I confess that until fairly recently I knew very little about another important Italian saint, Francis of Paola. I could have told you that he was a fifteenth century hermit monk, the founder of an Order and was not Saint Francis of Assisi. Other than that, I might have pleaded ignorance. No longer so! I have gotten to know more about the life and work of Saint Francis of Paola, and at no better place than Paola itself, a city next to the Tyrrhenian Sea, the west coast of Italy, just three hours south of Rome, in what is the Calabria region of Italy. A short visit there recently was a real blessing and something highly recommended.
On the hillside above the beach-front town of Paola, with a population of about seventeen thousand, is the beautiful monastery and shrine dedicated to its native son, known today as Saint Francis of Paola. Several chapels and places for prayer, both indoors and out, and a mountain stream running through the middle of the sanctuary, make it an ideal place for a personal retreat of a day or longer. Its walls have also been a refuge for many in time of need.
This was especially so in August of 1943, during World War II, when nearly all the citizens of Paola hid inside the monastery during air raids by Allied bombers. A two hundred pound bomb was dropped, intended to hit the monastery, but in fact went into the nearby river and did not detonate. This was considered a miracle through the intercession of Saint Francis of Paola. The unexploded iron-core bomb is on display today at the shrine, as a thanksgiving remembrance for lives and property that was spared.
The immensely popular saint of Paola, Francis, born Francesco Martolilla, lived from 1416 to 1507. He was the founder of the Order of Minims (think here, “minimal” or “little” brothers) and was never ordained a priest. The name of the Order, Minims, refers to the members’ role as “the least of all the faithful,” as their founder expressed it. Humility was and is to be a hallmark of the Minims of Francis of Paola.
The Minim friars profess the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow of abstinence from meat and other animal products, which includes eggs, butter, cheese and milk. In addition to friars, who are either priests or brothers, Francis of Paola also founded monasteries of contemplative nuns and a third order for people living in the world. One of the most famous members of the third order was the great French bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales. Just above the Paola sanctuary is a monastery of Minim nuns, eight in number. I was able to join them for Mass one morning during my visit to Paola.
Francis of Paola was canonized in 1519 by Pope Leo X and his feast day is April 2nd, the date of his death. Francis of Paola is patron of Calabria, as well as of boatmen, mariners and naval officers. He is much loved and venerated throughout Italy, but most especially, of course, in his birthplace of Paola.
Already a devout Catholic, in his adolescence Francis spent some time with Franciscan friars, partly in fulfillment of a vow made by his parents when he was cured of an eye ailment as a baby. After his year-long Franciscan experience, he made a pilgrimage with his parents to Assisi, passing through Rome, Loreto and a few hermitages along the way. This experience convinced Francis to become a hermit himself, which he did on his father’s estate and eventually at a small grotto on the hillside above the town of Paola next to the Isca waterfall and river that flows down to the ocean.
After several years alone in the cave by the waterfall and stream, in 1435 disciples began to come asking to share in the life Francis was living, desiring to dedicate themselves to prayer, fasting, work and contemplation, like Brother Francis of Paola. Eventually Francis and his followers founded a religious Order of hermits, at first called the Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi, but later renamed the Order of Minims. The initials of the Order of Minims are O.M.
In 1483, when sixty-five years old, and with a reputation as a holy wonder-worker, Francis was called to the court of King Louis XI of France. The king was suffering from grave illness and hoped the holy hermit of Paola could bring about a cure. Instead, Francis was able to bring about the conversion of the king to a genuine Christian life. Francis of Paola remained in France for the next twenty-four years and died at Tours, on April 2nd, 1507, when he was ninety-one years old. He was buried in France. In 1562 the tomb of Francis of Paola was vandalized by Protestant Huguenots, who burned and scattered his bones. These were recovered by Catholic faithful and the relics distributed to various churches of Saint Francis of Paolo’s Order of Minims.
Pilgrims to the shrine at Paola today can see the cave where Francis lived, the first chapel he built and other historic places associated with the saint. The present extensive sanctuary and monastery was built around the places where Saint Francis of Paolo lived his hermit life. Today fifteen Minim friars live and work at the Saint Francis of Paola sanctuary, which welcomes many people throughout the year, but especially from May 2nd to 4th, days in honor of Saint Francis of Paola in the spring.
Other celebrations at the shrine include January 20th, in honor of our Lady of the Miracle, co-patron of the city of Paola and special patroness of the Order of Minims. February 7th, July 14th and September 8th are also celebrated at the shrine. On these days “Votive Masses,” that is, special remembrance of the Saint Francis of Paola, take place.
April 2nd is the anniversary of the death of Saint Francis of Paola, hence a day when particular prayer and homage to the saint occur.
Fridays in January, February and March, especially Fridays leading up to April 2nd are also special times at the shrine. Friday is traditionally a day of prayer and fasting in the Catholic Church, recounting the passion and death of Christ on Good Friday. As Saint Francis of Paola was a penitent, that is, he emphasized the works of mortification and fasting, Friday is a special day to Minims. Saint Francis of Paola died on Good Friday, 1507, having spent the last three months of his life in entire solitude, preparing for the passage from this life to the next.
There is a legend from the life of Saint Francis of Paola that the saint, not having any money for a ferry ride, miraculously sailed on his cloak and staff across the Strait of Messina from Calabria to Sicily, a distance of a couple of miles. The saint was mocked by the men on the ferry boat, but actually arrived on the shores of Sicily ahead of the ferry. This episode from the life of Saint Francis of Paola eventually led to his being named a special patron of seafarers.
The musical composer Franz Liszt, who lived from 1811 to 1886, wrote a solo piano piece called “Saint Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves,” which describes in music the incident from the life of Saint Francis of Paola and the universal theme of struggle and triumph. Liszt’s piece, written in Rome toward the end of his life, lasts about eight minutes and well-worth listening to.
The Order of Minims had houses in many countries over the centuries, but suffered much in the 18th century during the French Revolution and in the 19th century in Italy. They are especially active still in Italy. Their nuns are present in Spain and Italy.
Saint Francis of Paola, pray for us!