Celebrating our Saint of the Month
Saint Francis of Assisi
Feast Day: 4th October
Patron of animals, the environment, Italy, merchants
Saint Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, was an Italian Roman Catholic friar, deacon and preacher. He founded the men's Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land.
Francis was one of seven children born in late 1181 or early 1182 to Pietro di Bernardone, a prosperous silk merchant and his wife Pica de Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was a noblewoman originally from Provence.
While going off to war in 1202, Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi, where he lost his taste for his worldly life. In 1205, he left for Apulia to enlist in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. In 1201, he joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken as a prisoner at Collestrada, spending a year as a captive. It is possible that his spiritual conversion was a gradual process rooted in this experience. Upon his return to Assisi in 1203, he returned to his carefree life. In 1204, a serious illness led him to a spiritual crisis.
A strange vision made him return to Assisi, deepening his spiritual awakening. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor in begging at St. Peter's Basilica, an experience that moved him to live in poverty. Francis returned home, began preaching on the streets, and soon gathered followers. His Order was authorized by Pope Innocent III in 1210. He then founded the Order of Poor Clares, which became an enclosed religious order for women, as well as the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance (commonly called the Third Order).
After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he joined the poor in begging at the doors of the churches, he said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the country chapel of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, 'Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.' He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently praying and so he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose.
His father, Pietro, who was highly indignant, attempted to change his mind, first with threats and then with beatings. In the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him in front of the public. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the countryside around the town for two years, he embraced the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, among them the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels just outside the town, which later became his favourite abode.
At the end of this period (on 24th February 1209, according to Jordan of Giano), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life forever. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment and barefoot, he was soon joined by his first follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, and the community lived as lesser brothers. The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi, but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression upon their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
Francis' preaching to ordinary people was unusual since he had no license to do so. In 1209 he composed a simple rule for his followers (friars), the 'Regula primitiva' or 'Primitive Rule', which came from verses in the Bible. The rule was 'To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.'
In 1209, Francis led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious Order. Upon entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had in his company Giovanni di San Paolo, the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina. The Cardinal, who was the confessor of Pope Innocent III, was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to represent Francis to the Pope. Reluctantly, Pope Innocent agreed to meet with Francis and the brothers the next day. After several days, the Pope agreed to admit the group informally, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. Though Pope Innocent initially had his doubts, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, thus the 'home church' of all Christendom), he decided to endorse Francis' Order. This occurred, according to tradition, on 16th April 1210, and constituted the official founding of the Franciscan Order. The group preached on the streets and had no possessions. They were centred in the Porziuncola and preached first in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy.
He and his followers celebrated and even venerated poverty. Poverty was so central to his character that in his last written work, The Testament, he said that absolute personal and corporate poverty was the essential lifestyle for the members of his Order.
Francis believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his 'brothers' and 'sisters'. In his Canticle of the Creatures ('Praises of Creatures' or 'Canticle of the Sun'), he mentioned the 'Brother Sun' and 'Sister Moon', the wind and water and 'Sister Death'. He referred to his chronic illnesses as his 'sisters'. His deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced others and he declared that 'he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died.'
At Greccio near Assisi, around 1220, Francis celebrated Christmas by setting up the first known presepio or crèche (Nativity scene). His nativity imagery reflected the scene in traditional paintings. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshippers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of both Francis and Saint Bonaventure, tells how he used only a straw-filled manger (feeding trough) set between a real ox and donkey. According to Thomas, it was beautiful in its simplicity, with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass.
Francis preached that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of human beings. He preached to people and beasts the universal ability and duty of all creatures to praise God (a common theme in the Psalms) and the duty of people to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God's creation and as creatures ourselves.
On 29th November 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology. Many of the stories that surround the life of Saint Francis say that he had a great love for animals and the environment. Perhaps the most famous incident that illustrates the Saint's humility towards nature is recounted in the 'Fioretti'('Little Flowers'), a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after the Saint's death. It is said that, one day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to 'wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.' The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice and not one of them flew away. He is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand.
Another legend from the Fioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf 'terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals'. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis' feet. 'Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil,' said Francis. 'All these people accuse you and curse you ... But Brother Wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.'Then Francis led the wolf into the town and surrounded by startled citizens, made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.
While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas (29th September), Francis is said to have had a vision on or about 14th September 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata. Brother Leo, who had been with Francis at the time, left a clear and simple account of the event, the first definite account of the phenomenon of stigmata: 'Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.' Suffering from these stigmata and from trachoma, Francis received care in several cities to no avail. In the end, he was brought back to a hut next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual Testament. He died on the evening of 3rd October 1226, singing Psalm 142.
On 16th July 1228, Francis was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX. The next day, the Pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
On 13th March 2013, upon his election as Pope, Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose Francis as his papal name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, becoming Pope Francis, the first pope to be called Francis.