On another cold winter morning—in February of 1208—a young man named Francesco Bernardone came into a small Umbrian church to hear the mass being celebrated for the feast of Saint Matthias. For three years Francesco had been living as a hermit in the Spoleto Valley under the direction of a community of Benedictine monks. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he had become estranged from his family and many friends because of the eccentric fervor with which he seemed to be seeking God's will for his life—emptying his father's warehouse to provide for the poor, caring for outcast lepers by washing and redressing their wounds, and begging from house to house as he raised money to rebuild local churches.
As the mass ended and the little church began to empty, Francesco approached the priest. He quietly explained that hadn't understood the Gospel reading (which would have been in Latin); would the priest kindly read through it again? The cleric obliged, taking Francesco through the passage from the tenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel line by line. He translated Jesus' words about the apostles traveling from place to place curing the sick, raising the dead and ministering to lepers (that last part must have caught Francesco's attention). Jesus told them to journey without money or baggage, and to trust in faith that God would provide through those among whom they went. Above all, they were to proclaim the heart of the Gospel message: "The kingdom of heaven has come near!"
As he listened to the priest's explanation, Francesco's heart began to race; he could sense the calling of the Spirit on his own life. "This is what I want!" he cried. "This is what I seek! This is what I desire with all my heart!" From that moment on his course was set: Francesco would become a wandering preacher, an itinerant proclaimer of the kingdom. He would travel in poverty and faith to the furthest reaches of his world, throughout Italy and on to France, Germany, Spain, the Balkans, even to northern Egypt to share the good news of Christ with a Muslim sultan who was facing a great European crusading army. Francesco's shining example of obedience to the gospel would become legendary, inspiring generations of Christians until the present day. Francesco is known to us as that startling lover of Christ, St. Francis of Assisi. Scripture not only sparked Francis's tremendous spirituality, it continued to fuel the burning flame of his passion for Jesus. By 1210 the rapidly growing Franciscan movement had caught the attention of the wider church, and Francis was encouraged to present a community rule to the pope. The text of that rule no longer survives, but it seems almost certain that it was little more than a collection of sayings of Christ from the Gospels. That spirit was reflected in the opening words of a revised rule he composed a decade later, in which he committed himself and his Friars Minor ("Little Brothers") simply to "follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ." Francis had experienced the Bible (especially the Gospels) as a life-changing book and was determined to stay open to its transforming influence.