Birth dates were not usually recorded earlier in history. Perhaps the ancients thought them a waste of time since so many children died in infancy. Or perhaps they asked themselves, who knows whether a squalling newborn will amount to enough to warrant recording its nativity? As King Solomon pessimistically remarked, "...the day of death [is] better than the day of birth."
The date of St. Francis of Paola's birth was recorded, however. (Note--he is not to be confused with St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order.) On March 27, 1416, he kicked and screamed his way into history near the toe of Italy. Francis stood out even when young. At the age of twelve he spent a year with the Franciscans. Afterward he made a pilgrimage to Rome. Upon his return he sought parental permission to seclude himself as a hermit near Paola. Unsatisfied with that location, he moved into a cave beside the sea. His isolated habitation was soon discovered by a group of hunters who noised abroad a report of his sanctity.
Francis began to think that perhaps he had another vocation. Rather than sit alone in his musty cave, he would become an apostle of the pure life. At nineteen, he accepted followers, the nucleus of the order he would found: the Minims. He often retreated to his cave.
Minim is Latin for "least." Christ taught that whoever would be greatest must become the least. The name was also intended to show that the order held to stricter poverty than the Franciscan Friars Minor. The Minim rule was only the fifth that had been approved by the church.
Among the order's special purposes was assistance to the poor and needy. Francis himself boldly defended the oppressed before the tyrants of the age. Minims also sponsored retreats and missions. A Minim accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to America. One of the most famous Minims was Marin Mersenne, who more than any other man facilitated communication between scientists in the 17th century. His monastic cell was not only a meeting place of the learned but the center of voluminous correspondence. Leo X canonized him in 1519. Because Minims pastored seamen, Francis was eventually declared patron saint of sailors.
Against his will, Francis was forced into the international arena. King Louis XI of France was dying uneasily. Francis attended him at the insistence of Pope Sixtus IV. He remained in France twenty five years, negotiating assorted peace treaties and tutoring a future king.
For a man who sought seclusion, Francis became curiously well-known. Famous artists of subsequent generations--Murillo, Goya, Velázquez, to name but three--depicted him. Thus, he was an example of the "maxim" of Jesus that those who make themselves least are the greatest.