St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) Italian Saint and Religious Leader
St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226)
Italian Saint and religious leader
Born the son of a cloth merchant in the Umbrian region of Italy, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone became St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most inspirational figures in Christian history. As a youth, Francis was entranced by the French troubadours, but then planned a military career. While serving in a war between Assisi and Perugia in 1202, he was captured and imprisoned for a year. He intended to return to combat when he was released, but a series of visions and incidents, such as an encounter with a leper, led him in a different direction.
This direction was toward Jesus. Francis was so taken with the love and suffering of Jesus that he set out to live a life of prayer, preaching, and poverty. Although he was not a priest, he began preaching to the townspeople of Assisi and soon attracted a group of disciples, which Pope Innocent III recognized in 1211, or 1212, as the Franciscan order. The order grew quickly, but Francis never intended to found and control a large and complicated organization. His idea of the Christian life led elsewhere, including a fruitless attempt to end the Crusades peacefully. In 1224 he undertook a 40-day fast at Mount Alverna, from which he emerged bearing stigmata—wounds resembling those Jesus suffered on the cross. He died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228.
Francis's unconventional life has made him attractive to many who have questioned the direction of their own societies. In recent years his rejection of warfare and material goods has brought him the title of "the hippie saint"; Leonardo Boff has seen him as a foreshadowing of liberation theology. Lynn White has proposed him as "a patron saint for ecologists."
There is no doubt that Francis loved nature . In his "Canticle of the Creatures," he praises God for the gifts, among others, of "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon," and "Mother Earth, Who nourishes and watches us..." But this is not to say that Francis was a pantheist or nature worshipper. He loved nature not as a whole, but as the assembly of God's creations. As G. K. Chesterton remarked, Francis "did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man."
For White, Francis was "the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ" because he departed from the traditional Christian view in which humanity stands over and against the rest of nature—a view, White charges, that is largely responsible for current ecological crises. Against this view, Francis "tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation."
[Richard K. Dagger ]
Boff, L. St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation. Translated by J. W. Diercksmeier. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
Cunningham, L., ed. Brother Francis. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Chesterton, G. K. St. Francis of Assisi. New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1990.
White Jr., L. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155 (March 10, 1967): 1203–1207.