As a youth, Francesco—or Francis in English—became a devotee of troubadours and was fascinated with all things French. Although many hagiographers remark about his bright clothing, rich friends, and love of pleasures, his displays of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him came fairly early in his life, as is shown in the "story of the begger." In this account, he was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deal, Francis abandoned his wares and ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his act of charity. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage.
In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken as a prisoner at Collestrada, spending a year as a captive. It is possible that his spiritual conversion was a gradual process rooted in this experience. Upon his return to Assisi in 1203, Francis returned to his carefree life and in 1204, a serious illness led to a spiritual crisis. In 1205, Francis left for Puglia to enlist in the army of the Count of Brienne. A strange vision made him return to Assisi, deepening his ecclesiastical awakening.
According to the hagiographic legend, thereafter he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions; in response, they asked him laughingly whether he was thinking of marrying, to which he answered "yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen", meaning his "lady poverty". He spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, the most repulsive victims in the lazar houses near Assisi. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins". He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose.
His father Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to change his mind, first with threats and then with beatings. After legal proceedings before the bishop, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the countryside around the town for two years this time, he restored several ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola--little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels--just outside the town, which later became his favorite abode.
Saint Francis of Assisi (born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone; 1181/1182 – October 3, 1226) was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He founded the men's Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. St. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in historyaint Francis of Assisi (born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone; 1181/1182 – October 3, 1226) was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He founded the men's Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. St. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.
Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, and he lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man, even fighting as a soldier for Assisi. While going off to war in 1204, Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi, where he lost his taste for his worldly life. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis begged with the beggars at St. Peter's. The experience moved him to live in poverty. Francis returned home, began preaching on the streets, and soon amassed a following. His order was endorsed by Pope Innocent III in 1210. He then founded the Order of Poor Clares, which was an enclosed order for women, as well as the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. In 1219, he went to Egypt where crusaders were besieging Damietta, hoping to find martyrdom at the hands of the Muslims. By this point, the Franciscan Order had grown to such an extent that its primitive organizational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to Italy to organize the order. Once his organization was endorsed by the Pope, he withdrew increasingly from external affairs. In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas manger scene. In 1224, he received the stigmata, making him the first person to bear the wounds of Christ's Passion. He died in 1226 while singing Psalm 141.
Founding of the Franciscan Order
At the end of this period (on February 24, 1209, according to Jordan of Giano), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Gospel precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance. He was soon joined by his first follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as "lesser brothers," fratres minores in Latin. The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression upon their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
Francis' preaching to ordinary people was unusual since he had no license to do so. In 1209 he composed a simple rule for his followers ("friars"), (the Regula primitiva or “Primitive Rule”) which came from verses in the bible. The rule was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.” In 1209, Francis led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. Upon entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had in his company Giovanni di San Paolo, the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina. The Cardinal, who was the confessor of Pope Innocent III, was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to represent Francis to the pope. Reluctantly, Pope Innocent agreed to meet with Francis and the brothers the next day. After several days, the pope agreed to admit the group informally, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. The group was tonsured. This was important in part because it recognized Church authority and prevented his following from possible accusations of heresy, as had happened to the Waldensians decades earlier. Though Pope Innocent initially had doubts, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the bishopric seat of the Pope and cathedral of Rome, thus the 'home church' of all Christendom), he decided to endorse Francis' order. This occurred, according to tradition, on April 16, 1210 and constituted the official founding of the Franciscan order. The group, then the "Lesser Brothers" (Friars Minor or Franciscan Order), preached on the streets and had no possessions. They were centered in Porziuncola, and preached first in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy.
From then on, his new order grew quickly with new vocations. When hearing Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1209, Clare of Assisi became deeply touched by his message and she realized her calling. Her brother Rufino also joined the new order.
On Palm Sunday, March 28, 1211, Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and hereby established the Order of Poor Ladies, later called Poor Clares. This was an order for women, and he gave a religious habit, or dress, similar to his own to the noblewoman later known as St. Clare of Assisi, before he then lodged her and a few companions in the church of San Damiano. There they were joined by many other women of Assisi. For those who could not leave their homes, he later formed the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. This was a lay fraternity whose members neither withdrew from the world nor took religious vows. Instead, they carried out the principles of Franciscan life. Before long this order grew beyond Italy.
Determined to bring the Gospel to all God’s creatures, Francis sought on several occasions to take his message out of Italy. In the late spring of 1212, he set out for Jerusalem, but he was shipwrecked by a storm on the Dalmatian coast, forcing him to return to Italy. On May 8, 1213, he was given the use of the mountain of La Verna (Alverna) as a gift from the count Orlando di Chiusi who described it as “eminently suitable for whoever wishes to do penance in a place remote from mankind.” The mountain would become one of his favorite retreats for prayer. In the same year, Francis sailed for Morocco, but this time an illness forced him to break off his journey in Spain. Back in Assisi, several noblemen (among them Tommaso da Celano, who would later write the biography of St. Francis) and some well-educated men joined his order. In 1215, Francis went again to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. During this time, he probably met Dominic de Guzman (later to be Saint Dominic, the founder of the Friars Preachers, another Catholic religious order). In 1217 he offered to go to France. Cardinal Ugolino of Segni (the future Pope Gregory IX), an early and important supporter of Francis, advised him against this and said that he was still needed in Italy.
In 1219, accompanied by another friar and hoping to convert the Sultan of Egypt or win martyrdom in the attempt, Francis went to Egypt where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta two miles (3.2 kilometers) upstream from the mouth of one of the main channels of the Nile. The Sultan, al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin, had succeeded his father as Sultan of Egypt in 1218 and was encamped upstream of Damietta, unable to relieve it. A bloody and futile attack on the city was launched by the Christians on 29 August 1219, following which both sides agreed to a ceasefire which lasted four weeks. It was most probably during this interlude that Francis and his companion crossed the Saracen lines and were brought before the Sultan, remaining in his camp for a few days. The visit is reported in contemporary Crusader sources and in the earliest biographies of Francis, but they give no information about what transpired during the encounter beyond noting that the Sultan received Francis graciously and that Francis preached to the Saracens without effect, returning unharmed to the Crusader camp. No contemporary Arab source mentions the visit. One detail, added by Bonaventure in the official life of Francis (written forty years after the event) but dismissed by modern critics as a hagiographical embellishment, concerns an alleged challenge by Francis offering trial-by-fire in order to prove the veracity of the Christian gospel. Although Bonaventure does not suggest as much, subsequent biographies went further, claiming that a fire was kindled which Francis unhesitatingly entered without suffering burns. Such an incident is depicted in the late 13th c. fresco cycle, attributed to Giotto, in the upper basilica at Assisi (see accompanying illustration). According to some late sources, the Sultan gave Francis permission to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land and even to preach there. All that can safely be asserted is that Francis and his companion left the Crusader camp for Acre, from where they embarked for Italy in the latter half of 1220. Drawing on a 1267 sermon by Bonaventure, later sources improbably report that the Sultan secretly converted or accepted a death-bed baptism as a result of the encounter with Francis. The Franciscan Order has been present in the Holy Land almost uninterruptedly since 1217 when brother Elias arrived at Acre. It received concessions from the Mameluke Sultan in 1333 with regard to certain Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and (so far as concerns the Catholic Church) jurisdictional privileges from Pope Clement VI in 1342.
At Greccio near Assisi, around 1220, Francis celebrated Christmas by setting up the first known three-dimensional presepio or crèche (Nativity scene). His nativity imagery reflected the scene in traditional paintings. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshipers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of Francis and Saint Bonaventure both, tell how he only used a straw-filled manger (feeding trough) set between a real ox and donkey. According to Thomas, it was beautiful in its simplicity with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass.
Character and Legacy
It has been argued that no one in history was as dedicated as Francis to imitate the life, and carry out the work, of Christ in Christ’s own way. This is important in understanding Francis' character and his affinity for the Eucharist and respect for the priests who carried out the sacrament. He and his followers celebrated and even venerated poverty. Poverty was so central to his character that in his last written work, the Testament, he said that absolute personal and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for the members of his order. He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and even preached to the birds and supposedly persuaded a wolf to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed the wolf. In his “Canticle of the Creatures” (“Praises of Creatures” or “Canticle of the Sun”), he mentioned the “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” the wind and water, and “Sister Death.” He referred to his chronic illnesses as his “sisters." His deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced others, and declared that “he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died.” Francis's visit to Egypt and attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as "Custodians of the Holy Land" on behalf of Christianity.
Nature and the Environment
Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis deal with his love for animals. Perhaps the most famous incident that illustrates the Saint's humility towards nature is recounted in the "Fioretti" ("Little Flowers"), a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after the Saint's death. It is said that, one day, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to "wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds". The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.
Another legend from the Fioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf "terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals". Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. "Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil...", said Francis. "All these people accuse you and curse you... But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people". Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger”, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly, and in return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Francis, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, blessed the wolf.
Francis preached the teaching of the Catholic Church, that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man. He preached to man and beast the universal ability and duty of all creatures to praise God (a common theme in the Psalms) and the duty of men to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God's creation and as creatures ourselves. Legend has it that St. Francis on his deathbed thanked his donkey for carrying and helping him throughout his life, and his donkey wept.