospital.
Near the hospital, Francis interacted tentatively with those caring for lepers —an activity that stretched back 600 years from Francis’s time to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604)—and sometimes the lepers themselves. In the beginning, it was the sickening smell peculiar to the leper hospital wafting into young Francis’s nostrils that made him flee. As his visits increased, however, Francis—who by now was living mostly as a hermit— ventured to the leper hospital to leave them a charitable gift. As bell-clanging patients appeared, Francis, who left his gift on the roadside, vanished out of reach of these social outcasts.
It took Francis much more time, effort and prayers in solitude for what Francis believed was God’s eventual answer to him. As dramatized in Rossellini’s film, Francis discovered his courage and confidence and simultaneously his faith in the moment he embraced a leper. After that, Francis was free to pursue whatever track God called him to run. Francis could be called to renounce the world’s riches and marry his “Lady Povertry” in a joyous mystical marriage so that poverty remains a major Franciscan charism today, over 800 years later.
Following a lifetime spent in heroic Franciscan mendicancy, the world-famous Umbrian saint proclaimed that it was at that moment that his life in and for God truly started. Francis conquered fear and embraced the other in love no matter how apparently godforsaken. Done in the context of divine trust and love, that action set him free.
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.