St. Francis was said to be popular, quick witted, and at times showy – known as “the king of frolic” among young nobles of Italy. In short, Francis was the life of the party…
Born Giovanni di Pietro, he was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant living in 12th century central Italy. Around age 20, the town of Assisi was warring with nearby Perugia as city-states vied for preeminence across Italy. Francis had decided to pursue a military career and often participated in the skirmishes. Around 1205, he was taken prisoner of war and held captive for more than a year. As a POW, his thoughts turned to the emptiness of his life. Yet, upon release, his eagerness for victory was still present.
He was about to accompany a knight into a new battle, when Francis had a strange dream. In it, he saw a vast hall hung with armor bearing the cross. “These,” said a voice, “are for you and your knights.” He believed this to be a sign that he would be valiant in battle. As his journey continued, he had a second dream in which the same voice bade him turn back to Assisi at once. He immediately did so.
Hardened hearts soften
He again began to question his ways, seeking prayer and solitude — despite the teasing of his friends. He forced himself to make choices that were contradictory to his instincts and previous ways – hugging a leper, emptying his purse at the tomb of St. Peter, exchanging his clothes with a beggar and spending the rest of the day fasting with them.
Francis was praying before a cross in the Chapel of St. Damian’s below the town when he heard a voice say, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Taking this instruction literally, Francis went to his father’s shop and impulsively gathered up materials he could sell to restore the church – cloth, a horse and other belongings from his father. He traded them for gold and took the money to the priest at St. Damian’s who refused it. His father was incensed and threatened Francis – who ran to a cave and hid from his father for a whole month. When he emerged – emaciated – and returned to town, Francis was mocked as a madman and pelted with mud and stones. His own father beat him, bound him, and locked him in a dark closet.
Francis was brought before the bishop’s court by his father and forced to forgo his inheritance, which he declared he would eagerly do because he had already devoted himself to the service of God and was no longer under civil jurisdiction. He stripped the very clothes he wore, gave them to his father, saying: “Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’.”
A new order
Francis committed himself to living the Gospels literally – possessing only a tunic and a rope for a belt – and set forth rebuilding churches and exhorting people to penance, brotherly love and peace. His enthusiasm attracted others. Not long after, in 1209, the 12 “Penitents of Assisi” (as they called themselves), set out for Rome for papal approval to establish the Order of Friars Minor. Although some felt Francis’ lifestyle was unsafe and impractical, it is said that Pope Innocent III was moved by a dream in which he saw a man from Assisi propping up St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. Interpreting this as Francis’ ability to restore and sustain the universal Church, he granted Francis what he requested – to be the first begging Order the world had known. Francis and his 11 were “tonsured” (or given) the privileges and obligations of preaching and sent forth with papal permission to continue their work.
Francis named his brethren the Order of Friars Minor as a perpetual reminder of humility. Men of different grades of life flocked to the Order. Soon women came too – the first being Clare who was sought out by Francis and moved by his preaching. She decided to leave her father’s house at age 18 to join the Order. Her sister and other maidens soon joined her, and this was the beginning of the Second Franciscan Order of Poor Ladies, now known as the Poor Clares.
Francis and the Friars Minor devoted themselves to evangelizing greater and greater reaches of people – attempting to reach Syria, Morocco, Spain, France, Germany and Palestine between 1212-1220. Extraordinary enthusiasm is said to have welcomed him nearly everywhere. His exhortations of the people were said to be “short, homely, affectionate, and pathetic” — appealing to even the hardened hearts. Francis became a very “conqueror of souls.”
By 1221, there were 5,000 friars and 500 applicants for admission to the Order. Francis then devised the Third Order, as it is now called, of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which he intended to be a middle-state between everyday life and the cloister for those who could not leave obligations of home or family.
In 1223, Francis revived the idea of a live nativity scene to teach people about the birth of Christ and involvement of all of creation in that birth. In 1224, Francis undertook a 40-day fast at the mountain of La Verna (click here for the story of La Verna). While praying, he received the stigmata – the same wounds Christ experienced while dying on the cross. In 1225, Francis wrote the “Canticle of the Sun” – poetry about appreciating all of creation just as God intended it to be.
In 1226, as the age of 45 and just 20 years after his conversion, Francis passed from earth to eternity. It was Saturday evening, October 3, 1226. His parting words to his first companion, Bernard, and all the others in order were: “I have done my part; may Christ teach you to do yours.” His body was taken in procession on Oct. 4 past St. Damian’s to the church of St. George. Just two years later, Francis was canonized a saint at this tomb by Pope Gregory IX. The following day, the pope laid the cornerstone for a new great church of St. Francis in Assisi and his remains were transferred there in May 1230 – buried beneath the high altar, where they lay hidden until discovered in 1818.
Eight centuries of impact
There are few medieval figures whose lives are so well documented by their own writings and that of their contemporaries. These include St. Francis’ initial rule to the Friars Minor, poetry, and simple and informal writings to others, such as the Poor Clares. Biographies by others include work by Thomas of Celano, one of Francis’s followers; a joint narrative of his life compiled in 1246 by Brothers Leo, Rufino and Angelo, companions of the saint; and the work of St. Bonaventure, which appeared about 1263.
Today, St. Francis is celebrated as the patron saint of animals and ecology, merchants, lace makers, Catholic action and solitary death. Eight centuries later, the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) continue to serve without frontiers across the globe — dedicated to the poor and promoting justice, peace, care of creation, and reconciliation. The Franciscans also are custodians of the Holy Land – welcoming pilgrims and refugees of religious persecution, and spreading knowledge about the history of this land, its people and Scripture. Like St. Francis’ original followers, friars today are called to live the Gospel, be brothers to all people, and serve a changing world with the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.