In the case of many saints, people have disagreed whether they qualified for that title. St. Francis of Assisi, on the other hand, comes as close as possible to being everybody’s saint. Not only Catholics, but those of different faiths or of no formal faith have agreed that the “Poverello”, the “little poor man” of Assisi deserved canonization. The basic reason for this universal popularity is that Francis, who appeared to be so charmingly simple, was actually a very complicated man, many marvelous things at once.
Francesco di Bernardone, the son of Pietro di Bemardone and Giovanna (“Pica”) di Bernardone, was born in Assisi early in 1182. His father was a well-to-do textile merchant. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but Pietro, a Francophile who had been on a business trip to France on his son’s day of birth, gave him the additional name Francesco, the “little Frenchman”. That was the name that stuck.
Francis grew up therefore in affluent circumstances. He learned his father’s trade well, but he was also a “showy spender”. Money made him a leader among his teen-aged friends in their much partying. Even so, he was never insensitive to the needs of the poor.
It took young Bernardone several years to discover his true destiny. Raised by his father on the poems and songs of French chivalry, he at first felt called to be a soldier. When he was 20, Assisi became involved in an armed dispute with the nearby city of Perugia. Francis enlisted and marched with his fellow townsmen against the Perugian enemy. But the Perugians won the battle, captured the young would-be warrior, and held him prisoner for a year. When they released him he returned home only to be stricken with a serious illness that incapacitated him for another twelve months. Captivity and illness did not, however, dissuade him immediately from military ambitions. Once recuperated, he volunteered to join the papal army of Walter de la Brienne, who was opposing the German emperor’s efforts to conquer Italy. But en route to the battlefield (no farther south than Spoleto), Francis was taken ill again. In a dream he heard a voice inviting him to “follow the master rather than the man.” So he turned his horse back to Assisi. He did not know the meaning of the obscure dream, but convinced of its spiritual import, he forsook both business and partying thereafter, and began to meditate and pray a lot. His social crowd noticed thereafter that he was quieter and more pensive. Asked if he was perhaps in love, he replied, “Yes, I am going to take a wife more beautiful and worthy than all you know.”
The “wife,” it would turn out, would be “Lady Poverty.”
When out riding one day he encountered a leper in the road. Shocked, he automatically turned back from the “unclean” one. Then, realizing what he had done, in a moment of grace he dismounted, approached the stricken man, put a coin in his hand and kissed it. In later years he would refer to this episode as the moment when he had “left the world.”
God advanced him one step more in fall 1203. As Francis prayed in the half-ruined church of San Damiano outside the city walls, he seemed to hear Christ telling him, through the lips of the figure on the altar cross, “Francis, go and repair my church, which as you can see is in ruins.” Interpreting the command literally, Francesco rushed off to gather structural materials. To pay for these materials he took some bolts of cloth from his father’s shop and sold them. When Pietro learned of this he was furious. He had been trying of late to get his son to come back to the family store. Now, hard man that he was, he haled Francis before the church court of the bishop of Assisi, demanding that he pay for the “stolen” cloth, and threatening to disinherit him. The bishop instructed Francis to pay for the fabric, which he did. But he also renounced his inheritance, and even returned the clothing on his back to his father, declaring that henceforth only God the Father would be his parent. Clothed in a borrowed smock, young Bernardone thus publicly proclaimed his dedication to God in voluntary poverty. Henceforth he would live the gospel literally, and depend only on the alms given him by permission of Lady Poverty.
Francis increased his hours of prayer, his begging on behalf of the needy, and his manual labor. He restored not only San Damiano church but also two others: St. Peter’s and St. Mary of the Angels. While attending Mass in the last-named church in 1208, he heard the Gospel passage read, in which Christ sent his disciples forth in poverty to preach the Good News. (Mt 10:7-19). He concluded that this was God’s revelation to him of his own special vocation. At once he started to preach repentance and peace through the streets of Assisi. The response to his message was immediate. Not only did he attract the populace; within a few weeks a dozen men begged him to let them join him in this work. A new religious order thus came into existence. Francis called them the “Fratres Minores” (“Lesser Brethren”). With their help he preached penance and poverty throughout Italy. He went to Rome with them in 1210 and received from Pope Innocent III the verbal approval of a simple rule of life for them to follow. Francis himself was ordained a deacon around the same time. Out of humility he never sought promotion to the priesthood.
The friars were assigned the chapel of the Porziuncola as their headquarters, but Francis insisted on paying rent for it. To his mind the Friars Minor, consecrated above all to poverty, should own no property even as a community.
The Friars Minor exploded into existence. By 1220 they numbered almost five thousand. In 1212 Francis, aided by St. Clare, also established a female branch, the Poor Clares; and in 1221 he would set up a third order for lay persons. Some of these tertiaries lived together in their own religious communities; the rest, men and women, followed the ideals of the order while remaining in the world.
Italy needed just this, for contemporary heretics, practicing a poverty that contrasted with the luxury of the current Catholic clergy, had prompted many Italians to repudiate the hierarchy. On the other hand, the Franciscan friars, begging crusts for themselves and the poor from door to door, were unswerving in their loyalty to the pope and bishops.
The friars were soon preaching penance throughout Italy. Francis himself before long gave the order an international character. Still a soldier and crusader at heart, he sought personally (without luck) to convert the Muslims in Egypt.
Franciscans would eventually get access to the Mideast, to China, and even to the New World. But in the Founder’s day they concentrated particularly on re-evangelizing the length and breadth of Italy. It was wonderful to see how the simple sermons of the friars touched the hearts of people. Cures and moral miracles were reported wherever they went. About them arose a legendary aura that found literary expression in charming collections of stories about Francis and his friars. One thinks of the early biographies, of the Mirror of Perfection, of The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Here we still meet Francis the troubadour, the preacher to the birds, the promoter of Christmas cribs, the tamer of the wolf of Gubbio, the environmentalist. Like a knight errant, liberated by poverty, he brought a fresh prospect of Christianity wherever he went.
Why this phenomenal growth of the Franciscan order? It so happened that Francis’ era was one of spiritual decline and worldliness. In God’s providence, he was meant to revive the faith by kindling anew a warm Christian devotion. It was also an era of heresy, especially Catharism, which denied the goodness of God’s creation. Reintroducing the faithful to the simple life, Francis refuted Catharism with his joyful praise of all God’s creation.
Francis of Assisi’s personal attractiveness assisted him mightily in his work as a reformer. The rise of a whole literature on the beginnings of the Friars Minor bears witness to this charm: his own few writings; his early biographies; and the several collections of legends, especially the Fioretti (“The Little Flowers”). But the entrancing stories of his gentleness, his affection for all of God’s creatures as his “brothers” and “sisters”, and even the accounts of Francis as a miracle worker, should not obscure the fact that the “Poverello” was likewise a man of terrifying self-denial, one whose suffering, mental and physical, made him resemble Christ more and more as time passed.
The Franciscan Order itself caused him much mental anguish. As it grew in size, its members were always in danger of watering down the radical poverty that the founder had espoused. To head off a division in the Franciscan family, all members, including Francis himself, had to agree to a new rule that made some concessions to practicality. Francis did not like the concessions, but when Pope Honorius III approved the new rule in 1223, the Saint, always respectful of authority, accepted it. Even in his last testament, however, he would urge the importance of strict poverty, not only of the individual friars but of the whole order. He himself had retired as “minister general” of the friars in 1220, to be succeeded by Fra Elias of Cortona.
In his latter years, Francis underwent much physical suffering. Chronic stomach trouble and incipient blindness took their toll. The “cure” attempted on his eyes–cauterizing them with fire – proved as crude as it was ineffective. In these same days of retirement he reached the climax of his prayer-life. In 1223, while spending Christmas at Greccio, he devised the first-known Christmas crib beside the altar. Then and afterward, his prayers were often accompanied by ecstasies and levitations, which he sought to conceal.
In 1224, when he was praying in a little rural hermitage at LaVerna, he fell into an ecstatic state during which he received the stigmata of Jesus crucified. This is the first recorded case of a person receiving the marks of Christ’s passion. In Francis’ case the charisma meant additional pain, because the hand and foot wounds in his case had in them “nails” of hard flesh, which made walking difficult. The imprints of the Passion can be considered as confirming Francis’ spiritual resemblance to Christ himself.
Despite his increased suffering, however, the Saint’s inner joy continued, and found particular expression in his Canticle of the Sun. a poem of divine praise that he composed and set to music. It begins:
“Most High Almighty Good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessings!
To you alone, Most High, do they belong,
And no man is worthy to mention You.”
Then the canticle goes on to praise the Lord for “Sir Brother Sun”, for “Sister Moon and the Stars”, for “Brother Wind”, for “Sister Water”, for “Brother Fire”, and for “Sister Mother Earth”. Francis then praised the Lord for those who forgive for love of God, and for those who endure in peace infirmities and tribulations. In addressing God’s creatures, animate and inanimate, as his brothers and sisters, he put them on the same level as his Franciscan Brothers and Sisters in the community of those who served Almighty God!
Towards the end of his life Francis added a final verse to his Canticle in praise of our “Sister, Bodily Death”. As that Sister approached, he had himself carried back to the Franciscan headquarters at the Church of the Portiuncula, and laid on the ground. Having made his peace with all his brethren and urged them always to love each other, to love Lady Poverty, and to love and honor the clergy of the Church, he died in the early evening of October 3, 1266, as the Passion according to St. John was being read.
It has been said that Francis of Assisi, by founding the Franciscans, “did more than any other man to save the medieval Church from decay and revolution.” He had “repaired God’s house.” Thanks to the story of his life and the literature surrounding it, Francis, even today, preaches poverty and simplicity of life as the perennial way to achieve true freedom of spirit.
The “Little Poor Man” had asked to be buried in the local cemetery for criminals. He was interred instead in the church of San Giorgio. That he was canonized in 1288, only twenty-two years after his death, amply illustrates the impact he had had on the world of his time. In 1230, his body was removed to the place where it is still enshrined, the magnificent new basilica of San Francesco. This basilica was the creation of his successor, Fra Elias of Cortona. While we would probably consider this splendid church an appropriate resting place for the Poverello, Francis himself would surely have rejected it. After all, the poor Christ whom he had served so faithfully, had been buried in a borrowed grave!
–Father Robert F. McNamara