Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (Sept 26, 1181 - October 3, 1226) was the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, more commonly known as the Franciscans.

He is known as the patron saint of animals, birds, and the environment, and it is customary for Catholic churches to hold ceremonies honoring animals around his feast day of October 4.

Saint Francis in Prayer
Saint Francis in Prayer,
El Greco, 1580–85, oil on canvas,
Joslyn Art Museum

His childhood and early adulthood

Francis was born to Pietro di Bernardone, a prominent businessman, and his wife Pica Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was originally from France. He was one of seven children. Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born, and Pica had him baptized as Giovanni di Bernardone in honor of Saint John the Baptist, in the hope he would grow to be a great religious leader. When his father returned to Assisi, he was furious about this, as he did not want his son to be a man of the Church. Pietro decided to call him Francesco (Francis), in honor of the child's maternal heritage.

Rebellious toward his father's business and pursuit of wealth, Francis spent most of his youth lost in books (ironically, his father's wealth did afford his son an excellent education, and he became fluent in reading several languages including Latin). He was also known for a boisterous life style enjoying the company of his many friends, who were usually the sons of nobles. His displays of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him became evident fairly early, one of which is shown in the story of the beggar. In this account, he found himself out having fun with his friends one day when a beggar came along and asked for alms. While his friends ignored the beggar's cries, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his act of charity, and when he got home, his father scolded him in a rage.

In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia. He was taken prisoner at Collestrada, and spent a year as a captive. It is probable that his conversion to more serious thoughts was a gradual process possibly initiated by this experience. After his return to Assisi in 1203, Francis recommenced his carefree life. But in 1204 a serious illness started a spiritual crisis. In 1205 Francis left for Puglia to enlist in the army of Gualtiero di Brienne. But on his way, in Spoleto, he had a vision which made him return to Assisi, deepening his spiritual crisis.

It is said that when he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions, and they asked him laughingly if he was thinking of marrying, he answered "yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen" - meaning his "lady poverty", as he afterward used to say. He spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing lepers in the lazar houses near Assisi. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he claimed to have had a mystical experience in the Church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified came alive and said to him three times, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My Church which, as you see, is falling into ruin." He took this literally to mean the very church in which he was then praying, so sold his horse together with some cloth from his father's store, to assist the priest there, in rebuilding the ruined church..

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi by José de Ribera

His father Pietro attempted to bring him to his senses, first with threats and then with corporal chastisement. After a final interview in the presence of 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. Later, returning to the town, for two years this time, he restored several other ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, just outside the town, which was to become his favorite abode.

The founding of the Order of Friars Minor

St. Francis in Sacro
Speco, Subiaco, Italy

At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, on February 24, 1209, to be exact), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, not even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself completely to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment, barefoot and, following the Evangelical 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. Many other companions joined Francis, and within a year there were eleven of them. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, and the community lived as "fratres minores" or "lesser brothers". Today the Franciscans are often called Friars Minor.
Francis and 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 district of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, making a deep impression on their listeners by their sincerity.

In 1209 Francis led his first 11 followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. At first his attempt to speak with the Pope was refused; but the following night, according to accounts, Innocent had a dream in which the church was crumbling apart and a poor man appeared to hold it up. The next morning, recalling the poor man he had refused the day before, he recognized him as the man he saw in his dream, and decided to change his decision of the previous day.

His Later life

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, a young girl, Clare, from Assisi became deeply touched by his message and realized she had a calling. Her brother Rufino also joined the new order.
On Palm Sunday, 28 March 1211 Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and hereby established the Order of Poor Dames, later called Poor Clares. In the same year, Francis left for Jerusalem, but he was shipwrecked by a storm off the Dalmatian coast, forcing him to return to Italy.
On 8 May 1213 he received the mountain of La Verna as a gift from the count Orlando di Chiusi. This 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.

The Porziuncola

In 1215 Francis went again to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. During this time, he probably met Dominic de Guzman, later to become St Dominic.

In 1216 Francis received from the new pope Honorius III the confirmation of the "Indulgence of the Porziuncola", now better known as the "Pardon of Assisi": which the Pope decreed to be a complete remission of their sins for all those who prayed in the Porziuncola.

In 1217 the growing congregation of friars was divided into provinces and groups were sent to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and to the East.

St. Francis before the Sultan - the trial by fire
(fresco attributed to Giotto)

In 1219 Francis left, together with a few companions, on a pilgrimage of peace to Egypt. Crossing the lines between the Sultan and the Crusaders in Damietta, he was received by the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. Francis is said to have challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they refused. Francis had proposed to enter the fire first and, if unharmed by it, would ask the Sultan to recognize Christ as the true God. The Sultan was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. Though he didn't succeed in converting the Sultan, the last words of the Sultan to Francis were, according to Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, in his book "Historia occidentalis, De Ordine et praedicatione Fratrum Minorum (1221)": “Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.”.
At Saint Jean d'Acre, the capital of what remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he

rejoined the brothers Elia and Pietro Cattini. Francis then probably went on to visit the holy places in Palestine in 1220. When receiving a report of the martyrdom of five brothers in Morocco, he returned to Italy via Venice.

Around 1220 Francis celebrated Christmas by setting up the first presepio or crèche (Nativity) in the town of Greccio near Assisi. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshipers might contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of all their senses, especially sight.

Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was then nominated by the Pope as the protector of the order. When problems arose in the order, a detailed rule became necessary. On 29 September 1220 Francis handed over the governance of the order to brother Pietro Cattini at the Porziuncola. However, Brother Cattini died on 10 March 1221. He was buried in the Porziuncola. But when numerous miracles were attributed to the late Pietro Cattini, people started to flock to the Porziuncola, disturbing the daily life of the Franciscans. Francis then prayed, asking Pietro to stop the miracles and obey in death as he had obeyed him during his life. The report of miracles ceased. Brother Pietro was succeeded by brother Elia as vicar of Francis.

During 1221 and 1222 Francis travelled the length of Italy, first as far south as Catania in Sicily and afterwards as far north as Bologna.

On 29 November 1223 the final rule of the order (in twelve chapters) was approved by Pope Honorius III.

While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty day fast in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis is said to have had a vision on or about 14th September 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of the phenomenon of stigmata. "Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ."

St. Francis receives the Stigmata
(fresco attributed to Giotto)
Suffering from the Stigmata and from an eye disease, he had been receiving care in several cities (Siena, Cortona, Nocera) but to no avail. In the end he was brought back to the Porziuncola, to be precise, to the transito, the hut for infirm friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of 3rd October 1226 singing Psalm 141. His feast day is observed on 4th October.

On 16th July 1228 he was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal Ugolino di Conti, friend and protector of St. Francis. The next day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.

St. Francis is considered the first Italian poet by many literary critics. He believed commoners should be able to pray to God in their own language, and he always wrote in the dialect of Umbria instead of Latin. His writings are considered to have great literary, as well as religious, value.

Saint Francis, 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' (The Little Flowers), a collection of legends and folk-lore 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, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:
"My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God."

A garden statue of Francis with birds

Another legend from the Fioretti tells us that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, there 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, but the saint pressed on and 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 he 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, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint's love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written in Umbrian around 1224 which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, etc. and all of God's creations personified in their fundamental forms. In "Canticle of the Creatures," he wrote: "All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures."

Francis's attitude towards the natural world, while poetically expressed, was conventional Christianity. He believed that the world was created good and beautiful by God but has a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man. He preached to man and beast that they had the ability and the duty to praise God (a common theme in the Psalms) and that men had the duty to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God's creation and as creatures ourselves.

Legend has it that St Francis thanked his donkey at his bedside for carrying and helping him throughout his life, and his donkey wept.

Main sources for the life of Saint Francis

* Friar Elias, Epistola Encyclica de Transitu Sancti Francisci, 1226.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi.
* Pope Gregory IX, Bulla "Mira circa nos" for the canonization of St. Francis, 19 July 1228.
* Friar Tommaso da Celano: Vita Prima Sancti Francisci, 1228; Vita Secunda Sancti Francisci, 1246 – 1247; Tractatus de Miraculis Sancti Francisci, 1252 – 1253.
* Friar Julian of Speyer, Vita Sancti Francisci, 1232 – 1239.
* St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci,
1260 – 1263.
* Ugolino da Montegiorgio, Actus Beati Francisci et sociorum eius, 1327 – 1342.
* Fioretti di San Francesco, the "Little Flowers of St. Francis", end of the 14th century: an anonymous Italian version of the Actus; the most popular of the sources, but very late and therefore not the best authority by any means.

Main writings by St. Francis

* Canticum Fratris Solis, the Canticle to Brother Sun.
* Prayer before the Crucifix, 1205 (extant in the original Umbrian dialect as well as in a contemporary Latin translation).
* Regula non bullata, the Earlier Rule, 1221.
* Regula bullata, the Later Rule, 1223.
* Testament, 1226.
* Admonitions.

See also

* The Franciscans, third Order Regular
  The Franciscan Archive
* Order of the Holy Sepulchre, lay organization related to Franciscan hospitality in the Holy Land.
* Prayer of Saint Francis, a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi although there is no record of it prior to 1912.
* St. Clare of Assisi
* Saint Juniper, one of Francis' original followers.
* Saint Margaret of Cortona
* Saint-François d'Assise, an opera by Olivier Messiaen
* The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), a film by Roberto Rossellini. A strange film, the characters are portrayed as almost comical in some ways. Also known as "Francis, God's Jester" after the original Italian title of "Francesco giullare di Dio"
* Francis of Assisi (1961), a film by Michael Curtiz. Very much a Holywood version but enjoyable none the less.
* Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), a film by Franco Zeffirelli, portays Francis almost in the style of a hippy, probably fashiomable to do so at the time.
* Francesco (1990), a film by Liliana Cavani. No comments on this film as yet.

Adapted from the Wikipaedia article on St. Francis - please e-mail me with any inaccuracies you may find.

God BlessYou!