I have had just had a conversation with a lady who works at a northern Italian University, she was at Mass and I had been preaching on St Francis, saying that Francis wanted to strip himself of everything that was not of Christ, so in fact until all that was left were the signs of Christ's passion.
Francis' saying, "Preach the Gospel wherever you go and if you must, use words", was entirely dependant on a dynamic and prayer life. His first disciples were primarily hermits, "the poor hermits of Assisi". They brought into the twelfth century an ancient monastic model of contemplatives living together with leader a life of prayer in a deserted place. The nature of the Franciscan life was the violence with which the the detachment occurred. It was not just the material detachment but the spiritual detachment too.
The story of Francis telling a brother to bury himself in a dung heap and then repeatedly asking him, "Brother are you dead [to self]" and only allowing him out when he could say "Yes, Father Francis, I am dead" illustrates something of his radical understanding of obedience and mortification as much as Francis' giving his own father's property to the poor, or embracing the leper in obedience to the teaching of the Gospel.
My visitor described the phenomena she was experiencing of young people filling Italian churches looking for a radical relationship with Christ. We couldn't help reflecting that Italy in the 12th century is quite like it is in the 21st century, and possibly not just Italy but the world. Twelfth Century Italy had little to unite it, feudal authority both ecclesial and civil was rapacious and bellicous, law if there was any was in the hands of, and at the service of the strong, quite like post-Berlusconi Italy, where government and all structures, really, are seen as corrupt and ineffective. One of the things that has always marked Italian society is a natural tendency to mistrust structures and institutions but to trust friends or those with whom one has a personal and tried relationship.
That personal relationship with Christ was what Francis showed to the people of his day, it is the same message Pope Benedict is pressing, especially in his writings Jesus of Nazareth, his catechesis etc. It is what my visitor said she recognised as being what young people are searching for. She said she felt what they were looking for was relationship with Christ which somehow rejects "the Church" and yet is entirely dependant on it. It is that Italian thing where bishops are seen as corrupt money grabbing out of touch aristocrats, the clergy are, generally, morally debauched middle managers, and yet we love Our Lady, venerate Padre Pio and weep at the Cross and the crib and throng to the piazza for Corpus Christi.
She seemed to imply there was a love for what the Church could give but a mistrust of the Church, same today as Francis' day.