Confession time! Prior to coming to Friar Park where our Parish Church is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, I had little time for Saint Francis himself. A bit unhinged, I thought, a bit of a fanatic. Oh yes, I’d led a number of pilgrimages to Italy that had included stays in Assisi, but I always rather suspected that ‘il Poverello’ (the ‘little poor man’ of Assisi fame) would probably have disapproved of what had been done over centuries in his name and in his memory in that hill town. And, of course, I also felt Francis had rather been highjacked by environmentalists, American liberals, and the owners of cute furry animals.

Francis, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in about 1181/82, was from a monied background. He fought in the war between Assisi and Perugia. Various stories give differing accounts of how he came to the point of a staggering conversion to the Gospel, but perhaps the most significant is the tale of him hearing God’s voice as he prayed in the ruined chapel of San Damiano – ‘Rebuild (or ‘restore’) my Church,’ was God’s command to him. He took God literally, and rebuilt the chapel stone by stone before the realisation that God might have a spiritual renewal in mind for the whole Christian Church. And we have the stories of him walking naked from his father’s home, of men drawn to the ascetic way of life he espoused and forming a new religious community, of him cutting off Saint Clare’s hair (she was the first woman to follow in his way), of his ‘invention’ of the Christmas Crib at Greccio in 1223, and of taming a wolf at Gubbio and preaching to birds.

But it has been as I have physically restored the church building here in Friar Park over the last 18 years that I have come to see Francis in a rather different light; and as a member of the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC) reflecting on God’s gift to Francis of the Stigmata (those physical wounds in Francis’ body of the nails and spear that marked the body of the crucified and dead Christ). Saint Bonaventure writes of Francis having a vision on Holy Cross Day 1224, and ‘Pondering what this vision might mean, he finally understood that by God’s providence he would be made like to the crucified Christ not by a bodily martyrdom but by conformity in mind and heart. Then as the vision disappeared, it left not only a greater ardour of love in the inner man but no less marvellously marked him outwardly with the stigmata of the Crucified.’ Like Francis understanding God to ask of him conformity of mind and heart to the Crucified One, SSC invites priests to ‘dig a pit’ for the Cross in their life and ministry (though this is surely something for all Christians to do, in whatever way their manner of life allows).

Perhaps ironically, considering my comment above about ‘the little poor man’ of Assisi raising an eyebrow at the splendour of the monuments raised in his name, I have spent perhaps £1.5m restoring the church that bears his name here in Friar Park. It is a significant building, designed by the architectural firm that created much of Bourneville Village for the Cadbury Family, given by a brother and sister for the people of Friar Park; it was to be Italianate in design, faced in stone, dedicated to Saint Francis and Catholic in churchmanship. Italian prisoners of war worked on the building and have left their mark in paint and sculpture. But fortunately, the last 18 years have seen the rebuilding a new Church Community too, with an outreach to the bereaved and to those in need – things of which I think Saint Francis would approve. Our strapline is ‘Saint Francis of Assisi, the Church of England at the heart of Friar Park.’ Post-Covid thank God we have restored numerically, despite – like so many places – burying over 10% of our electoral roll in the first year of the pandemic, and seeing others too frightened or frail to return. It was good that this year for our Patronal Festival last Sunday we welcomed Bishop Tony Robinson to celebrate Mass and Confirm seven candidates, including one whole family. Pray for us!

Father Ron Farrell