Francis of Assisi

Celebrated by a vast cross section of medieval society for living a life based on the gospels, Francis of Assisi (c. 1180–1226 C.E.) still ranks among the most revered saints in the history of the Christian church. At first given the name Giovanni, which was later changed to Francesco owing to his father’s fondness for France, he was born around 1180 in Assisi, Italy, to Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife, Pica. Although Francis enjoyed a privileged childhood and adolescence, his life took a dramatic turnaround 1205 when, while on a military campaign, he had a vision urging him to head back to Assisi. Francis returned home a changed man; he renounced the socializing and materialism of his former life and declared his intention to marry “Lady Poverty.”

Soon after this he made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he exchanged clothes with a mendicant and begged for alms. Later, while praying at San Damiano in Assisi, Francis heard a voice speak to him from a crucifix, urging him to restore the decrepit church. A conflict developed when his father discovered that Francis was selling his cloth to finance the project. The denouement remains one of the most famous scenes of Francis’s life. In a public act witnessed by the bishop of Assisi, Francis severed ties with his father and gave up all claims to his inheritance. He punctuated the act of renunciation by stripping himself of his clothes, returning them to his father.

Francis of Assisi

“Francis of Assisi preaching to the Birds” by Giotto Di Bondone (excerpt)

In about 1208, Francis received new direction in life. While attending church, he was struck by a reading from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus asks his disciples to renounce all their possessions, exhort people to repent of their sins, and announce to the world the kingdom of God. The experience compelled him to embrace a life of extreme poverty, living in a hut and begging for his food. Before long, Francis began to attract disciples, for whom he wrote the nonextant Primitive Rule, which was probably a simple gloss of gospel passages. He traveled to Rome in 1209 to receive oral approval for the rule from Pope Innocent III, and in this year the Franciscan order was established. Francis’s disciples called themselves the Friars Minor (Little Brothers), emphasizing their humility. Their daily lives revolved around preaching to the concerns of everyday people, engaging in liturgical and private prayer, performing manual labor, and begging. Inspired by the model of Francis and his brothers, Clare of Assisi petitioned Francis to establish a similar society for women, and together they cofounded the Order of the Poor Clares.

Francis’s desire to preach to a wider audience encouraged him to set his sights across the Mediterranean Sea. He reached Egypt in 1219 and was present at the sack of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. While there, Francis managed to arrange a meeting with al-Kamil, the Egyptian vizier. Francis’s preaching impressed al-Kamil, but the vizier did not convert. Francis then traveled as a pilgrim to the Holy Land and remained there until affairs at home forced him to return; the expanding order had become a victim of mismanagement and of its own success. In response, in 1221 Francis drew up the Regula prima (First rule), a more distinct rule. After some modification, Pope Honorius III approved a second rule, known as the Regula secunda (Second rule) or Regula bullata (Approved rule), in 1223. During these years, a Third Order developed among the Franciscans. This order incorporated laypeople who lived by Franciscan ideals but remained with their families, pledging obedience but not continence. Francis drew up instructions for these Tertiaries, as they came to be known, around 1221. Francis is well known for having received the stigmata, the wounds of the passion of Christ, which were given to him in 1224 during an ecstatic trance on Mount La Verna. His health began to decline after this experience, and by 1225 Francis had lost his vision. He died on October 3, 1226. In a final act of humility, he had asked to be buried on the Colle d’Inferno, a notorious hill outside of Assisi where criminals were executed, but instead he was laid to rest at the church of St. George in Assisi. There Pope Gregory IX canonized him on July 16, 1228; on May 25, 1230, his relics were translated to the great double church of St. Francis, which had been erected in his honor in the city.

Francis has continued to appeal to people of all faiths throughout the centuries, especially thanks to legends that express his deep affinity with animals, most famously his sermon to the birds. Yet, in spite of many twentieth-century writers’ anachronistic attempts to fashion him into a hippie, nature-lover, and proto-environmentalist, it should be kept in mind that Francis was, above all, a disciple of Christ and an obedient son of the Roman church, which celebrates his feast on October 4.
(Dawn Marie Hayes in “Holy People of the World”)