Francis, the son of a prosperous cloth merchant of Assisi, was born in 1184. He was baptized John but was called Francesco, “the Frenchman”, perhaps because his mother was Provençal and he was born while his father was in France. As a youth, he assisted his father in running his business, but he also became a leader among the town’s youth and spent much of his time in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts at military glory. In a war between Assisi and Perugia Francis was taken prisoner for a year and became seriously ill. Soon after, riding fully equipped for battle, he turned back, risking accusations of cowardice. Various encounters with beggars and lepers had already begun to prick his youthful conscience, and his regard for them became conspicuous. A little later he heard a voice which seemed to come to him from the Byzantine-style crucifix in the small, semi-derelict church of San Damiano of Assisi, saying, “Go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” Francis set about the task, having sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for materials to rebuild the church. This led to a prolonged conflict with his father that was resolved only when Francis dramatically renounced his inheritance and stripped in the town square before the cathedral in Assisi. The bishop provided him with simple garments and Francis began his new life of service to the poor.
The center of his new life and the object of its intense devotion was the crucified Jesus rather than Lady Poverty, to whom he later declared himself espoused, following the language of courtly love. Nevertheless in his devotion to Christ he did experience extreme and deliberately chosen poverty. He rebuilt San Damiano with money begged from his fellow townsmen, and he traveled as a pilgrim, identifying himself with the penniless and tending to those who suffered from leprosy. For two years he lived alone as a mendicant. Later, seven disciples gathered around him, some of them mature men. They lived together in community at the Portiuncula in Assisi near a leper colony, from which they went out from time to time on preaching tours. These met with a mixed reception at first, which gradually became more favorable, especially for Francis himself. Their respect for and obedience to the Church authorities and their doctrinal orthodoxy distinguished them from other bands of Italian “poor preachers” of the day. Francis’ Regula Prima, written about the year 1210, begins with a promise of obedience and reverence to Pope Innocent the Third and his successors. Most of the rule is a gloss on the passages of the Gospels which refer to renunciation and to the conditions of life of the followers of Christ, but it states, “all the brothers shall be catholic and live and speak as catholics. If any shall err from the catholic faith and life either by word or deed and shall not mend his way, let him be expelled form the brotherhood.” This rule was confirmed by Pope Innocent in 1210, and the Order of Friars Minor, a name chosen by Francis to emphasize his desire to be numbered among the “least” of God’s servants, received papal recognition.
The Friars Minor grew both in numbers and in the scope of their ministry. When preaching tours were finished, the brothers would return to their friary and perform liturgical and private prayer, living in the poverty of laborers, the fruits of their labors supplemented, when necessary, by begging. Their buildings were simple wattle and daub huts, their churches were modest and small, and they slept on the ground, had no tables or chairs, and very few books. Only later in the thirteenth century, with the rise of such leaders as Bonaventure, did the Order produce theologians who became renowned teachers in the new universities.
Francis longed for a wider field of preaching and looked towards the conversion of the Muslims in the Middle East and northern Africa. In 1212 he set off eastwards, but was driven onto the Dalmatian coast by storms in the Adriatic Sea. In 1214 he left for Morocco by way of Spain, but he fell ill and had to return home. In 1219, with a dozen brothers, he sailed from Ancona for Acre and Damietta. Here his illusions about the Crusaders were shattered. He denounced the loose-living adventurers, six thousand of whom he saw killed in an attack on the city. Francis managed somehow to pass through the Ayyubid lines and met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, who was deeply impressed with Francis (whom he thought a sort of Christian dervish), but who remained unconverted. Francis returned to the Crusader armies, refusing the rich gifts that the sultan offered him. After spending a few months on pilgrimage in the Holy Land he returned to Italy, whence he was recalled urgently by news of changes that had taken place in the Order.
The numbers of the Friars Minor had become large, foundations had been made outside Italy, there was no proper novitiate, no organization, and only the simplest of rules. The Order’s patron, Cardinal Ugolino, wanted the entire Church to benefit from their ideals and example, which would have necessitated the Order, now with about five thousand brothers, becoming a well-organized body devoted to reform. Francis, who had upbraided the friars on Bologna for living in a stone house and who planned to open a school connected with the university there, resigned his office of Minister-General at the general chapter of 1220, realizing that he was not the administrator or organizer whom the Order needed. In 1221 Francis drew up another rule, and after modifications this was approved in 1223 as the Regula Bullata by Pope Honorius the Third. In 1221 Francis also drew up instructions for “tertiaries”, laymen who followed Franciscan ideals but who remained with their families, outside the life of religious vows.
In his later years, Francis held no formal position in the Order, though to this period belong some of the most famous incidents of Francis’ life: the Christmas creche inaugurated at Grecchio, prepared by friar John, at which Francis, a deacon who never desired presbyteral orders, read the Gospel with such devotion that men wept to hear it; and the writing of the Canticle of the Sun in 1224, when he visited Clare of Assisi in conditions of extreme illness and discomfort. But above all was his receiving of the stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Jesus, in an ecstatic experience on Monte La Vema in 1224. The scars of these wounds remained on his body, hidden until death. Soon after this he fell ill and in the next year became blind. He endured agonies from primitive surgery and other medical treatment and died in 1226 at the Portiuncula in Assisi. He was canonized in 1228 by his old friend Cardinal Ugolino, now Pope Gregory the Ninth. Francis was buried in the Church of San Giorgio in Assisi, and his relics were transferred in 1230 to the New Basilica, built to house them by Brother Elias of Cantona, the Minister-General of the Order. The New Basilica was later decorated by Giotto’s frescoes of the life of Saint Francis. The relics were rediscovered in 1818 and reburied in an ornate tomb, and then in 1932 in a very simple one. Assisi remains a pilgrimage center for devotees from around the world.
The twentieth century witnessed a widespread revival of interest in Francis, but also a tendency to see in him only those traits which appealed to individual writers or filmmakers. This resulted in caricatures as a sentimental nature-lover or a hippie drop-out from society, omitting the real sternness of his character and neglecting his consuming love of God and identification with Christ’s sufferings, which alone make sense of his life.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
The icon of Saint Francis is a detail of a fresco by Cimabue (1240-1302), Giotto’s teacher; and the fresco below is by Giotto di Bondone (1266/7-1337).