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St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of AssisiAKA Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone

Born: 1181
Birthplace: Assisi, Spoleto, Italy
Died: 3-Oct-1226
Location of death: Assisi, Spoleto, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: Italy
Executive summary: Founder of the Franciscan order

St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, was born in 1181 or 1182 at Assisi, one of the independent municipal towns of Umbria. He came from the upper middle class, his father, named Pietro Bernardone, being one of the larger merchants of the city. Bernardone's commercial enterprises made him travel abroad, and it was from the fact that the father was in France at the time of his son's birth that the latter was called Francesco. His education appears to have been of the slightest, even for those days. It is difficult to decide whether words of the early biographers imply that his youth was not free from irregularities; in any case, he was the recognized leader of the young men of the town in their revels; he was, however, always conspicuous for his charity to the poor. When he was twenty (1201) the neighboring and rival city of Perugia attempted to restore by force of arms the nobles who had been expelled from Assisi by the burghers and the populace, and Francis took part in the battle fought in the plain that lies between the two cities; the men of Assisi were defeated and Francis was among the prisoners. He spent a year in prison at Perugia, and when peace was made at the end of 1202 he returned to Assisi and recommenced his old life.

Soon a serious and prolonged illness fell upon him, during which he entered into himself and became dissatisfied with his way of life. On his recovery he set out on a military expedition, but at the end of the first day's march he fell ill, and had to stay at Spoleto and return to Assisi. This disappointment brought on again the spiritual crisis he had experienced in his illness, and for a considerable time the conflict went on within him. One day he gave a banquet to his friends, and after it they sallied forth with torches, singing through the streets, Francis being crowned with garlands as the king of the revelers; after a time they missed him, and on retracing their steps they found him in a trance or reverie, a permanently altered man. He devoted himself to solitude, prayer and the service of the poor, and before long went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Finding the usual crowd of beggars before St Peter's, he exchanged his clothes with one of them, and experienced an overpowering joy in spending the day begging among the rest. The determining episode of his life followed soon after his return to Assisi; as he was riding he met a leper who begged an alms; Francis had always had a special horror of lepers, and turning his face he rode on; but immediately an heroic act of self-conquest was wrought in him; returning he alighted, gave the leper all the money he had about him, and kissed his hand. From that day he gave himself up to the service of the lepers and the hospitals. To the confusion of his father and brothers he went about dressed in rags, so that his old companions pelted him with mud. Things soon came to a climax with his father; in consequence of his profuse alms to the poor and to the restoration of the ruined church of St. Damian, his father feared his property would be dissipated, so he took Francis before the bishop of Assisi to have him legally disinherited; but without waiting for the documents to be drawn up, Francis cast off his clothes and gave them back to his father, declaring that now he had better reason to say "Our Father which art in heaven", and having received a cloak from the bishop, he went off into the woods of Mount Subasio singing a French song; some brigands accosted him and he told them he was the herald of the great king (1206). The next three years he spent in the neighborhood of Assisi in abject poverty and want, ministering to the lepers and the outcasts of society. It was now that he began to frequent the ruined little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, known as the Portiuncula, where much of his time was passed in prayer. One day while Mass was being said therein, the words of the Gospel came to Francis as a call: "Everywhere on your road preach and say -- The kingdom of God is at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out devils. Freely have you received, freely give. Carry neither gold nor silver nor money in your girdles, nor bag, nor two coats, nor sandals, nor staff, for the workman is worthy of his hire" (Matthew 10:7-10). He at once felt that this was his vocation, and the next day, layman as he was, he went up to Assisi and began to preach to the poor (1209). Disciples joined him, and when they were twelve in number Francis said: "Let us go to our Mother, the holy Roman Church, and tell the pope what the Lord has begun to do through us, and carry it out with his sanction." They obtained the sanction of Pope Innocent III, and returning to Assisi they gave themselves up to their life of apostolic preaching and work among the poor.

To delineate in a few words the character of the Poverello of Assisi is indeed a difficult task. There is such a many-sided richness, such a tenderness, such a poetry, such an originality, such a distinction revealed by the innumerable anecdotes in the memoirs, of his disciples, that his personality is brought home to us as one of the most lovable and one of the strongest of men. It is probably true to say that no one has ever set himself so seriously to imitate the life of Jesus Christ and to carry out so literally Christ's work in Christ's own way. This was the secret of his love of poverty as manifested in the following beautiful prayer which he addressed to our Lord: "Poverty was in the crib and like a faithful squire she kept herself armed in the great combat Thou didst wage for our redemption. During Thy passion she alone did not forsake Thee. Mary Thy Mother stopped at the foot of the Cross, but poverty mounted it with Thee and clasped Thee in her embrace unto the end; and when Thou wast dying of thirst, as a watchful spouse she prepared for Thee the gall. Thou didst expire in the ardor of her embraces, nor did she leave Thee when dead, O Lord Jesus, for she allowed not Thy body to rest elsewhere than in a borrowed grave. O poorest Jesus, the grace I beg of Thee is to bestow on me the treasure of the highest poverty. Grant that the distinctive mark of our Order may be never to possess anything as its own under the sun for the glory of Thy name, and to have no other patrimony than begging" (in the Legenda 3 Soc.). This enthusiastic love of poverty is certainly the keynote of St. Francis's spirit; and so one of his disciples in an allegorical poem (translated into English as The Lady of Poverty by Montgomery Carmichael, 1901), and Giotto di Bondone in one of the frescoes at Assisi, celebrated the "holy nuptials of Francis with Lady Poverty."

Another striking feature of Francis's character was his constant joyousness; it was a precept in his rule, and one that he enforced strictly, that his friars should be always rejoicing in the Lord. He retained through life his early love of song, and during his last illness he passed much of his time in singing. His love of nature, animate and inanimate, was very keen and manifested itself in ways that appear somewhat naive. His preaching to the birds is a favorite representation of St. Francis in art. All creatures he called his "brothers" or "sisters" -- the chief example is the poem of the "Praises of the Creatures", wherein "brother Sun", "sister Moon", "brother Wind", and "sister Water" are called on to praise God. In his last illness he was cauterized, and on seeing the burning iron he addressed "brother Fire", reminding him how he had always loved him and asking him to deal kindly with him. It would be an anachronism to think of Francis as a philanthropist or a "social worker" or a revivalist preacher, though he fulfilled the best functions of all these. Before everything he was an ascetic and a mystic -- an ascetic who, though gentle to others, wore out his body by self-denial, so much so that when he came to die he begged pardon of "brother Ass the body" for having unduly ill treated it: a mystic irradiated with the love of God, endowed in an extraordinary degree with the spirit of prayer, and pouring forth his heart by the hour in the tenderest affections to God and our Lord. St. Francis was a deacon but not a priest.

From the return of Francis and his eleven companions from Rome to Assisi in 1209 or 1210, their work prospered in a wonderful manner. The effect of their preaching, and their example and their work among the poor, made itself felt throughout Umbria and brought about a great religious revival. Great numbers came to join the new order which responded so admirably to the needs of the time. In 1212 Francis invested St. Clare with the Franciscan habit, and so instituted the "Second Order", that of the nuns. As the friars became more and more numerous their missionary labors extended wider and wider, spreading first over Italy, and then to other countries. Francis himself set out, probably in 1212, for the Holy Land to preach the Gospel to the Saracens, but he was shipwrecked and had to return. A year or two later he went into Spain to preach to the Moors, but had again to return without accomplishing his object (1215 probably). After another period of preaching in Italy and watching over the development of the order, Francis once again set out for the East (1219). This time he was successful; he made his way to Egypt, where the crusaders were besieging Damietta, got himself taken prisoner and was led before the sultan, to whom he openly preached the Gospel. The sultan sent him back to the Christian camp, and he passed on to the Holy Land. Here he remained until September 1220. During his absence were manifested the beginnings of the troubles in the order that were to attain to such magnitude after his death. At an extraordinary general chapter convoked by him shortly after his return, he resigned the office of minister-general (September 1220); here, as illustrating the spirit of the man, it is in place to cite the words in which his abdication was couched: "Lord, I give Thee back this family which Thou didst entrust to me. Thou knowest, most sweet Jesus, that I have no more the power and the qualities to continue to take care of it. I entrust it, therefore, to the ministers. Let them be responsible before Thee at the Day of Judgment, if any brother by their negligence, or their bad example, or by a too severe punishment, shall go astray." These words seem to contain the mere truth: Francis's peculiar religious genius was probably not adapted for the government of an enormous society spread over the world, as the Friars Minor had now become.

The chief works of the next years were the revision and final redaction of the Rule and the formation or organization of the "Third Order" or "Brothers and Sisters of Penance", a vast confraternity of lay men and women who tried to carry out, without withdrawing from the world, the fundamental principles of Franciscan life.

If for no other reason than the prominent place they hold in art, it would not be right to pass by the Stigmata without a special mention. The story is well known; two years before his death Francis went up Mount Alverno in the Apennines with some of his disciples, and after forty days of fasting and prayer and contemplation, on the morning of the 14th of September 1224 (to use Sabatier's words), "he had a vision: in the warm rays of the rising sun he discerned suddenly a strange figure. A seraph with wings extended flew towards him from the horizon and inundated him with pleasure unutterable. At the center of the vision appeared a cross, and the seraph was nailed to it. When the vision disappeared Francis felt sharp pains mingling with the delights of the first moment. Disturbed to the center of his being he anxiously sought the meaning of it all, and then he saw on his body the Stigmata of the Crucified." The early authorities represent the Stigmata not as bleeding wounds, the holes as it were of the nails, but as fleshy excrescences resembling in form and color the nails, the head on the palm of the hand, and on the back as it were a nail hammered down. In the first edition of the Vie, Sabatier rejected the Stigmata; but he changed his mind, and in the later editions he accepts their objective reality as an historically established fact; in an appendix he collects the evidence: there exists what is according to all probability an autograph of Brother Leo, the saint's favorite disciple and companion on Mount Alverno at the time, which describes the circumstances of the stigmatization; Elias of Cortona, the acting superior, wrote on the day after his death a circular letter wherein he uses language clearly implying that he had himself seen the Stigmata, and there is a considerable amount of contemporary authentic second hand evidence. On the strength of this body of evidence Sabatier rejects all theories of fraud or hallucination, whatever may be the explanation of the phenomena.

Francis was so exhausted by the sojourn on Mount Alverno that he had to be carried back to Assisi. The remaining months of his life were passed in great bodily weakness and suffering, and he became almost blind. However, he worked on with his wonted cheerfulness and joyousness. At last, on the 3rd of October 1226, he died in the Portiuncula at the age of forty-five. Two years later he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX, whom, as Cardinal Hugolino of Ostia, he had chosen to be the protector of his order.

The works of St. Francis consist of the Rule (in two redactions), the Testament, spiritual admonitions, canticles and a few letters. They were first edited by Wadding in 1623. Two critical editions were published in 1904, one by the Franciscans of Quaracchi near Florence, the other (in a longer and a shorter form) by Professor H. Boehmer of Bonn. Sabatier and Goetz have investigated the authenticity of the several works; and the four lists, while exhibiting slight variations, are in substantial accord. Besides the works, properly so called, there is a considerable amount of traditional matter --anecdotes, sayings, sermons -- preserved in the biographies and in the Fioretti ("The Little Flowers of St. Francis"); a great deal of this matter is no doubt substantially authentic, but it is quite difficult to subject it to any critical sifting.

Father: Pietro Bernardone

    Canonization 16-Jul-1228
    Risk Factors: Stigmata

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #2023 (20 cents, issued 7-Oct-1982)



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