Saint Francis of Assisi
With how much we know about Saint Francis of Assisi, it can actually be hard to grasp an accurate picture of the great saint. With countless letters, poems, liturgical writings and his Rule, paired with biographies written by his closest companions, we know more about Francis than any other medieval saint. The awe-inspiring stories of him – founding the Franciscan Order, preaching to the birds, receiving the stigmata, and becoming one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity – all flow from one source: living the gospel life demonstrated through the utter and complete charity of Jesus.
Around the year 1182, a silk merchant named Pietro di Bernardone dei Moriconi returned to Assisi following a business trip to France to find that his wife, Pica de Bourlemont, had given birth to their son. His excitement transformed to dismay when he found out she had named and baptized him Giovanni, after John the Baptist. The wealthy businessman had no interest though in his son being a man of God – he wanted a man of business. He promptly took to calling him Francis, or Francis, in honor of his commercial success and love of all things French, and the name stuck.
Growing up, Francis was a spoiled child, and the tales of his rebellious early years are fabled. He indulged in fine food, wine, and rowdy celebrations, becoming well-known for his wit, charm, and handsome looks. He quickly became the ringleader of a group of young people in Assisi who would party long into the night, with Francis easy to spot with his bright and flashy clothes.
While Francis was well on his way to fulfilling his father’s hopes for him (primarily in falling in love with France, the cloth trade, and wealth), he likely began to be disillusioned by his lavish lifestyle even in his teenaged years. Stories tell of a beggar asking Francis for alms while he was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace, and at the end of the day, Francis ran after the beggar to give him everything in his pockets. He was mocked by his friends and scolded by his father for this act of charity, which was a sign of things to come.
As he grew older, Francis began to grow bored at the prospect of life in the cloth trade and set his sights on a more glorious future – a knight! The idea of being a war hero on the battlefield took hold of him, and he yearned for a chance to prove himself noble in war, the opportunity for which was right around the corner.
In 1202, war broke out between Assisi and the nearby town of Perugia. He marched off to battle, dressed in fancy armor and head full of dreams of future glory, only to find themselves hopelessly outmatched and outnumbered. The butchered bodies of the Assisi army soon covered the battlefield, and the surviving forces attempted to flee but were ultimately captured by the Perugia troops. Most of the surviving Assisi men were put to death, except for those deemed worthy of ransom. Francis, easily captured thanks to his lack of combat experience, was deemed such thanks to his expensive armor.
He and the other wealthy troops awaiting ransom were led off to a harsh, underground prison in Collestrada, where he spent the next year of his life awaiting his father’s payment. It was during this time that the very first moments of his spiritual conversion began to take root. While he reportedly retained his cheerfulness amidst his dark and harrowing surroundings, he also reportedly contracted a serious illness that turned his thoughts towards eternity; the emptiness of his life thus far began to weigh on his mind as he slowly returned to health and eventually regained his freedom following his father paying his ransom.
Upon returning to Assisi in 1203, Francis attempted to return to his carefree life with mild success. He still occasionally took part in revelries alongside his former comrades, and his dreams of glory through a military career were still mostly intact. When a call for knights went out in 1205 for men to join the Fourth Crusade amid the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. Boasting loudly that he would “return a prince,” Francis departed for Apulia to enlist
But he never got farther than a single day’s ride from Assisi. Strange dreams, which had begun just before leaving Assisi, began to shake him to his core. According to his biographers, the night before he had left to enlist, Francis had seen in a strange dream a vast hall that had armor marked with the Cross hung along the walls. A voice had told him, “These are for you and your soldiers,” and Francis, still full of an earthly glory had replied, “I know, I shall be a great prince!” In a second dream that same voice, which Francis came to realize was God himself, told him that he had it all wrong and to return home. He rode his horse back into Assisi, growing humiliated as he was called a coward by the village and screamed at by his seething father over the money wasted on armor.
His former life of luxury had lost all of its appeal. His dreams of military glory were gone. A spiritual stirring was beginning in his heart, one that cast aside the worldly attachments that had weighed him down thus far, and he awaited the next step towards a life in the spirit. In the meantime, he avoided his former companions and their parties, who laughingly asked if he was instead courting a woman to marry. He reportedly answered them, “Yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” This “bride” was what Francis called “Lady Poverty” who he began to love and embrace through giving up his former lavish and wasteful ways and instead committing his life to God.
One day while riding his horse through the Umbrian countryside, Francis came across a leper on the side of the road. While he was initially repulsed by the appearance and smell of the leper, he nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed his hand. Francis reportedly described the experience as a feeling of sweetness in his mouth, and after this encounter, felt an indescribable freedom. These actions began a self-emptying of Francis, now in his early 20s and spending much of his time among the poor or alone in empty places, asking God for enlightenment.
Two specific moments stand out amid his conversion to full dependence on the Lord. The first was on a pilgrimage to Rome, when he visited the tomb of St. Peter and noticed the scarce offerings he saw there. Emptying his pockets, he went one step further by exchanging his fancy clothes for those of a tattered mendicant outside the basilica, where he stood the rest of the day fasting among the beggars there.
The second moment was upon his return to Assisi, while he was exploring a rundown chapel of San Damiano on the outskirts of his town. The crumbling, forsaken chapel had a Byzantine crucifix hanging inside of it, and while Francis was praying before it, he heard a voice saying three times:
“Francis, go and repair My house, which you see is falling down.”
Francis, looking around, noticed that the building was very old and close to falling down. He departed the chapel with the mission of rebuilding that physical church, not knowing that there was a much larger rebuilding that the Lord had in store for him.
Returning home and seeking the necessary finances to repair the chapel, Francis took a large horse-load of expensive cloth out of his father’s warehouse and sold it, along with the horse carrying the load. He then returned to San Damiano, bringing the money before the officiating priest and asking if he might be able to reside there. The priest allowed him to stay there but refused the money once he learned of how Francis had acquired it. Pietro, Francis’ father, also learned of how Francis had acquired the money, and became incensed at what he viewed as a theft. He had run out of patience with his son, whom he had envisioned an opulent and grandiose life for but was now dressed in rags and living in a dilapidated chapel.
To hide from his raging father, Francis lived in a cave near San Damiano for a full month. When he finally emerged and returned home to face his father, dirty and hungry, he was mocked as a madman and pelted with mud and stones. Eventually he was seized by his infuriated father, beaten, bound, and locked in a closet.
His mother would mercifully set free him from the closet while his father was away, and Francis returned to San Damiano for a short period until he was by the city consuls by his father, forcing him to return to Assisi. Dragged before the local bishop, he was instructed to return the money. The bishop reportedly reminded Francis that “God would provide.”
That was all Francis needed to hear, and he happily returned the gold from his unapproved cloth sale, renounced his inheritance as Pietro had requested, and even stripped off his clothes – clothes which his father had given him – and laying them in a neat pile at Pietro’s feet, in front of a stunned bishop and crowd he said, “ “Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’.
His father left the court in a miserable rage, and there is no indication that he and Francis ever spoke again.
That event is credited as the final conversion moment of Francis, who received a rough tunic from the bishop and set out for the cold hills of Assisi singing loudly while roaming the highways. He improvised hymns of praise for God as he went and was surely quite a sight for anyone who happened upon him, including a group of robbers. The robbers asked him who he was and when he answered resolutely, “I am the herald of the Great King,” they beat him, stole the little clothes he had, and tossed him into a snow drift.
Francis, frozen and naked, sought refuge at a nearby monastery where he worked as a scullion, or a servant assigned to menial kitchen tasks. He then traveled to Gubbio, where a friend helped him acquire the cloak, girdle and staff of a pilgrim. He returned to Assisi, still viewed as a madman, and began begging for stones so that he could rebuild the chapel of San Damiano.
Over the course of the next two years, Francis embraced the life of a penitent and restored several rundown chapels in the Assisi countryside while performing various works of charity, including nursing lepers around the area.
One of the chapels he restored, St. Mary of the Angels, became a well-known place of worship called the Portiuncula (and the namesake of the future chapel which would hold the reliquary housing the relic of Saint Francis). He built himself a small hut to live nearby, and one fateful morning in February of 1208, Francis was attending Mass in the chapel. The Gospel reading that day was the “Commissioning of the Twelve” from the Book of Matthew, and Francis heard clearly the call to “possess neither gold nor silver, nor scrip for their journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff, and that they were to exhort sinners to repentance and announce the Kingdom of God.”
Francis felt a weight to these words and took them as if God had spoken them to him directly. Once Mass was over, he threw away the few measly things he had in his possession, obtained a coarse woolen tunic, the standard dress of the poorest Umbrian peasants at the time, and tied it around himself with a knotted rope. He immediately took to the countryside to preach on brotherly love, sincerity and the need of repentance. He would greet all those he passed on the road with “Our Lord give you peace” and his natural charisma began to attract curious travelers to hear his words.
Francis never became an ordained priest (he was later ordained a deacon) but spoke to the incredulous listeners with great power and authority. His Christ-like embrace of poverty was a radical view at that time in the Catholic Church, which had grown extremely rich and bloated. Francis felt that the apostolic ideals of the Catholic Church had eroded just like the structures of the run-down chapels he had discovered, and he set out to rebuild not just the physical churches of his area, but the Church of Christ itself.
His moving warmth and sincerity began attracting devoted disciples. A rich merchant named Bernard Quintavalle invited Francis to stay at his house and after a long night of talking, Bernard was convinced of Francis’ dedication to the Lord and sold all his goods, gave the proceeds to the poor, and joined him. Another man, Peter de Cattaneo, also began following Francis, and together they traveled to the Portiuncula with him where they built small huts near his and received one of the rough tunics he was wearing, which would become their new habits.
Around 1209, now with companions alongside him, Francis now knew there needed to be a set direction for their lives. He picked up the Bible, and randomly flipped it to three different readings. The first he landed on was the command from Jesus to the rich, young man to sell at that he had and give to the poor. The second reading was the order of Jesus to the apostles to take nothing on their journey, and the final landing spot was the demand to take up the cross daily.
“This shall be our rule of life”, Francis declared, and from then on, the group grew steadily in numbers as they set out among the countryside to proclaim the good news of the Lord through their radical poverty.
After a year, Francis had eleven followers and the group called themselves “the Penitents from Assisi.” Francis decided to head to Rome to get approval from Pope Innocent III to recognize his group as an official religious order. There are varying accounts of how Francis came to stand before the pope, but many report that upon arriving in Rome, the brothers came across Bishop Guido of Assisi (the same Bishop who in front of, Francis had renounced his father) who was traveling alongside the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina, Giovanni di San Paolo. Cardinal Giovanni also happened to be the confessor of the pope. The Cardinal agreed to present Francis, and reluctantly Pope Innocent III met with Francis and his brothers the following day.
Many advisors to the Pope looked down harshly upon Francis and his mode of life, deeming it impractical and unsafe, and the Pope listened hesitantly as he considered the matter. Francis was persistent and passionate, and Pope Innocent III chose to informally approve the group. He added that when “God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance.” Before they could even return to Assisi, Pope Innocent reportedly was moved by a vivid dream in which he saw Francis holding the teetering Basilica of St. John Lateran upon his shoulders. Encouraged by this dream, he summoned Francis and his companions and officially approved of their mission, with the conditions that they always get the proper consent from local church authorities and choose a leader for ecclesiastical authorities to communicate with.
According to tradition, this official founding of the Franciscan Order occurred on April 16, 1210, and with Francis naturally being elected the leader, the group was tonsured (the practice of shaving some of the hair on the scalp as a sign of religious devotion or humility) and returned to Assisi in jubilation.
The early years of the Friars Minor (named by Francis as such to remind them of their humility) were spent training the brothers in embracing actions of poverty and brotherly love. They traveled two-by-two, announcing to the people in the towns surrounding Assisi the joys and wonders of the Lord. They would sleep in haylofts or on church porches, worked alongside laborers in the fields, and if no work was available, would beg. He encouraged his brothers to follow these commands so literally that when a thief stole the hood of one brother, Francis invited him to run after the man and offer him his robe too.
The brothers gained immense attention by their starkly different way of life. Their Order quickly grew at an astonishing rate, and Francis was often preaching in up to five villages per day. He gained a special recognition for his love with all natural phenomena, including the sun, moon, air, water, etc. He loved nature, and many stories tell of him “preaching to the birds” when a group of noisy swallows were disturbing his preaching. The birds immediately fell silent and stood all around him, listening intently as he spoke of God’s praise. Another legend tells of Francis taming a killer wolf near Gubbio that had terrorized the town; Francis persuaded it to cease attacking the local people if they agreed to feed “Brother Wolf” as he called it. He wrote a famous “Canticle of the Creatures” (or “Canticle of the Sun”) in which he mentions Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and other embraces of God in nature.
As the legend of Francis grew, many unexpected followers flocked to his side. Among those was a young heiress of Assisi named Clare, who was moved while hearing him preaching during Lent of 1212. You can learn more about this future saint, whose relic will also be present in the Our Lady of the Angels Chapel here. Clare would go on to form the first monastery of the Second Franciscan Order, who became known as the Poor Ladies and eventually the Poor Clares.
As the Order began to grow far and wide, Francis grew determined to spread the Gospel not just across Italy but across the world. In spring of 1212, he set course for Jerusalem with the hopes to convert the Saracens, but rough seas ended up leaving Francis shipwrecked and forced to return to Assisi. The same year, he tried to make it to Morocco, but an illness caused him to end that endeavor early as well. In 1219, he made it to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, and during a ceasefire he crossed army lines and entered the camps of the Muslims seeking to convert the Sultan of Egypt himself.
His biographers recount Francis boldly walking among the enemy army calling out, “Sultan! Sultan!” When he was brought before the Sultan and told to state his errand, he boldly announced, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.” The sultan received Francis courteously and was intrigued by his preaching, but ultimately wary of the passionate preacher when he offered to challenge the Sultan’s priests to a “trial by fire” in order to prove the truth and authenticity of the Gospel. Nonetheless, the sultan allowed Francis to pass through unharmed, and gave him permission to travel to the sacred places of the holy land and even preach there.
Following this visit, Francis hastened back to Italy because of trouble brewing since his absence. The Friars Minor had grown at an unprecedented rate, and the organizations’ structure had not been able to keep up with the growth. Furthermore, the two vicars whom Francis had left in charge of the Order, had called a general chapter in which new or adjusted rules were causing strife among the friars.
The issues surrounded Francis on all sides: new fasts had been imposed upon the friars which were more severe than their rule required, a Cardinal had conferred on the Poor Ladies a new written rule that was essentially the same as the Benedictine Nuns, one motivated brother had assembled a large number of lepers with the hope of forming a new religious order with them and had already set out for Rome to seek approval, some of the friars in Bologna had built an opulent new monastery, and there was even a rumor spreading that Francis himself had passed away while in Egypt.
Sensing the Order to be on the verge of a serious crisis, Francis accepted that while some measure of change was needed in order to run the large organization, no change would ever divert the focus away from their founding principles: poverty, humility, and love of the Lord. In 1220, he resigned as minister general, and in May 1221, offered the first draft of a new and revised Rule for the Order. It was a very long and confusing document, and two years later he took to the solace of a mountain to rework it entirely. But when he returned with the rewritten rule, one of his brothers negligently lost the new draft, and Francis had to return to the mountain and write it all over again.
This revised rule was finally approved by Honorious III on November 29, 1223 and is known as the Second Rule, or the Franciscan Rule, as it is the one still observed the Friars Minor to this day. It is based on the three specific vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with the notion that a special focus be placed on poverty. It also set specific regulations for discipline, preaching, and entry into the Order.
This new rule ushered in stability and unity among the Friars, and upon its completion and approval, Francis began to withdraw from external affairs regarding the Friars Minor. The Order he had founded was back on the right track, and he felt peace in its trajectory.
Around 1223, Francis was praying on the mountain of Verna during a forty-day fast ahead of “Michaelmas”, also known as the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. During his retreat, he meditated deeply on the sufferings of Christ, and around the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), he had a vision of a winged seraph, nailed to a cross, flying towards him, followed by keen stabs of pain in hands, feet, and sides. He had received the very first stigmata, with the five wounds of Christ appearing on Francis.
The wounds, as well as a bout of trachoma affecting his eyes, weakened the great preacher, but he refused to stop spreading the word of God. He would regularly ride down the mountain to preach, heal people, and rein in any members of the Friars Minor who were stepping too far away from the ideals of the Order. He continued this mission even as his health continued to slip away, with Francis undergoing gruesome treatments in an attempt to heal his ailments.
Francis paid a final visit to the future St. Clare at San Damiano (where he would compose the famous “Canticle of the Sun”) before setting out for Assisi on his deathbed. So renowned was Francis that he was forced to take a roundabout path home, due to concerns over neighboring towns attempting to carry him off by force so that he might die in their town (thus awarding them the glory of possessing the coveted relics of the future saint).
He was able to safely return to his beloved Portiuncula, where he had finally discovered his true vocation, and he spent his final days in a small hut next to the building. The night before he died, he had bread brought to him and breaking it, he distributed it among those present, blessing them and saying, “I have done my part. May Christ teach you to do yours.”
His final request was to leave the earth free of any last bit of attachment, and as the Gospel reading for Holy Thursday was read (the Passion according to St. John), he removed his habit, lay on the bare ground, and embraced “Sister Death” on October 3, 1226. He was 45 years old.
Francis in his humility had initially requested to be buried in a cemetery designated for criminals in the Colle d’Inferno (a despised hill where the criminals themselves were typically executed), but a crowd of people from Assisi came down to the Portiuncula to process his body to the church of St. George in Assisi. Numerous miracles were soon taking place at his tomb, and they were attributed to Francis.
On July 16, 1228, just two years after his passing, Pope Gregory IX canonized Saint Francis of Assisi, and laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis the very next day. Saint Francis was buried in the Basilica bearing his name on May 25, 1230, but the exact location of this tomb was later hidden on orders from the Friars Minor in order to protect it from Saracen invaders. It was rediscovered in 1818, refashioned between 1927 and 1930, and examined and confirmed to be authentic by a group of scholars appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1978.
On March 13, 2013, upon being elected Pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina selected Saint Francis to be his papal name, becoming Pope Francis. He would later tell journalists that it was Francis’ “concern for the well-being of the poor” that motivated him to select the name, which was clear to him when a Brazilian Cardinal had hugged him upon his election and whispered, “Don’t forget the poor.”
Saint Francis of Assisi is an incredibly admirable saint. He followed the teachings of Jesus Christ with a vigor, dedication, and literal nature that led many to view him as being utterly insane. However, those that once chased “God’s fool” out with mud and stones would soon have their hearts moved by his renouncement of the world, rebuilding of God’s churches, and renewal of the Catholic faith that this great saint brought about through his reckless love of Jesus and His people.