Saint Francis of Assisi
St Francis’ father, Pietro Bernardone, was a wealthy Assisian cloth merchant, whilst his mother, Pica, is said to have belonged to a noble family of Provence. Francis was actually baptized as Giovanni, but his father (perhaps due to a fondness for France) altered the boy’s name to Francesco (which means ‘Frenchman’).
As a young man, Francis was not very studious, and he also had very little interest in a merchant's career (his father’s trade). It would seem that he was more interested in the finer things in life – delighted in fine clothes, showy displays, etc. When he was twenty years old, Francis (along with other townsmen) went to fight the Perugians (a rival city). The Assisians were defeated, and a number of townsmen (including Francis) were taken captive and held prisoner for more than a year in Perugia. Francis contracted a fever, either whilst being held prisoner or soon after his release, and it is said that this may have caused him to consider the emptiness of the life that he was leading. When his health returned, however, he again went in search of glory. He decided upon a military career and arranged to accompany a knight (of Assisi) who was on his way to join Walter of Brienne (who was part of the army of Neapolitan States, who were fighting against the emperor). It is said that, the night before Francis set forth, he had a dream, in which he saw a vast hall hung with armour all marked with the Cross. "These", said a voice, "are for you and your soldiers." Francis saw this as a sign that he was destined to become a great prince, and he thus started on his journey with the knight. A second illness, however, made him halt his journey at Spoleto. It is there that Francis had another dream in which the same voice told him to return to Assisi. He did so at once.
Francis’ demeanor had changed. Although he still joined in the revelry of his friends, he was not as before. His companions asked him the reasons for his absent-mindedness. Was he thinking of marriage? It is said that Francis replied, “Yes", I am about to take a wife of surpassing fairness." This ‘wife’ was to be POVERTY. He began, through prayer and solitude, to seek the answer to his calling. He also finally gave up his wasteful ways.
Soon afterwards, Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. When at St. Peter’s tomb, he gave his money away (emptied it upon the tomb) and exchanged clothes Pained at the miserly offerings he saw at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse thereon. Then, as if to put his fastidious nature to the test, he exchanged clothes with a tattered beggar, and stood for the rest of the day fasting among the crowd of beggars at the door of the basilica.
Not long after his return to Assisi, Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix in the forsaken wayside chapel of St. Damian's, when he heard a voice saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin." Francis saw this ‘house’ as the ruinous church in which he found himself at that moment in time. He immediately went to his father's shop, grabbed a load of coloured drapery, and travelled to Foligno on horseback. Once there, he sold both horse and drapery in order to procure the money needed for the restoration of the church. Upon his return to the church, however, Francis was disappointed to find that the priest at St. Damien’s refused to accept the money (Francis flung the money away in disdain).
When Francis’ father found out about the drapery, he was furious, and, to escape his father’s wrath, Francis hid himself in a cave near St. Damian's for a whole month. When he emerged and returned home, he was beaten by his father, bound, and locked in a dark closet. His mother set him free when his father was not at home, and Francis returned to St. Damian’s. His father, however, pursued him there and stated that he must either return home or be disinherited (as well as repaying him for the horse and good that he had sold). His father then had him summoned for trial before Guido, the bishop of Assisi. The bishop listened to the case, and told the young man to repay the money and put his trust in God. "He does not wish," the bishop said, "to have His church profit by goods which may have been unjustly acquired." Francis gave the money back and stripped off his garments as well, saying, "My clothing is also his. Hitherto I have called Peter Bernadone Father.... From now on I say only, 'Our Father, who art in Heaven.’" Bernadone left the court in sorrow and rage, while the bishop covered the young man with his own cloak until a gardener's smock was brought.
A New Life
Henceforth he was completely cut off from his family, and began a strange new life. He roamed the highways for a number of years, singing God's praises.
He returned to St Damian’s and started to repair the church, begging for building stones in the streets of Assisi and carrying off those that were given him. He labored with the masons during the reconstruction, and in 1208, the church was once more in good condition. In the same way Francis afterwards restored two other deserted chapels, St. Peter's, some distance from the city, and St. Mary of the Angels, in the plain below it, at a spot called the Porziuncola. During that same period, he also did many works of charity (e.g. nursing lepers). It was in 1209 at St Mary’s, on the feast of St. Matthias, that the way of life he was to follow was revealed to him. At Mass the reading was Matthew 10: 7-19 (“.... 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..."), Francis cast off his shoes, staff, and leathern girdle, but kept his rough woolen coat, which he tied about him with a rope. (This was the habit he gave his friars the following year). He travelled to Assisi the next morning and spoke to the people he met on the shortness of life, the need of repentence, and the love of God. His salutation to those he passed on the road was, "Our Lord give you peace."
Various people started to join Francis, including Bernard Quintavalle (a merchant of the city who sold all his goods and gave the money to the poor) and Peter de Cattaneo (a canon of the cathedral). These three went to the Portiuncula where Francis "gave his habit" to these two companions and they built themselves simple huts. Others soon followed, including Brother Giles.
Francis and his companions preached and helped others (e.g. helping peasants in the fields). A brief rule (no longer preserved) was drawn up, which appears to have consisted of passages from the Bible focusing on manual labour, simplicity and poverty. In 1210 they carried this rule to Rome in order to obtain the Pope’s approbation. Pope Innocent III was hesitant for various reasons, e.g. that the rule appeared impractical. The Pope later dreamed, however, that he saw Francis propping up the Lateran Church with his shoulder. Based upon this, he orally approved their mission of preaching penitence, only requiring that they always get the consent of the local bishop, as well as choosing a leader with whom the ecclesiastical authorities might communicate. Francis was thereupon elected head, and Cardinal Colonna (who had been pleading their case) gave them the monk's tonsure.
Francis and his little band (now called the Friars Minor) returned to Assisi, and from there they went out in all directions preaching repentance and the blessedness of doing God's will. Soon the abbot of the Benedictine monastery gave them their beloved Portiuncula chapel and the ground on which it stood. Francis would accept only the use of the property (holy poverty must govern their order). It was thus arranged that, as rent, the friars were to send the Benedictines a basket of fish every year (fish caught in a neighbouring river). In return, the monks also gave the friars a barrel of oil. (This annual exchange of gifts still goes on between the Benedictines of St. Peter's in Assisi and the Franciscans of the Portiuncula.) On the ground around the chapel the friars built themselves some huts of wood and clay, enclosing them by a hedge. This was the first Franciscan monastery, the cradle of the Franciscan Order, and the central spot in the life of St. Francis.
In these early years of the Order, the friars wandered from place to place singing their joy, working at their various trades and also in the fields of neighboring farmers to earn their bread. When work was lacking, they begged (although they were forbidden to take money). They were at the service of lepers, and those who were helpless and suffering. They displayed kindness and brotherly love. This caused even more recruits to join them, e.g. the well-known "Three Companions" (Angelo, Leo, and Rufino/Rufinus), who were in time to write of their beloved leader; and Brother Juniper (“the renowned Jester of the Lord”).
In 1212, an eighteen-year-old girl of Assisi named Clare (after listening to Francis’ preaching) left her family in order to take the vow of poverty and join Francis and the others. She first stayed with some Benedictine nuns, until Francis could find a suitable retreat for her and the other maidens who had joined her (including her sister, St. Agnes). This retreat was eventually established at St. Damian's, in a dwelling adjoining thechapel. This became the first monastery of the Second Franciscan Order of Poor Ladies.
In 1212 Francis wanted to go as a crusader of peace to the Mohammedans of the East. He embarked for Syria, but their boat was shipwrecked off the Dalmatian coast. With no money, they got back home by being stowaways. In 1213 he received the mountain of La Verna (from Count Orlando of Chiusi) as a retreat (a place to go to for contemplation). In 1214 he again tried to reach the Mohammedans (on land via Spain), but he was taken ill in Spain and had to return to Italy. It is said that, in 1215, he travelled to Rome to attend the great Council of the Lateran, and that, in 1216, he was present at the death of Innocent III.
Il Perdono d’Assisi
Very early in the pontificate of Honorius III (shortly after the death of Innocent III), it is said that, while Francis was praying at the Porziuncola, Christ appeared to him and offered him whatever favour he might desire. Francis begged a plenary Indulgence for all who visit the little chapel and confess their sins. The Lord acceded to this request on condition that the pope should ratify the Indulgence. Francis thus went to Perugia in order to speak to the Pope. The Pope granted the Indulgence, but restricted it to one day a year. He subsequently fixed 2 August (in perpetuity) as the day for gaining this Porziuncola Indulgence, commonly known in Italy as il perdono d'Assisi. (It must be added that the history of this Indulgence is uncertain - lack of records, etc.)
The Order Grows
The first general chapter of all Friars Minor was held at Assisi in 1217. The Order was organized more systematically (there were by that time a great number of friars in the Order and they were spread all across the country) and missions were also sent abroad, e.g. to Spain, France and Germany.
In 1218 Francis did further missionary work in Italy – with great success. Example: after Francis had preached at Camara (a village near Assisi), the whole congregation was so moved by his sermon that everyone presented themselves in order to be admitted to his Order. Based upon this and other similar requests, Francis devised his Third Order, as it is now called, of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which was for those who could not leave their home or vocations in order to enter either the First Order of Friars Minor or the Second Order of Poor Ladies.
At the general chapter in 1219 it was decided that Francis and his foremost friars would travel in order to “evangelize the infidels”. Francis travelled to the battlefields of the Crusaders and the Saracens, and was present at the siege and taking of the city of Damietta.
It is believed that, sickened by the senseless slaughter and brutality that marked the taking of the city, Francis went on to visit the Holy Places of Palestine (it is said that it is because of these visits that the friars are viewed as guardians of many of these Holy Places).
When Francis returned from abroad, he found that certain changes had been brought about in his absence:
- Two of his vicars, Matthew of Narni and Gregory of Naples, had held a general chapter in order to introduce more innovations and a more rigid framework for the Order.
- Cardinal Ugolino had introduced a written rule for the women’s convents that was similar to the Benedictine model.
- John of Capella (one of Francis’ first companions) had assembled a large number oflepers in order to form them into a new religious order, and was on his way to Rome in order to seek approval.
- In Bologna the brothers were now housed in a fine new monastery. Francis refused to enter it, for he believed that his fundamental idea was being betrayed.
Due to these various crises (all resolved), Francis became less confident (he was ready to blame himself for everything that went wrong) and realized that some measure of change was needed (e.g. systematic supervision and regulations were necessary). At the chapter meeting of 1220 (known as the Chapter of Mats) he resigned his position as minister general, and in 1221 he offered his draft for a revised rule (and yet, also an appeal to preserve the old life of poverty and love). This document was too imprecise, however (a rule was needed for all Franciscans to follow, even those who had never seen Francis), and, after a number of retreats and revisions, Francis provided his newly revised rule. It was solemnly approved by Honorius III in 1223, and is the one still professed by the First Order of St. Francis. It is based on the three vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.
During Christmas of 1223, the saint had the idea of celebrating the Nativity in a new way – by reproducing the church in Bethlehem – Francis was thus the first person to arrange for the Christmas Manger Scene!
In 1224, Francis and three companions went to the mountain of La Verna (in order to fast in preparation for Michaelmas). It was during this time that Francis received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who witnessed his wounds, described that saint’s right side as bearing an open wound which looked as if made by a lance, while through his hands and feet were black nails of flesh, the points of which were bent backward.
Francis’s health began to fail. After the reception of the stigmata, Francis suffered increasing pains throughout his frail body (already worn out due to his lack of care for himself and all his hard work), and his eyesight weakened so much that he was almost totally blind. In 1225, he consented to go to the Pope’s physician at Rieti. On his way there he paid a final visit to Clare and the nuns of St. Damien’s. it is there that he composed the “Canticle of the Sun” (see QUOTES below). He then went on to Rieti to receive treatment, which brought some relief to his suffering (although an operation to his eyes was unsuccessful).
He grew weaker, however, and wished to return to Assisi. In July 1226 he entered his native city, and from there travelled to the Porziuncola so that he might be able to die in this beloved place of his. His final days at the Porziuncola was spent in a tiny hut near the chapel (served as an infirmary).
As his death drew near, the brothers stood about him singing the "Canticle of the Sun," and he repeated the one hundred and forty-first Psalm, "I cried to the Lord with my voice; with my voice I made supplication to the Lord." At his request he was stripped of his clothing and laid for a while on the ground that dying he might rest in the arms of Lady Poverty. He also called for bread and broke it and to each one present gave a piece in token of their love. The Gospel of St. John was read aloud. As darkness fell on October 3, 1226, Francis died.
Burial and Afterwards
He had asked to be buried in the criminals' cemetery outside of Assisi, but his fellow citizens had other plans. His body was carried to the church of St. George in Assisi. Here it remained until 1230 (with a number of miracles taking place there), when it was moved to the newly built basilica (built in Francis’ honour). At that time there were fears that the Perugians might steal the body, and thus it was buried very deeply. So deeply, in fact, that when the remains of St Francis was excavated in 1818, it took 52 days to discover the body (beneath the high altar of the lower church)!
St Francis and Animals
Francis was reverently in love with all of nature. His tenderness for, and his power over, animals were noted again and again. Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis deal with his love for animals. Here are just two of many:
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". Francis did just that, and the birds surrounded him, not one of them flying away.
Another legend has it that, in the city of Gubbio, there was a wolf "terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals". Francis decided to go up into the hills to find the wolf. When he found the animal, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. It is said that the wolf then closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. Francis then led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by its 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. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. Francis, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, blessed the wolf.
3 October 1226
Assisi, Papal States
July 16, 1228, Assisi by Pope Gregory IX
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
animals; the environment; Italy;merchants; stowaways, against fire; animals; Catholic Action; dying alone; ecology; environment; families; fire; lacemakers; merchants; peace; zoos; Italy; Assisi, Italy; Colorado; Sante Fe, New Mexico; archdiocese of San Francisco, California; archdiocese of Denver, Colorado; archdiocese of Sante Fe, New Mexico; diocese of Salina, Kansas.
Cross, Dove, birds, animals, wolf at feet, Pax et Bonum, Poor Franciscan habit, Stigmata,Tau Cross ("T-shaped")
Canticle of the Sun
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honour And all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy To pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, And first my lord Brother Sun, Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods, By which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, So useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, Through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful is he, how gay! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces Various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon. For love of you; through those who endure Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace, By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, From whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those She finds doing your will! The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, And serve him with great humility.
The Prayer of Saint Francis
"O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light, and
Where there is sorrow, joy.
Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved
as to love; for it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life."
Things To Do
- Hug your pet!
- Why not donate to a pet / animal charity?
- Recipe: Almond Biscotti (It is said to have been requested by St Francis on his deathbed)