Reviled, ridiculed, and considered a raving madman by his contemporaries, Francis of Assisi turned his back on the comfortable world of his birth to revitalize the message of Christ. By the time of his death, his holiness was universally recognized and he had shaken the staid convictions of church and political officials to their core. Today, his simple message of love for God, the earth, and all its creatures makes him revered by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Born Giovanni Bernadone in the prosperous hill town of Assisi, he was a spoiled and indulged young man given to dressing well, playing pranks, and carousing with friends. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, he was nicknamed Francesco (“The Frenchman”) because of his French mother. On a boastful lark at the age of twenty, he fought in a minor war against the neighboring town of Perugia. Everything changed when the enemy captured him and he spent a year in prison. When his father finally ransomed him home, Francis was ill with malaria and debilitated. Forced to endure months of quiet bed rest in order to recover, he found it hard to resume his old ways. Neither his friends nor his father’s business held much interest for him.
In an effort to regain his former life, Francis made an attempt to fight for the Papal States under Walter de Brienne. Equipped with the finest armor, he met a shabbily clad knight along the way and on a whim exchanged clothes with him. That night in a dream, a voice told him to turn back and serve “the Master rather than the man.” After his father and friends ridiculed him for his desertion, he roamed the countryside alone in a state of spiritual crisis. One day, as he was wandering, Francis came upon a leper and was initially revolted by his sores. However, instead of turning away, Francis leapt from his horse, gave the leper all his money, and then kissed his hand. Thus began what Francis later called his conversion. It also began his daily ritual of visiting hospitals and leper colonies and meditating in the crumbling church of San Damiano.
Just beyond the walls of Assisi, San Damiano had been deserted by the town’s faithful and was tended by a single elderly priest. In 1205, while Francis was praying in front of the crucifix, he heard a voice, “Go, Francis, and repair my house which as you see, is falling into ruin.” Looking around at the decaying structure, Francis interpreted this request literally. He hurried to his father’s shop, bundled up as much fabric and drapery as he could carry, and sold it in the marketplace in order to buy building supplies. His father was furious and dragged him to the city consuls, not only to recover the money for the fabric but to force Francis to denounce his inheritance as well. At this meeting, Francis insisted that he was a servant of God and should not be judged by a civil court. He relinquished the gold and stripped himself of all his belongings. Handing them to his father he said, “From now onwards, I can turn to God and call him my father in heaven!” He left Assisi dressed in the garments of a hermit.
Although he was now penniless, Francis was still intent on keeping his promise to rebuild San Damiano. He begged for stones and alms in the street, and the townfolk considered him a madman. He did eventually complete his task and Francis went on to repair other churches, including Santa Maria degli Angeli, known as the Porziuncola. Considered by Francis to be “one of the holiest places on earth,” this little chapel was originally erected in 353 by hermits from the Valley of Josaphat. It housed relics of the Virgin Mary and became known as Our Lady of the Angels because people reported hearing the sound of singing angels coming from inside at night. Francis, who had a deep connection to the Virgin Mary, built himself a hut near her church and would pray for her intercession in giving him earthly direction. On February 24, 1209, while at mass, he heard the Gospel of Matthew 10:9, where Jesus told his followers, “And going, preach, saying The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand . . . Freely have you received. Freely give. Take neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses . . .nor two coats, nor shoes nor a staff . . . Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves . . .”
Stricken to the core, Francis immediately cast off what few possessions he had until he was dressed only in the coarse woolen tunic of the poor. He set out to Assisi to preach penance, brotherly love, and peace. His manner was so warm and sincere that, instead of scoffing at him, people listened with fascination to what he had to say. Here before them was the most Christlike man they had ever seen. The Porziuncola filled with his followers. By the end of that year, a small community of eleven men was following Francis and the simple Rule he wrote adapting the precepts of the gospel.
In the summer of 1210, Francis and his companions traveled to Rome to seek the blessing of the pope for this new order of Friars Minor. Papal ecclesiastical advisers declared that the Rule of the Order, though taken solely from Christ’s command, was impractical and unsafe, and Francis’s request was rejected. That night Pope Innocent III had a dream in which Francis was holding up the Lateran Church with his shoulder. The next morning the pope immediately requested an audience with Francis and approved his mission. Upon the Friars’ return to Umbria, the Benedictine Order attempted to give them the Porziuncola for their monastery. Francis only accepted the use of the property. He strongly felt that their Order must always live in holy poverty, never owning anything. Even their name, Friars Minor (Little Brothers) reminded the men to never exalt themselves above anyone.
The first Friars Minor traveled throughout Italy, joyfully preaching by day and sleeping in haylofts at night. Forbidden to take money, they supported their mission by working with laborers in the fields or begging for their meals. Having proved themselves adept at local peacemaking and sowing contentment, many of the Italian city-states invited them to preach and set up small communities within their borders. Missions were sent to Spain, Germany, Hungary, and France. Without trying to be revolutionaries, Francis and his followers completely changed the way the Church reached people. Because he truly believed that all of nature was wondrous and all creatures sacred to God, Francis introduced a new way of looking at the world, one accessible to rich and poor alike. His order attracted a socially diverse group of men and spawned an affiliated women’s order with Saint Clare of Assisi. He later drew up a rule for laity who desired to associate themselves with the Friars Minor. This order of Franciscan Tertiaries, or the Third Order of Saint Francis, exists today with worldwide membership from the Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican Churches. Just as they did under Francis, members continue to follow the rules of humility, charity, and voluntary poverty.
Francis was a true mystic. It was said that birds would quiet down and listen when he preached, and there are many tales of his ability to communicate with animals. When the citizens of Gubbio were being terrorized by a man-eating wolf, for example, Francis went up in the hills to find it. Upon seeing the vicious animal, he made the sign of the cross and invited the wolf to come to him. The wolf docilely lay at his feet, and Francis drafted a pact between the wolf, and citizens of Gubbio; in exchange for being regularly fed by the town, the wolf would leave its residents in peace. Both sides agreed, and Gubbio was freed from this menace.
Francis’s life of sacrifice and self-deprivation put an incredible strain on his body. When he prayed, the light he saw in his raptures was so intense that it caused him to continuously weep. His followers feared for his eyesight, but he said he could not resist being in the presence of such a brilliant light. His devotions became more and more extreme and in August of 1224 Francis retired to the secluded mountain of La Verna for a forty-day retreat before the Feast of Saint Michael. He devoted most of his meditations to the wounds and suffering of Christ. At dawn on September 14, after a night of prayer, he had a vision of a Seraphim angel, nailed to a cross, flying at him. When the vision vanished, his body bore the stigmata of the crucified Christ. He bore these markings in secrecy for the last two years of his life. They were visible upon his death in October 1226.
The contributions of Francis of Assisi were not limited to religion. A great writer and poet, he wrote “Canticle of the Sun,” his masterpiece inspired by Saint Clare, in his native Italian. Writing in a language other than Latin was uncommon at the time, and it set the groundwork for the poetry of Dante Aligheri, a great admirer of Francis. Publicly acclaimed as a saint in his own lifetime, Francis of Assisi led one of the most documented lives of the Middle Ages. Within decades of his death, there were numerous biographies written by his followers. Perhaps the greatest memorial to this saint is the Basilica of Saint Francis, commissioned by the city of Assisi two years after his death. Considered one of the most important monuments of Europe, Giotto, Cimabue, and Simone Martini, the greatest artists of their day, decorated the interior with scenes from the saint’s life. Assisi itself exudes such an air of peace and love from having the presence of such a graceful being in its midst that it remains an important site for pilgrims devoted to the memory and teachings of Il Poverello (“The Little Poor Man”) known as Saint Francis.
Blessing of Saint Francis of Assisi
May the Lord bless you
and keep you;
may the Lord show his face to you
and have compassion on you!
May he turn his face to you
and give you peace!