Saint Francis of Assisi

Francis was born, one of seven children, on 26 September, 1181, the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife Pica Bourlemont in Assisi, a city within Tuscany, Italy. He was baptised John, in honour of John the Baptist, but was called Francesco (Italian for ‘French’), because at the time of his birth his father was doing very good business in France. As a young man, he helped his father in running the family business, but was also prominent in the social life of the pleasure-seeking well-off. During a war between Assisi and Perugia, Francis was imprisoned for a year and became seriously ill. Soon afterwards, still in his military gear, he abandoned the war, running the risk of being deemed a coward.

Already at this stage his concern for the poor and outcasts (such as lepers) was noticeable. One day he heard a voice which seemed to come from a crucifix in the small rundown church of San Damiano in Assisi. It said:

Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.

Francis understood the words literally and immediately got to work. He sold some of his father’s cloth in order to pay for the repairs. This led to a lengthy dispute with his father ending with Francis renouncing his inheritance and getting rid of his fancy and expensive clothes. The bishop of Assisi gave him some simple attire and Francis embarked on a totally new way of living.

In the beginning, his aim was primarily devotional. He wanted to be close to Christ on the Cross. But later he would also declare his allegiance to Lady Poverty, using the contemporary language of courtly love. He began to lead a life of extreme simplicity. With money he begged from the people of Assisi he was able to rebuild the church of San Damiano. In fact, he restored several ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, just outside Assisi, which later became his favorite abode.

He became a wandering beggar in solidarity with those who were genuinely poor – and there would have been many. He looked after social outcasts, especially lepers (and those who were thought to have leprosy). There is the famous image of him overcoming his distaste and fear by embracing a leper. Then seven other men joined him. They lived together at the Porziuncula in Assisi, close to a leper colony.

At the end of this period (~1209) Francis heard a sermon about chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel which changed his life. In it, Jesus tells his followers to go forth and proclaim the imminent coming of the Reign of God. On the way, they are to take no money nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot without staff or purse, he began to preach a message of repentance. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as “lesser brothers” (fratres minores) – the name by which the order is still known. The brothers lived a simple life in the abandoned leper house of Rivo Torto near Assisi. They spent much of their time as wandering preachers in Umbria bringing a message of cheer and song and making a deep impression on the people. One factor which differentiated them from other groups of poor preachers, was their obvious respect and obedience to Church leaders and the orthodoxy of their teaching.

In 1209, Francis led his followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. The pope agreed to meet with Francis and his companions. He consented to an informal recognition of the group and, when they had increased in numbers, they could return for more formal recognition. The group then received the tonsure and Francis himself was ordained deacon, allowing him to read the Gospel in church. Obedience to the pope would be a central feature of Francis’ First Rule (Regula Prima) drawn up and approved in 1210.

Their missionary apostolate continued to grow and reach more people and Francis’ sermons were becoming more popular. After preaching, the friars would return to their community house for their liturgy and personal prayer. They lived the simple lives of ordinary working people, supplementing their income when necessary, by begging. They lived in simple huts. Their churches were small. They slept on the floor without tables or chairs and only a very few books. It would be only later that some of them became well-known theologians. One of the most outstanding of these would be St Bonaventure.

Among those who heard Francis preach was Clare of Assisi and she immediately knew to what she was called. Her brother Rufino, too, joined the new order. On Palm Sunday, 28 March, 1211, Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and thus was founded the Order of Poor Dames, later called Poor Clares.

Francis longed to reach out further in his preaching and thought specially of the Muslim Saracens against whom the Crusaders were fighting. In 1212, he set off for the Middle East, but his ship was shipwrecked in present-day Croatia. Two years later, in 1214, he set out for Morocco through Spain, but became so ill he had to turn back. In 1219, Francis and a few companions, left on a pilgrimage of peace to Egypt. Crossing the lines between the Saracens and the Crusaders in Damietta, he was received by Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. Francis made a deep impression on the Sultan, but failed to convert him to Christianity. He refused the expensive gifts the Sultan wanted to give him and returned to the Crusaders. Altogether he spent some months as a pilgrim in Palestine. At Acre, the capital of what remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he rejoined Brothers Elia and Pietro Cattini and most probably visited the holy places in 1220.

Then he was urgently called back to Italy because of developments in the Order which seemed to compromise his original ideals of simple living. The friars had increased greatly in numbers (up to 5,000) and new houses were being established outside Italy. The greater numbers now called for better organisation and administration which Francis’ simple rules could not deal with. The Church authorities, too, saw the Order as an important instrument of reform, even to making some of the friars bishops. Francis felt that this might compromise the witness through poverty which was in itself a criticism of the materialist attitudes affecting the Church. Francis then resigned his position as Minister General at the General Chapter of 1220. He was very much aware that he was not the kind of administrator the Order needed in developing along these new lines.

He was succeeded by Brother Elias of Cortona. In 1221, Francis drew up another Rule. After some changes, it was finally approved as the Regula Bullata by Pope Honorius III. The Order now had the full approval of the Church authorities but it involved concessions with which Francis was not at all happy. In 1221, Francis also initiated the Third Order by which married people could live according to the Franciscan spirituality.

It is in the later years of his life that some of the best known events took place. They include the setting up of a Christmas crib at Grecchio. It is said that Francis – who was never more than a deacon – read the Gospel with such passion that people wept. The famous Canticle of the Sun was written in 1224 when he visited Clare, who was seriously ill at the time. And it was also in 1224 that, during an ecstasy, he experienced the stigmata, by which the wounds of the crucified Jesus appeared on his body. While praying on the mountain of La Verna, during a 40-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas (29 September), Francis is said to have had a vision on or about 14 September, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. His companion, Brother Leo, later wrote:

Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.

It was soon after this that Francis became ill and blind. He suffered greatly from well-intentioned, but crude surgery. In the end he was brought back to the transito, the hut for sick friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began and feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of 3 October, 1226, singing Psalm 141. He was just 45 years of age.

Francis was canonized, only two years after his death, on 16 July, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX, formerly Cardinal Ugolino and a long-time friend and patron of the Order. The following day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. On 25 May, 1230, he was buried under the Lower Basilica. His burial place remained inaccessible until it was rediscovered in 1818. A crypt in neo-classical style was constructed under the Lower Basilica, but between 1927-30 it was redesigned by removing the marble decorations. In 1978, Francis’ remains were identified by a commission of scholars, appointed by Pope Paul VI, and placed in a glass urn in the old stone tomb. Assisi is now a pilgrimage centre for people from all over the world.

Over the centuries, Francis has become one of the Catholic Church’s most loved saints. Some of this devotion, however, borders on the sentimental. He has been cultivated by nature lovers and even by ‘new agers’ while ignoring the heart of his spirituality – his devotion to the suffering Jesus and his commitment to a poor and simple life. He has been a genuine source of inspiration for many, not least was Charles de Foucauld who perhaps went even further than Francis in his austere style of life.

After his death, many legends arose about him and these are collected in the Little Flowers of St Francis, a book whose popularity still endures. In art too, Francis has been a favourite subject, beginning with the artist Cimabue.

He is regarded as the patron saint of animals, birds, the environment, and Italy. It is common for Christian churches to hold ceremonies honouring animals around his feast day on October 4.

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