St. Francis lived 800 years ago. For both Christians and non-Christians, he is one of the most popular and respected Christian saints. He had a radical message for the love of God and creation. When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope, he said that “he took to heart the words of his friend [who told him to remember the poor] and chose to be called after St. Francis of Assisi, ‘the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,’ the same created world with which we don’t have such a good relationship. How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor,’ ” You can read more about the significance of Cardinal Bergoglio taking the name of Francis of Assisi in the articles in America Magazine here and here by Franciscan Daniel P. Horan.
I note with irony that the first Jesuit Pope would choose the name of the founder of the Franciscans and that a Franciscan would write glowingly of the first Jesuit Pope in a Jesuit magazine. This is a very impressive symbol of harmony as it was a Franciscan Pope (Clement XIV) who suppressed the Jesuits, not to mention the otherwise turbulent history of these two orders.
Francis was born, one of seven children, in September 1181 the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife Pica Bourlemont in Assisi, in Tuscany, Italy. As a young man he helped his father in running the family business but was also prominent in the social life of the pleasure-seeking well-off.
Already at this stage his concern for the poor and outcasts, such as lepers, was noticeable. One day he heard a voice which seemed to come from a crucifix in the small rundown church of San Damiano in Assisi. It said: “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis understood the words literally and immediately got to work. He sold some of his father’s cloth in order to pay for the repairs. This led to a lengthy dispute with his father which ended in Francis renouncing his inheritance and getting rid of his fancy and expensive clothes. The bishop of Assisi gave him some simple attire and Francis embarked on a totally new way of living. In the beginning, his aim was primarily devotional. He wanted to be close to Christ on the Cross. But later he would also declare his allegiance to Lady Poverty, using the contemporary language of courtly love. He began to lead a life of extreme simplicity. With money he begged from the people of Assisi he was able to rebuild the church of San Damiano. In fact, he restored several ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, just outside Assisi, which later became his favorite abode.
He became a wandering beggar, in solidarity with those who were genuinely poor (and they would have been many). He looked after social outcasts, especially lepers (and those who were thought to have leprosy). There is the famous image of him overcoming his distaste and fear by embracing a leper. Then seven other men joined him. They lived together at the Porziuncula in Assisi, close to a leper colony.
Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as “lesser brothers” (fratres minores) – the name by which the order is still known. The brothers lived a simple life in the abandoned leper house of Rivo Torto near Assisi. They spent much of their time as wandering preachers in Umbria, bringing a message of cheer and song and making a deep impression on the people.
In 1209 Francis led his followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. The pope agreed to meet with Francis and his companions. He consented to an informal recognition of the group and, when they had increased in numbers, they could return for more formal recognition. The group then received the tonsure and Francis himself was ordained deacon, allowing him to read the Gospel in church. Obedience to the pope would be a central feature of Francis’ First Rule (Regula Prima) drawn up and approved in 1210.
Among those who heard Francis preach was Clare of Assisi and she immediately knew to what she was called. Her brother Rufino, too, joined the new order. On Palm Sunday, March 28, 1211 Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and thus was founded the Order of Poor Dames, later called Poor Clares.
The friars increased greatly in numbers (up to 5,000), new houses were being established outside Italy. The greater numbers now called for better organisation and administration which Francis’ simple rules could not deal with. The Church authorities, too, saw the Order as an important instrument of reform, even to making some of the friars bishops. Francis felt that this might compromise the witness through poverty which was in itself a criticism of the materialist attitudes affecting the Church. Francis then resigned his position as Minister General at the General Chapter of 1220. In this way, Pope Benedict XVI, predecessor to Pope Francis, was also emulating the actions of Francis.
He was succeeded by Brother Elias of Cortona. In 1221 Francis drew up another Rule. After some changes, it was finally approved as the Regula Bullata by Pope Honorius III. The Order now had the full approval of the Church authorities but it involved concessions with which Francis was not at all happy. In 1221 Francis also initiated the Third Order by which married people could live according to the Franciscan spirituality.
It is in the later years of his life that some of the best known events took place. They include the setting up of a Christmas crib. It is said that Francis – who was never more than a deacon – read the Gospel with such passion that people wept. The famous Canticle of the Sun was written in 1224 when he visited Clare, who was seriously ill at the time. And it was also in 1224 that, during an ecstasy, he experienced the stigmata, by which the wounds of the crucified Jesus appeared on his body.
It was soon after this that he became ill and also blind. He suffered greatly from well-intentioned but crude surgery. In the end he was brought back to the transito, the hut for sick friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began and feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of October 3, 1226 singing Psalm 141. He was just 45 years of age.
He was canonized, only two years after his death, on July 16, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX. The following day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Assisi is now a pilgrimage center for people from all over the world. He is regarded as the patron saint of animals, birds, the environment, and Italy.