Francis was the son of a successful cloth merchant of Assisi. Although christened John, he is always known as Francis (the Frenchman) because his mother was from Provence. As a young man, Francis took an active part in the social life of the city. He also saw service in a petty war with nearby Perugia. This led to a spell as a prisoner of war. On his release he turned his back on warfare. He continued to be involved in the social life of Assisi; but now a strain of seriousness became more and more apparent.
As he was feeling his way towards his new vocation, he knelt before a Byzantine-style crucifix in the half-ruined Church of San Damiano and prayed. The crucifix seemed to speak to him, “Francis, go and rebuild my church, which you see is in ruins.” With typical compulsiveness he sold some goods belonging to his father to pay for repairs, and went to live with the priest of San Damiano. A long and bitter altercation with his father culminated in the famous scene before the bishop of Assisi. Francis renounced his earthly father and all his wealth, even to the clothes he was then wearing, he stripped naked and walked away from his old life. Dressed in a grey-brown peasant’s smock that the bishop gave him and with a piece of rope for a belt, Francis began a life of poverty, preaching the love of Christ.
He began preaching tours around Italy (the first friars reached England in 1224). He prepared a simple rule of life for his followers, and the Order of Friars Minor was born, something Francis had never planned. The order grew rapidly and spread all over Europe and beyond. They first lived at Portiuncula, 3 km’s from Assisi, near a leper colony. A simple rule was approved in 1210. The order grew beyond all expectation and soon outgrew the carefree, unbelievably poverty-laden beginnings. The resultant tensions between simple poverty and the demands of a large organisation were part of the cross Francis had to bear. He accepted, reluctantly, a more formal rule in 1223, which made the order a part of the wider church. Francis resigned as minister-general of the order in 1220. He saw clearly that he lacked the administrative skills to run a large order. His place was taken by Brother Elias.
Francis combined in his life many strands: mission preacher, lover of animals, ascetic, mystic, dramatic fool for Christ, happy singer, troubadour of God. In Francis’ own life this reached a climax in the seraphic vision of his crucified Lord and the marking of his body with the very wounds of Christ (stigmata which he bore till his death two years later). Francis’ preaching tours included one to the crusaders’ camp at Damietta in Egypt, which left him totally disillusioned about the crusades. He was never a robust man, and the preaching tours, his austerities, and the horrific medical practices of the period all weakened his health. In 1226 he was carried home to die at the chapel of the Portiuncula below Assisi. He was buried in the Church of San Giorgio, Assisi, but his relics were transferred in 1230 to the new basilica built by Brother Elias. There they remain. He was canonised only two years after his death.
Much loved, but misunderstood, Francis is today chiefly thought of as an animal and nature lover, but this, though a strand of his spirituality, is much less than the whole. His rejection of material possessions and security, his deep love of the by-no-means perfect church of his day, his missionary zeal, his deep devotion to the passion of his master, whom he strove so closely to follow (“naked following the naked Christ”); all these are as much St Francis as the sermons he preached to the birds and animals and miraculous stories of his way with animals like the wolf of Gubbio.
BORN: 1181, Assisi, Duchy of Spoleto, Holy Roman Empire.
DIED: 3 October 1226 (aged 44 years), Assisi, Umbria, Papal States