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St Francis of Assisi

Feast day: 4 October

Francis of Assisi was born in late 1181 or early 1182 to an Italian father, Pietro di Bernadone, a prosperous silk merchant, and a French mother, Pica de Bourlemont. Little is known about her except that she was a noblewoman, originally from Provence. Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born and his mother had him baptized with the name Giovanni. His father took to calling him Francesco, "The Frenchman", because he was enthusiastic about France, having been commercially succeessful there.

Francis was indulged by his parents and lived a luxurious life, though he was always generous to the poor. He was devotee of the troubadours, and loved fine clothes, He was handsome, witty and had rich friends. One day he was selling cloth and velvet in the market for his father, when a beggar asked him for alms. When he had finished his business he ran after the beggar and gave him all he had in his pockets. He was mocked by his friends and scolded by his father for this act of generosity.

About 1202 he took part in a conflict between Assisi and Perugia and was taken prisoner. He spent a year in captivity where he became ill and began to reflect on his life; however he went on another military mission in Apulia in the service of the Count of Brienne. He had a vision which served to enhance his distaste for worldly life and he began to abandon the pleasures that he had formerly sought. When his friends laughed at him and asked if he was thinking of marrying he replied:

"Yes a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen."

This was Lady Poverty.

He went on a pilgrimage to Rome and joined the poor in begging at St Peter's. He spent a lot of time in lonely places meditating on where he was being called. He stepped into the half-ruined church of San Domiano, just outside Assisi. Here he prayed and received a vision of Jesus who said:

"Francis, Francis go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."

Francis took this command literally and sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for the repairs. When the priest refused to take the money, knowing where it had come from, Francis threw it on the floor. He hid from his father in a cave for about a month but at last hunger forced him home. Here he was beaten and locked into a store room; however when his father went off again on business his mother released him. He returned to San Domiano, receiving shelter from the priest. Though the money had been returned, Bernardone took measures to disinherit Francis and brought him before the city consuls. There in the presence of the Bishop of Assisi, who presided over the proceedings, it is said that Francis stripped himself naked. He then wandered as a beggar in the hills and worked for a time as a scullion in the kitchen of a monastery. A friend gave him a staff, cloak, girdle and alms. Francis then begged for stones to repair San Dominiano and worked there till the chapel was rebuilt. He then went on to repair other chapels. He also began to care for lepers; he had previously had an abhorrence of them, but when he met one he leapt off his horse and kissed the man. He then gave the man him alms. As he went on his way, he turned round and the beggar had vanished; he concluded that it was Jesus whom he had seen.

One morning in February 1208 Francis was hearing mass in the chapel of St Mary of the Angels near where he had built himself a hut. The gospel of the day was the commissioning of the twelve from St Matthew. The disciples were to go and proclaim "that the kingdom of God is at hand." Francis resolved to dedicate himself to a life of poverty. He put on a coarse woollen tunic, like those worn by the Umbrian peasants, and tied it round him with a knotted rope. He then went round preaching brotherly love, peace and penance. He had no licence to do this; however he attracted followers and within a year he had gathered eleven like-minded men. They lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi. Much of their time was spent wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria preaching.

Francis composed a rule for his friars, "The Primitive Rule", based on verses from the bible. "To follow the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps" was their intent.

Francis led his group to Rome to seek the Pope’s approval for a new religious order. They managed to make contact with the confessor of Pope Innocent III who was sympathetic to them and arranged a meeting with the Pope. He however was not enthusiastic and told them that they needed to increase in numbers before they could be admitted officially. Many of his advisors thought Francis’ way of life was unsafe and impractical. However Innocent had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St John Lateran, considered the mother church of all Catholic faithful. Theimplication was that it was Francis who was holding up the church. Pope Innocent approved the order in 1216. The group was known as Friars Minor or Franciscans. They had been tonsured, a symbol of obedience to the church, which protected the order from being accused of heresy. Francis chose never to become a priest although he was ordained a deacon.

A young noblewoman called Clare heard Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1211. Inspired by his message, on the night of Palm Sunday in 1212, she secretely left her home. Francis received her at the Porziuncula and established the Order of the Poor Ladies. He gave her a habit similar to his own and lodged her in a nearby Benedictine monastery until he could find a place for her, her younger sister Caterina and the other young women who had joined her. Later they were transferred to small huts at San Dominiano and the Order of the Poor Clares was founded. The Third Order was established for those who wanted to follow the Franciscan principles in their daily life but were unable to withraw from the world.

Francis was determined to take his message outside Italy. He tried to go to Jerusalem but was shipwrecked on the Dalmatian coast In 1213. he was given the use of the mountain of La Verna, a remote location which became a favourite place for prayer. In the same year he sailed for Morocco but illness forced him to break off his journey in Spain. Back in Assisi several noblemen joined the order including the future biographer Tommaso de Celano. Francis may have gone to the Fourth Lateran Council but that is not certain. At this time he met the future founder of the Dominican friars, St Dominic.

In 1219 he visited the Sultan in Egypt. This was during the Fifth Crusade in which there had been a bloody and futile attack on Damietta. Francis was well received by the Sultan. Crusader sources and early biographies of Francis mention the event but give no details. However the visit may have been instrumental in giving the Franciscans the means to take charge of places of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which they have done ever since.

The order grew rapidly. Five brothers were martyred in Morocco. Francis prepared a new and more detailed Rule, which again had at its heart poverty and the apostolic life, It also had more institutional structure. Francis handed over the governance of the order but he introduced a Second Rule which was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223. Francis then travelled extensively in Italy. On Mount Verna, during a 40-day fast, Francis is said to have received a vision of an angel on a cross on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and was given the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. At this point suffering both from the stigmata and trachoma Francis knew he was dying. He was brought back to a hut at the Porziunucula, the place where the Franciscan movement had begun. There he dictated his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of 3 October singing psalm 142. He was canonised in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX, the former Cardinal Ugolino di Conti who had befriended Francis and who had been appointed Cardinal Protector of the order. He laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi the following day.

The location of Francis’ tomb was unknown for a long time as his body was removed from its burial place in the Lower Basilica and hidden for fear of Saracen invaders. It was rediscovered in 1818 and a crypt was fashioned for the remains. In 1978 they were confirmed to be those of St Francis and they were put in a glass urn in the ancient stone tomb.

St Francis is one of the most popular saints. He and his followers were dedicated to imitating the life of Christ and embracing poverty. That is the reason the present Pope chose his name. He is also very much a saint for our times in that he felt himself to be linked to all living things, seeing them as a mirror of God. There are many stories of his love of nature but perhaps a favourite is the one about the wolf who was terrorising the region of Gubbio and killing people as well as animals: St Francis spoke severely to the wolf and then led it into town. He then made a pact between the people and the wolf. They were to feed it, since it had only killed out of hunger and it would no longer harm anything. In 1979 Pope John Paul II made Francis the patron of ecology. Francis was also responsible for beginning the tradition of the "live crib" so that people could become personally involved in dramatising the momentous event of the Incarnation.

His main writings are the Canticle of the Sun, the Prayer before the Crucifix, the Rules and the Testament.

St Francis of Assisi, Founder of the Franciscan orders and communities including the Capuchins, and patron saint of ecology, pray for us.