St. Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone; Francesco d’Assisi (Italian); Franciscus Assisiensis (Latin) in1181 or 1182 and died on Oct. 3, 1226.
He was venerated and known in his ministry as Francesco, an Italian Catholic friar, deacon, philosopher, mystic and preacher. He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, the Third Order of St. Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity.
The oldest surviving depiction of Francis, 1228
Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis on July 16, 1228. Along with St. Catherine of Siena, he was designated patron saint of Italy. He later became associated with patronage of animals and the natural environment, and it became customary for churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals on or near his feast day of Oct. 4.
In 1219, he went to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Sultan to put an end to the conflict of the Crusades. 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 community was authorized by the pope, he withdrew increasingly from external affairs.
Francis is also known for his love of the Eucharist. In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas live nativity scene. According to Christian tradition, in 1224 he received the stigmata during the apparition of Seraphic angels in a religious ecstasy, which would make him the second person in Christian tradition after St. Paul (Galatians 6:17) to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion. He died during the evening hours of 3 October 1226, while listening to a reading he had requested of Psalm 142 (141).
Francis of Assisi was born in late 1181 or early 1182, one of several children of an Italian father, Pietro di Bernardone dei Moriconi, a prosperous silk merchant, and a French mother, Pica de Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was a noblewoman originally from Provence.
Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born in Assisi, and Pica had him baptized as Giovanni. Upon his return to Assisi, Pietro took to calling his son Francesco (“the Frenchman”), possibly in honor of his commercial success and enthusiasm for all things French. Since the child was renamed in infancy, the change can hardly have had anything to do with his aptitude for learning French, as some have thought.
Indulged by his parents, Francis lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man. As a youth, Francesco became a devotee of troubadours and was fascinated with all things related to the Alpine mountains. He was handsome, witty, gallant, and delighted in fine clothes. He spent money lavishly. 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 beggar.”
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.
Francis’ house during his youth
About 1202, he joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken as a prisoner at Collestrada, spending a year as a captive. An illness caused him to re-evaluate his life. 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. In 1205, Francis left for Apulia to enlist in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. A strange vision made him return to Assisi, having lost his taste for the worldly life.
According to hagiographic accounts, 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.”
San Damiano: A change of heart
On a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor begging at St. Peter’s Basilica. He spent some time in lonely places, asking God for spiritual enlightenment. He said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the forsaken country chapel of San Damiano, just outside 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. When the priest refused to accept the ill-gotten gains, an indignant Francis threw the coins on the floor.
In order to avoid his father’s wrath, Francis hid in a cave near San Damiano for about a month. When he returned to town, hungry and dirty, he was dragged home by his father, beaten, bound and locked in a small storeroom.
Freed by his mother during Bernardone’s absence, Francis returned at once to San Damiano, where he found shelter with the officiating priest, but he was soon cited before the city consuls by his father. His father, not content with having recovered the scattered gold from San Damiano, also forced his son to forego his inheritance by way of restitution. In the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony. Some accounts report that he stripped himself naked in token of this renunciation, and the Bishop covered him with his own cloak.
For the next couple of months, Francis wandered as a beggar in the hills behind Assisi. He spent some time at a neighboring monastery working as a scullion. He then went to Gubbio, where a friend gave him, as alms, the cloak, girdle, and staff of a pilgrim. Returning to Assisi, he traversed the city begging stones for the restoration of St. Damiano’s. These he carried to the old chapel, set in place himself, and so at length rebuilt it. Over the course of two years, he embraced the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, among them San Pietro in Spina and the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels in the plain just below the town. This later became his favorite abode. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, in the lazar houses near Assisi.
Founding of the Franciscan Orders
The Friars Minor
One morning in February 1208, Francis was hearing Mass in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, near which he had then built himself a hut. The Gospel of the day was the “Commissioning of the Twelve” from the Book of Matthew. In this story, the disciples are to go and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty. He obtained a coarse woolen tunic, the dress then worn by the poorest Umbrian peasants, tied it around him with a knotted rope and went forth at once exhorting the people of the countryside to penance, brotherly love, and peace. Francis’ preaching to ordinary people was unusual since he had no license to do so.
His example drew others to him. Within a year, Francis had eleven followers. 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, making a deep impression upon their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
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”. He then 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- their hair was shaved off from the crown of their heads. This was important because it recognized Church authority and prevented his following from possible accusations of heresy.
Though a number of the pope’s counselors considered the mode of life proposed by Francis as unsafe and impractical, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, thus the ‘home church’ of all Christendom), the Pope 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” (Order of Friars Minor also known as the Franciscan Order or the Seraphic Order), were centered in the Porziuncola and preached first in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, although he was later ordained a deacon.
Pope Innocent approving the Franciscan Order (Giotto, 1295-1300)
The Poor Clares and the Third Order
From then on, the new Order grew quickly with new vocations. Hearing Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1211, the young noblewoman Clare of Assisi, became deeply touched by his message and realized her calling. Her cousin Rufino, the only male member of the family in their generation, was also attracted to the new Order, which he joined. On the night of Palm Sunday in March of 1212, Clare clandestinely left her family’s palace.
Francis received her at the Porziuncola and thereby established the Order of Poor Ladies. This was an order for women. Francis gave Clare a religious habit, or garment, similar to his own, before lodging her in a nearby monastery of Benedictine nuns until he could provide a suitable retreat for her, and for her younger sister, Caterina, and the other young women who had joined her.
Later he transferred them to San Damiano, to a few small huts or cells of wattle, straw, and mud, and enclosed by a hedge. This became the first monastery of the Second Franciscan Order, now known as Poor Clares.
For those who could not leave their homes, he later formed the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance, a fraternity composed of either laity or clergy whose members neither withdrew from the world nor took religious vows. Instead, they observed the principles of Franciscan life in their daily lives. Before long, this Third Order grew beyond Italy. The Third Order is now titled the Secular Franciscan Order.
St. Clare received by Francis
Determined to bring the Gospel to all peoples of the world and convert them, after the example of the first disciples of Jesus, Francis sought on several occasions to take his message out of Italy. In the late spring of 1212, he set out for Jerusalem, but 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 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 may have gone to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council, but that is not certain. During this time, he probably met a canon, Dominic de Guzman (later to be St. 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 during the Fifth Crusade where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta two miles 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 August 29, 1219. Eventually, both sides agreed to a cease fire which lasted four weeks.
It was most probably during this interlude that Francis and his companion crossed the Muslims’ 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. They give no information about what transpired during the encounter except that the Sultan received Francis graciously and that Francis preached to the Muslims, returning unharmed to the Crusader camp. One detail, added by Bonaventure in the official life of Francis (written forty years after the event), has Francis offering to challenge the Sultan’s “priests” to trial-by-fire in order to prove the veracity of the Christian Gospel.
Such an incident is alluded to in a scene in the late 13th-century fresco cycle, attributed to Giotto, in the upper basilica at Assisi. It has been suggested that the winged figures atop the columns piercing the roof of the building on the left of the scene are not idols but rather part of the secular iconography of the sultan, affirming his worldly power which, as the scene demonstrates, is limited even as regards his own “priests” who shun the challenge.
Although Bonaventure asserts that the sultan refused to permit the challenge, subsequent biographies went further, claiming that a fire was actually kindled which Francis unhesitatingly entered without suffering burns. The scene in the fresco adopts a position midway between the two extremes.
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 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. in 1342.
St. Francis preaching to the birds
Reorganization of the Franciscan Order
By this time, the growing Order of friars was divided into provinces and groups were sent to France, Germany, Hungary, and Spain and to the East. Upon receiving a report of the martyrdom of five brothers in Morocco, Francis returned to Italy via Venice. Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was then nominated by the Pope as the protector of the Order. Another reason for Francis’ return to Italy was that the Franciscan Order had grown at an unprecedented rate compared to previous religious orders, but its organizational sophistication had not kept up with this growth and had little more to govern it than Francis’ example and simple rule. To address this problem, Francis prepared a new and more detailed Rule, the “First Rule” or “Rule Without a Papal Bull” (Regula prima, Regula non bullata), which again asserted devotion to poverty and the apostolic life. However, it also introduced greater institutional structure, that was never officially endorsed by the pope.
On Sept. 29, 1220, Francis handed over the governance of the Order to Brother Peter Catani at the Porziuncola, but Brother Peter died only five months later, and was buried there. When numerous miracles were attributed to the deceased brother, people started to flock to the Porziuncola, disturbing the daily life of the Franciscans. Francis then prayed, asking Peter to stop the miracles and to obey in death as he had obeyed during his life.
The reports of miracles ceased. Brother Peter was succeeded by Brother Elias as Vicar of Francis. Two years later, Francis modified the “First Rule”, creating the “Second Rule” or “Rule With a Bull,” which was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223. As the official Rule of the Order, it called on the friars “to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own and in chastity”. In addition, it set regulations for discipline, preaching, and entry into the Order. Once the Rule was endorsed by the Pope, Francis withdrew increasingly from external affairs. During 1221 and 1222, Francis crossed Italy, first as far south as Catania in Sicily and afterward as far north as Bologna.
The Stigmata of Francis, Imitation of Christ (Cigoli, 1699)
Stigmata, final days and sainthood
While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas (September 29- The feast of St. Michael and all Angels), Francis had a vision on or about September 14,1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. As a result of that vision, 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.”
Suffering from these stigmata and from trachoma, Francis received care in several cities (Siena, Cortona, Nocera) to no avail. In the end, he was brought back to a hut next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where the Franciscan movement began, and feeling that the end of his life was approaching, he spent his last days dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 3,1226, singing Psalm 142 (141), “Voce mea ad Dominum” (Hearken to my cry, O Lord)
On July 16, 1228, he was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX (the former cardinal Ugolino di Conti, a friend of St. Francis and Cardinal Protector of the Order). The next day, the Pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Francis was buried on May 25, 1230 under the Lower Basilica, but his tomb was soon hidden on orders of Brother Elias to protect it from Saracen invaders.
His exact burial place remained unknown until it was re-discovered in 1818. Pasquale Belli then constructed for the remains a crypt in neo-classical style in the Lower Basilica. It was refashioned between 1927 and 1930 into its present form by Ugo Tarchi the wall was stripped of its marble decorations. In 1978, the remains of— St. Francis were examined and confirmed by a commission of scholars appointed by Pope Paul VI, and put into a glass urn in the ancient stone tomb.
Character and legacy
Francis set out to imitate Christ and literally carry out his work. This is important in understanding Francis’ character, his affinity for the Eucharist and respect for the priests who carried out the sacrament. He preached: “Your God is of your flesh, He lives in your nearest neighbor, in every man.”
He and his followers celebrated and even venerated poverty, which 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 in Gubbio to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed the wolf.
Francis Talking to the Wolf of Gubbio (Weidemeyer, 1911)
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. His deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced others, and he declared that “he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died”.
Francis’ 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 the Catholic Church.
At Greccio near Assisi, around 1220, Francis celebrated Christmas by setting up the first known 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. Both Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, biographers of St. Francis, tell how he used only 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.
The sacredness of nature and the environment
Francis preached the Christian doctrine that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of human sin. As someone who saw God reflected in nature, St. Francis was a great lover of God’s creation. In the Canticle of the Sun, he gives God thanks for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth, all of which he sees as rendering praise to God.
Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis say that he had a great love for animals and the environment. The “Fioretti” (“Little Flowers”), is a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after the saint’s death. One account describes how 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. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand.
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 went up into the hills 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. 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. 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.
On Nov. 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology. On March 28, 1982, John Paul II said that St. Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics and a reminder “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”
The same pope wrote on the occasion of the World Day of Peace, Jan. 1 1990, the saint of Assisi “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation.” He went on to make the point that: “As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, St. Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.”
It is a popular practice on his feast day, Oct. 4, for people to bring their pets and other animals to church for a blessing.
The Tomb of Francis in Assisi
On March 13, 2013, upon his election as pope, Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose Francis as his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, becoming Pope Francis.
At his first audience on 16 March 2013, Pope Francis told journalists that he had chosen the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, and had done so because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor. He explained that, as it was becoming clear during the conclave voting that he would be elected the new bishop of Rome, the Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes had embraced him and whispered, “Don’t forget the poor”, which had made Bergoglio think of the saint.
Bergoglio previously expressed his admiration for St. Francis, explaining that “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.” Bergoglio’s selection of his papal name is the first time that a pope has been named Francis.
St. Francis is the patron of animals, merchants and ecology. He is also considered the patron saint against dying alone; patron saint against fire; patron saint of the Franciscan Order and Catholic Action, patron saint of families, peace, and needle workers.
He is the patron saint of many dioceses and other locations around the world, including: Italy; San Pawl il-Bahar, Malta; Freising, Germany; Lancaster, England; Kottapuram, India; San Francisco de Malabon, Philippines (General Trias City); San Francisco, California; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Colorado; Salina, Kansas; Metuchen, New Jersey; and Quibdó, Colombia.
St. Francis is considered the first Italian poet by literary critics. He believed commoners should be able to pray to God in their own language, and he wrote often in the dialect of Umbria instead of Latin. His writings are considered to have great literary and religious value.
The anonymous 20th-century prayer “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” is widely attributed to St. Francis.
Prayer for the Environment
From Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato Si” (On The Care for Our Common Home)
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten
of this earth, so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the Earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
Care for the Earth
Please check these websites to learn more about Pope Francis’ letter to all nations about the care for our Earth. The websites include discussion guides and inspiring videos.