Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis Of Assisi Saint Francis of Assisi (uh-SEE-see) was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages--generally regarded as time between the A.D. 500's and the A.D. 1400's. He was the founder of the Franciscan religious order of the Catholic Church. His life of poverty inspired many people, since he lived "a life of simplicity in contrast to the wealth and apparent corruption of the Church." He also loved peace and respected all living creatures.

This great man was born in the central Italian hill town of Assisi in the year 1181 A.D. (or it might have been 1182 A.D.). His father was Don Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant who dealt in rich silks and velvet material. His mother was Dona Pica Bernardone, originally from France.

On the day that Dona Pica was due to give birth, she was having difficulty, so the story goes. Her husband was out of town on a business trip, and the midwife called in to help felt sure the birth was imminent. However, nothing she did seemed to aid Dona Pica.

Then a visitor dressed as a pilgrim came to the door, telling a servant that Dona Pica must leave her bedroom and go to the stable if the baby was to be born. They took his advice, and the baby boy was delivered there by the light of a candle on a fresh bundle of straw.

A few days later he was baptized in a local church. The name chosen by his mother was Giovanni (John). However, when Don Pietro returned, he was not happy about his new son's name. Overruling his wife, he said the child would be called Francis ("the Frenchman") because her nationality was French.

Francis was a "lively and handsome youth" who had all the money he wanted and didn't hesitate to spend it. He had a lot of friends and frequently enjoyed himself at parties. He dressed in multi-colored clothing, often described as "a rainbow." Francis had little education, but he did help his father in the family business until he was 20 years old.

At this time Francis took part in a war between Assisi and Perugia, a rival city. He was captured by enemy soldiers in 1202 and thrown into prison, where he remained until he was released in 1203. He saw much suffering during this time; and when he finally returned home, he became seriously ill, possibly the after-effects of his imprisonment. While he was recuperating, he did a lot of thinking about his life, its meaning, and its purpose.

Soon another war with Perugia broke out, but this time Francis chose not to take part. His illness returned. During his convalescence (gradual return to health) he spent a lot of time praying. One day, while in the Church of San Damiano, he asked: "Lord, what do you want of me?" He heard a voice that seemed to be coming from a painted crucifix on the wall. That voice said: "Francis, rebuild my church.

Francis immediately sold all his property and gave the money to the Church. Then he took some bolts of cloth and a horse belonging to his father, sold them, and gave this additional money to the priest at San Damiano for more repairs.

Don Pietro wanted his money back, but the law refused to help; so he brought Francis before the bishop. After hearing the facts, the bishop told Francis he must return his father's money because "God didn't want His work to be advanced with money unjustly gained."

Francis agreed to give back the money. He also said that he would return EVERYTHING that his father had ever given him. He proceeded to take off his clothes (except for his underwear) and place them at his father's feet. He said from then on he wouldn't call Don Pietro "father" any more; his only father would be God in Heaven. Don Pietro soon disinherited Francis (excluded him from receiving property after death); this completed the family break.

Francis had decided that money and worldly pleasures meant nothing to him. He devoted his life to solitude, prayer, helping the poor, and raising money to rebuild run-down buildings of the churches. He lived in absolute poverty, dedicating himself to God's work, and patterning his life after Jesus' life.

Francis attracted followers who joined him in his life of poverty and in his work. All of them wore ragged, gray robes with rope belts and were barefoot. They became known as the "begging brothers," going out in pairs to spread the Gospel. Whenever they needed shelter and food to eat, they asked someone for it. It was against their rules to actually "own" anything.

Francis and eleven of his "brothers" made a pilgrimage to Rome. Upon their return, they met a leper (a person with leprosy, a very serious--and contagious--disease). Francis gave him a few coins and then kissed his hand! People of this time generally stayed away from lepers because of the possibility of catching the disease, but Francis made them his special project.

In 1209 Francis requested permission from Pope Innocent III to form a brotherhood, a religious order of the Church. His group was called the "Friars Minor," (littlest brothers). They soon acquired the name "Franciscans." Frequently they were referred to as the "gray friars" because of the color of their robes.

The term "friar" as used in the Catholic Church referred to men who worked in communities, actively preaching and helping residents. This word is sometimes confused with "monks" who usually live in isolated places, performing their holy work alone.

In the first ten years of their existence, the number of Franciscan brothers grew to 5,000. Most of them became priests officially, but Francis himself remained a layman in the Church (one who does not have advanced training or skills) until his death.

The Franciscans did missionary work beyond the borders of Italy, preaching the word of Christ. Some traveled to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, England, and several countries in northern Africa. On a trip in 1212, Francis was on a ship headed for Syria with the intention of converting Muslims (convincing them to become Christians). However, his ship was wrecked on the coast of Croatia. Later that same year he started for Morocco, but he became ill and had to call off his trip. Francis even accompanied Crusaders to Egypt in 1219, hoping to convert the sultan. (He was unsuccessful.)

One devoted follower of Francis was the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy family of Assisi. Her name was Clare Scifi. After she heard him speak for the first time, the two met regularly for several months, speaking of God, joy, and poverty. She decided--against her father's wishes--to leave home and join Francis. She became Sister Clare. Before long, a number of other women came to stay with Clare, and they became known as the "Poor Sisters." Later their order was given more official titles: "Second Order of St. Francis"; "Poor Clares"; and "Franciscan Nuns."

Francis always referred to himself as "little brother Francis." He called all creatures "brothers" and "sisters" and loved Nature. He considered it to be the "mirror of God on earth," speaking of "Sister Water" and "Brother Tree." He even refused to put out a fire for fear he would injure "Sister Fire." In one of his writings, he referred to "Sister Moon" and "Brother Sun." It is said that rabbits would come to him for protection. There are stories about sermons preached to trees full of "Sister Birds" in which he urged them to sing their prayers of thanks to God.

Another story relates how Francis talked to a wolf who had been terrifying an entire village, scolding "Brother Wolf" for what he was doing. That wolf not only stopped his attacks but later became a pet who was fed willingly by the same villagers! When he died, the people missed him.

In 1224 Francis was praying on Mount Alverna, a favorite place where he often went to be alone. He was in the midst of a 40-day fast (a period of time when a person does not eat), observing the Feast of the Holy Cross. He was feeling weak, and his eyes were burning.

While he was praying, he saw a vision: an angel carrying an image of a man nailed to a cross. When the vision disappeared, Francis felt sharp pains in various places on his body. When he tried to locate the source of these pains, Francis saw that he had taken on the marks of a person who had been crucified (nailed to a cross). This phenomenon is called "stigmata." Francis had five marks resembling those on Jesus' hands, feet, and sides--marks of nails and spears received during His crucifixion. Those marks remained until Francis' death and caused him much pain.

Francis originated a custom that all of us see and enjoy each Christmas. He wanted to seriously celebrate the Lord's coming and show His poor and humble beginnings. To accomplish this, he had several items taken to a cave near the town of Greccio, Italy: a manger (an open box in which feed for animals is placed) filled with hay, an ox, and a donkey. The scene he created there was to represent the stable at Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.

The brothers who were with Francis came to the cave with torches and candles. A Mass was said with the manger as an altar. Witnesses there that night said later they saw a vision: a real child lying in the manger.

Today Christians all over the world create similar Nativity scenes during the celebration of Christmas.

Francis died on October 3, 1226 A.D. near Assisi in a church that was his favorite and had been the first headquarters of the Franciscans. He was blind, ill, and racked with pain from his "stigmata" wounds. There was hardly any flesh left on his bones. As he lay dying, the brothers came in for his blessing. They sang a song Francis had written: "Song to the Sun." Sometime before he drew his last breath, he said, "Let us sing the welcome to Sister Death."

Francis' body was carried to the Church of San Georgio. Today it rests in a simple sarcophagus (stone coffin). Hundreds of candles burn before it.

Francis was canonized (declare a deceased person to be a saint) by the Catholic Church in 1228. His Feast Day is celebrated on October 4 each year.

Sister Clare died in 1253. Two years later, she also was proclaimed to be a saint. Her Feast Day is August 12.

The Franciscan order had grown so much that by 1248 more than 9,000 religious houses had been built. At one time, over 100,000 friars were part of the Franciscan brotherhood.

The order's expansion and its overly complex organization caused a split which made necessary a papal (coming from the Pope) unification decree in 1897. His order produced today's three independent families of Franciscan orders for men: the Friars Minor, the Friars Minor Convectionals, and the Friars Minor Capuchins.

Today the Franciscan brothers continue the work started by this exceptional man nearly 800 years ago.