St. Francis of Assisi was born in Umbria in the year 1182. He was a child every father hoped for, he was filled with life, a determined and courageous individual. He was gifted with rather good looks, qualities that attracted friends and a gift of leadership. His father was an extremely wealthy merchant in Assisi. But this son, his favourite, was the one who broke Peter Bernardones heart. The boy turned on his father, and in a vicious event that eventually resulted into a public scene. St. Francis of Assisi stepped away from his father, his business and left his father in a state of immense emotional suffering.
Francis joined the military at the age of 20. Prior to this date (1202), the favoured son showed his parents that he would like to follow his own life, not in the footsteps of his father. After his enlistment, he struggled heroically in one bloody battle, but his troop experienced defeat. Taken prisoner of war, he was held captive for several months, then released and sent home. His parents were joyful and made up to him for the long months of suffering by showering him with affection. Francis probably enjoyed receiving extra money the most from this.
Being a prisoner of war did take a toll on Francis. His body became so sick that he almost died and it took over a year to recover. It was during this year that for the first time in his young life, he did some serious pondering. He explored the age old problems, “What am I?”, “Where do I come from?”, “Where am I going”, “What is this world?” and “What is love?”.
St. Francis was an Italian Catholic and a talented poet. As an Italian, his heart moved naturally to deep affection, love and enjoyment. As a poet, he could see right through the outcome of those answers. One night during a dream, he saw his house turned into a palace. The walls of this palace were hung with glorious armory, banners, shields, and swords all instruments of war. Suddenly he heard a voice, it explained that this was to be his palace, the gathering place for all his knights. The arms were theirs, the banners, and tokens of their countless conquests. To complete this wonderful dream, a gorgeous bride awaited him. St. Francis awoke charmed. A few days after that, he left Assisi to go to Southern Italy to enlist. He reached Spoleto, where he rested and then slept. Yet again, he heard the voice. However, this time, it asked the question, “Francis, who can do more for your, the servant or the master?” Francis, enjoying some sense of practical politics answered, “Why, the master!”. Now came the question that changed the course of Francis life, and in many ways, the course of human history. “Why then are you seeking the servant instead of the master, the vassal instead of the prince?” the voice spoke again. Francis recognizing the voice as that of Christ, suddenly grew weary of retreat. “Lord, what will You have me do?” asked Francis. “Return home, Your vision will have its spiritual fulfillment through Me.” replied the voice. Francis then returned to Assisi. Although the residents of Assisi rejoiced at his return, Francis was known as their leader during the time, they soon sensed that Francis had changed. Something was troubling him. The townspeople concluded that Francis had fallen in love. Francis companions would ask him who it was. Francis had to answer, but he couldnt tell them that it was someone who he hardly knew or someone that he was slightly afraid. So he said to his friends, “I do dram of taking a wife, and she whom I shall marry is noble, so rich, so fair and so wise, that not one of your has seen her like”.
Francis tended to leave his house and journey to the many caves located in Assisi. A friend who saw that Francis was involved in something even more deep than arrangements for a wedding, and who had the understanding to keep quiet about it, often accompanied Francis to the retreat. Even so, Francis always entered and stayed alone.
One day, he went inside the cave and accepted holy poverty and on the terms of God demanded the living of the holy gospel. He vowed to fulfill whatever God had commanded him to do. Francis then travelled to Rome, gave away his possessions, gave his clothes to a merchant and dressed in rags and joined a group of beggars. Being one with the poor made him feel good. Shortly after, he returned to Assisi to face a curious temptation. He deferred charitably as possible to giving away his clothing, joining beggars and destroying his Italian pride so that he could beg. But each retreat, each conquest of self, cost him a terrible effort. One thing remained for him to surrender and as he wrote later, it seemed for him a bitter thing. He must once and for all renounce that body, and his renunciation took a fearful twist.
In those days, Europe was full of lepers. These feared people crept form the edge of one town to another, seeking food and shelter, a bell tied about their necks to warn people of their proximity. One day, on a road near Assisi, Francis came face to face with one of these individuals. Young Francis ran in fear and panicked. He acknowledged the situation, returned to the leper, and put some money into his filthy hands. Francis had now set his course and rushed to its logical conclusion. He went searching for more lepers to aid, finding a hospital full of them. He gathered them all and promised them that he would serve their needs. Giving them what money he had, he kissed each on the cheek and left.
One day, Francis was walking past a ruined chapel of St. Damian just outside Assisi. He entered the place and knelt before a crucifix to pray. Suddenly the Christus spoke to him and said, “Francis, go and repair My Church, which as you see, is falling in ruin”. Francis accepted the command for what it was. First, he needed money, which he could easily acquire from his father. Unfortunately for Francis, he left on a business trip. Francis went down to the shop, loaded his horse with cloth and left on his own business trip. He sold the materials and returned to the chapel of St. Damian. The priest who occupied the chapel was amazed by his youth. First, the young man kissed his hands, pressed a sack of gold into them and then announced he was going to repair the priests church. Poverty had not dulled the discretion of the priest. He absolutely refused the money and looked at Francis suspiciously, whose reputation had hardly been that of one who worked around churches. Nevertheless, the priest permitted Francis to remain and work on the church, but not to use the money.
Unfortunately, Francis father returned from his trip and discovered the theft of his possessions and that his son was missing. He then darted to St. Damians church. Luckily for Francis, he located a cave in the nearby hills, which he used as shelter for himself from his father. Anger and frustration filled Peter Bernardone, who treaded back to Assisi.
Francis held out for some days and then walked into town to face his father. The citizens of Assisi must have been shocked when they saw Francis. Thin and pale, his clothes rough and his hands hard from labour, he looked like a zombie. People began pelting him with rocks and mud, the crowd gathered and started jeering at him. Francis father heard what was going on and he saw what was happening to his son. He barged his way through the crowd, took his son inside and chained him in the cellar. A few days later, Francis mother unchained Francis and let him escape. Instantly, he was back at St. Damians church. At this time, Peter Bernardone appealed for civil prosecution of his son. Francis ended up giving the money and clothes that he stole back to his father. Francis then left Assisi and headed to the mountains surrounding the city for an unknown reason. On his way, a group of thieves ambushed him, finding nothing, they threw him into a ravine full of snow. Cold and wet, Francis crawled out of the ravine and made his way to a monastery, where the monks there gave him shelter, in exchange for labour in their kitchen. Extreme cold and hunger resulted Francis to journey to Guibbio, a village near Assisi, where he met an old friend. Finally, Francis returned to St. Damians and continued the restoration of the church. Not only did Francis now lack money, he was obliged to beg for the materials he needed to work on the church. A divine presence filled Francis, enabling him to restore chapels for the next 2 to 3 years. While at Mass in 1209, at St. Mary of the Angels, a church which he restored, God revealed, through the Gospel read by the priest, the full lifes work of Francis. After Mass, Francis asked the priest to explain the Gospel to him. The priest interpreted the reading as the Disciples of Christ must possess nothing, they were simply to preach the word of God and penance of sin. Francis, filled with eagerness, exclaimed, “This is what I long with all my inmost heart to do.”
He began to preach people the people of Assisi, something that caused him absolute humility. Within the next year, 11 men asked Francis if they could be his followers. Some of them brought with them money, which he forced them to give to the poor if they wished to follow him. These 11 men were the first followers of Francis. Not so long after that, during one of Francis dream, he saw, “a great multitude of men their footfalls still resound in my ears as they come and go according to the commands of holy obedience. The highroads are crowded with them, coming to this place (Assisi), from almost every nation. There are Frenchmen coming, Spaniards hurrying, Germans and Englishmen running and a tremendous throng speaking various other tongues hastens here.”
In the year 1209, Francis wrote a Rule of Life, for his present and future followers to follow. This “Rule of Life” was used at guiding his followers to walk in the footsteps of Christ. It was composed mainly of Gospel texts and a few precepts. Francis saw the world as this followers monastery. Rather than bind them to the gracefully controlled arch of monastic discipline, he was inspired by God and by the needs of his times to send them into the frightfully disorganized world. If the world was their arch, their bodies were their cells. Francis believed food and clothing were not the problem, since God would assist them through their expedition. The followers were instructed to live the Gospel and give good examples to people suffering by sin. Francis labelled his followers as the Little Brothers, or Frati Minori in Italian, a name which has come down today to us in the title Friars Minor.
In 1209, Francis set out with his 12 followers for Rome, insisting on seeking the approval of Catholicism from Pope Innocent III. The pope was hesitant at first when Francis presented his case. In those days, Rome was the seat of discretion, a youth couldnt enter the papal chambers seeking universal approval of a form of religious life. Innocent III then thought over the decision wisely. During a dream after his interview with Francis, he saw the enormous Roman basilica of St. John Lateran trembling on its foundations, fighting not to lean over. Abruptly, a little man appeared and threw his body against the building, miraculously holding it up. The little man was Francis. Through his dream, the pope called back Francis and listened to him yet again. Innocent III then consulted his personal advisors and concluded that Franciss ideas had value and further to deny their validity would be to deny that one could live a life described as ideal in the gospels. Innocent III then gave his support and promised more definite agreement if Francis plan proved more realistic.
A decade later, Francis followers grew to over 3000 men. They returned to Assisi with the Popes approval for their Catholic way of life. The St. Mary of the Angels church given to them by the Benedictine monks became their headquarters. All their operations were initiated from this small building as more and more people joined them. During this period, Francis established his Second Order of thoughtful women and his Third Order for men and women living in the world. At this time, he met an 18 year old woman, Clare di Favorone. Clare had heard Francis preaching one day and shared her hardships with him. She told Francis that she was committed to giving her entire life to God and to live in the same poverty as Francis and his followers. Shortly after this occurred, she left her family and became a follower of Francis.
On the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, Clare met with her companion Lady Pacifica and they both hiked to the church of St. Mary of the Angels, where Francis and his followers were waiting. Francis then trimmed Clares lengthy golden hair. Clare then vowed her alliance towards the belief of poverty, chastity and obedience to God. The Second Order of St. Francis, also known as the Poor Clares and Poor Ladies of Assisi, made its entrance into the history of the world.
Years passed and the news of Francis and his followers broadened throughout Italy. When Francis visited small towns, a large crowd would gather to see him, church bells would ring and people would run to see him.
During the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, Dominic Guzman requested that Francis and himself merge their Orders, but Francis wasnt very interested. Francis thought that Guzmans perception of the role of Christ was too straightforward, as if Christ was an ordinary person. Even though Francis rejected Guzmans request, they remained close friends and the friendship of their Orders has continued for more than 700 years.
In 1217, Francis order had grown to such an amount that he had to establish and outline of organization. He instituted a set of provinces, which were run by ministers, who explained the responsibilities to the followers.
During Pentecost in 1217, Francis sent his followers past Italys borders to both Pagan and Christian territories. His followers set out to France, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Portugal and Syria. 100 years later, he had gained an additional 30,000 followers to his Order. Two years later, Francis left Italy on an unbelievable missionary endeavour. He travelled to Damietta, Egypt, where he crossed wars being fought by crusaders and Saraceans. Incredibly, he survived a stay inside the Saracen camp and even had a discussion with Melekel-kamel, Sultan and commander of the Mussulman force. Francis advised the Sultan that he be baptized, something, which the Sultan strongly thought about. The Sultan fearing that his people wouldnt accept the ordeal is what kept Francis request from taking place. However, the Sultan did allow Francis and his followers to preach throughout Egypt.
Five of Francis followers left Portiuncula and journeyed to Morocco. Here they proclaimed themselves as King of Kings, Jesus Christ. This resulted them being cast into chains amidst the town square. Lying there naked, they courageously confessed and proclaimed their faith. Townspeople dragged them by their necks and repeatedly kicked them in their backs. The King offered to save them if they converted to Islam. They refused and the Kind beheaded them with his sword on the spot. When Francis heard about this, he exclaimed, “God be praised! Now I truly know I have five brothers!”
The expansion of Francis Order continued, establishing followers many miles away. These followers had never seen Francis before and wished to do so. In 1220, Francis called a General Chapter. At this meeting, he resigned as Minister General, for the purpose of dedicating himself fully to preparing a more comprehensive rule of life for his followers. The next three years of Francis life were extremely stressful. He worked to develop the Franciscan Rule, a rule that would allow his followers to live the Holy Gospel with the greatest amount of individual liberty and the minimum of regulation. Cardinal Hugolino, the late Gregory IX, assisted Francis in the completion of the Rule of in 1223. All this effort took its tool on the health of Francis, he started realizing that he was nearing the end of his life. Since he believed he had lived like Christ, he pleaded to die like Christ.
In 1224, accompanied by a few followers, he marched up the Alvernia Mountain, near Assisi to pray. At this time, Francis and Christ shared words with each other. Extreme exchanges were made between both sides. Francis told Christ about his request, to his wonder, the crucified figure of Christ surfaced to him. When Francis stepped back, he discovered that his body had wounds located in the same five areas that Jesus suffered on the cross.
During the last two years of Francis life, his health was destroyed. He felt tremendous pain in his eyes, spleen, and liver, stomach and have contracted malaria. Francis knew his last days were nearing. He asked his attendants to sing to him, for Francis enjoyed the sound of music. St. Francis died on October 3rd, 1226, while singing his nature song, Canticle of the Sun.