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Francis was born in 1182 the son of a rich fabric merchant Pietro di Bernardone and a noblewoman from Provence, Pica.
While his father was away on business (possibly to France), Pica had her newborn son baptized with the name Giovanni. It was Pietro who later began to call him Francesco (Francis in English), possibly out of his interests in France or because of the baby’s mother’s origin.
As a child of privilege, Francis enjoyed any worldly goods and enjoyments his time could offer. Some might say he was a bit spoiled and was known to raise a ruckus from time to time in his native town of Assisi.
In his 20s, Francesco left for the war between Assisi and Perugia, and was held prisoner for almost a year, and on his release fell seriously ill. After his recovery, he attempted to join the papal forces against the emperor Fredrick II in late 1205. On his way he had a vision telling him return to Assisi and await a new kind of knighthood. Upon his return to Assisi, Francis was a changed man, solitary and contemplative.
Prayer and silent contemplation in the Umbrian countryside led him to embrace lepers and outcasts as brothers and sisters, those in the past he had always found disgusting and repulsive. In fact, during a pilgrimage to Rome, dressed in rags, Francis mingled with the beggars before St. Peter’s Basilica and begged alms; an incident in which he not only gave alms to a leper but also kissed his hand.
In Francis’ first biography by Thomas of Celano, the saint found himself in the ruined chapel of San Damiano outside the gate of Assisi and heard the crucifix above the altar command him: “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins.”
Understanding this literally, Francis rushed home, gathered some expensive bolts of fabric from his father’s shop, and rode off to the nearby town of Foligno. He not only sold the cloth, but the horse as well. He then tried to give the money to the priest at San Damiano, whose refusal prompted Francis to throw the money out the window.
Angered, his father kept him at home in a cell for several days trying to break his will. When that didn’t work, he then brought him before the civil authorities. When Francis refused to answer the summons, his father called him before the bishop of Assisi. Before any accusations were made, Francis “without a word peeled off his garments, even removing his breeches, and restored them to his father.” Completely naked, he said: “Until now I have called you my father on Earth. But henceforth I can truly say: Our Father who art in heaven.” The astonished bishop gave him a cloak, and Francis went off to the woods of Mount Subasio above the city.
Within a short while Francis was able to assemble some companions who shared his desire to live the Gospel to the letter in poverty, chastity and obedience. In 1209 the first group of brothers gathered in Rome to meet Pope Innocent III who, struck by “that short and thin young man with burning eyes,” approved the rRule, later confirmed definitely in 1223 by Honorius III.
Francis’ preached throughout central Italy his gentle message of love, respect for nature, gratitude for all of God’s gifts, humility, selflessness and poverty. He faithfully followed the scripture of Matthew (10:7, 9–11): “And as you go, preach the message, ‘The kingdom is at hand!’… Take no gold, nor silver, nor money in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or villa you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.”
This attracted the attention of Clare, a noblewoman from Assisi. Francis welcomed her and gave origin to the second Franciscan order, “The Poor Clares.” Later he founded the third order for lay people.
The life of Francis was a continuous expression of praise for the Creator. “The Canticle of Brother Sun”, a poetic masterpiece of Italian literature, was written when he was laid low by illness and expresses the freedom of a soul reconciled with God in Christ. St. Francis accepted “sister death” with joy knowing he would be going to Jesus. He died the evening of Oct. 3, 1226.
Francis died at age 44 at the Porziuncola, the chapel where he received the gift of the indulgence of the “Forgiveness of Assisi.” He was canonized a saint two years later. The spirit of Francis continues to inspire so many in following Christ, in building dialogue among all in truth and charity, and in safeguarding creation.