St. Francis of Assisi

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St. Francis of Assisi

Born 1182

Died 1226

Italian religious leader

F rancis of Assisi is remembered as a great example of sainthood as that term is understood both within the Catholic Church and by the world in general. As with Augustine (see entry), an encounter with God transformed him from a reckless youth to a sober, thoughtful defender of the faith. Unlike Augustine, however, Francis produced no significant writings: rather, his triumph was in his deeds for the poor and the needy. His kindness to all creatures and his belief that all deserved God's good will became legendary, and later, tales circulated of his preaching to the animals.

A spoiled boy

The eldest son of Pietro and Pica Bernardone was born with the name Giovanni, or John, in the central Italian city of Assisi (uh-SEE-see). His father, a wealthy cloth merchant, was away on business at the time, but as soon as Pietro returned, the family began calling the boy by the nickname Francesco, or Francis.

Francis was a spoiled child, doted on by his parents, and he took little interest in things that proved difficult. Thus he never excelled in school, and throughout his career had such a limited command of writing that he typically dictated his letters and signed them with a simple cross.

Yet he learned to speak Latin, the language of learning at the time, and French, then the language of international business. He also helped his father by cutting cloth in the latter's store, and it was said that he loved to flirt with the pretty young female customers.

Parties and wars

Francis grew up on dreams of glory, encouraged by his father, who wanted him to become a knight. In his teen years, however, he showed little of the discipline necessary for anyone who aspired to knighthood. Francis and his gang of friends, mostly wealthy youths who had plenty of money and time, were given to partying, practical jokes, and idleness. Like the others, he cared little for anything beyond the pleasures of the moment, but even then, Francis distinguished himself by his generosity, both to his friends and to the poor.

The teenaged Francis little suspected how soon his sheltered world would be destroyed. At that point, much of Italy was caught in a struggle with the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of German principalities that controlled much of Europe, but in 1197, Assisi declared its independence. The foreign rulers of Assisi, loyal subjects of the empire, fled to the nearby town of Perugia, whose people had long been enemies of Assisi. In 1201, Perugia declared war on Assisi, and Francis was taken prisoner during the Battle of Ponte San Giovanni in November 1202.

He was held captive in Perugia for a year, during which time he began suffering health problems. Francis had always been weak, and his years of drinking and staying out late had only further weakened him; now confinement added to ailments that he would suffer throughout his life. At the age of twenty-two, he seemed like an old man, and he spent weeks in bed. When he could finally walk again, he found that something had changed.

A change of direction

The first thing Francis noticed was that all the things he had loved—partying, feasting, riding—no longer held the same pleasure for him that they once had. Still, he resolved to get on with the business of becoming a knight, and rode away to join the armies of Pope Innocent III (ruled 1198–1216; see entry) in their ongoing battles with the Holy Roman Empire.

On his way to join the army, Francis stopped overnight in the town of Spoleto (spoh-LAY-doh), where he had a dream. In it, God asked him which lord he would serve: an earthly lord or commander in the army, or the Lord God in Heaven. Francis was so moved that he returned to Assisi.

At home, people dubbed him a coward, and his parents were puzzled and embarrassed by Francis's behavior. All his old friends were away at war, and he began spending long hours praying in churches around the town. In 1206, he was kneeling at the Chapel of San Damiano when he heard what he believed was the voice of Christ saying to him: "Francis, go repair my house, which is falling in ruins."

In the aftermath of this strange experience, Francis renounced worldly riches and began begging in the streets. By this he hoped to raise funds to restore churches such as San Damiano, which was clearly in need of repair. But he was also begging to support himself, and his father was mortified by his behavior. In April 1207, he had Francis brought before a magistrate or judge, who he hoped would order him to stop begging, go home, and start living in a way appropriate to his upbringing.

Francis requested that his hearing occur before a bishop, to which the father agreed, and in the bishop's presence the young man stripped off his clothing and announced: "I have called Pietro Bernardone my father…. Now I will say Our Father who art in heaven, not Pietro Bernardone." Thus he renounced his old life, and began a new one.

The start of the Franciscans

Up to this point, Francis still believed that God wanted him to literally repair churches, but in the following year he came to realize that his mission was one of repairing people's hearts—of fixing the church on the inside, in places that could not be seen. He began to model his life on that of Christ, as told in the Gospels from the New Testament; therefore he wandered the land, preaching, caring for the sick, and maintaining little in the way of material possessions.

At that time there were many wandering preachers, men who thundered about God's wrath, or the coming judgment of the world, or even about a particular leader who they claimed would be struck down by God. Francis's message was different: like Christ, he taught about God's love, and soon he attracted many followers.

St. Dominic

Not only was St. Dominic (c. 1170–1221) almost an exact contemporary of St. Francis, but he too established a mendicant order of friars—that is, preachers and teachers who lived on alms or donations. Unlike Francis, however, Dominic seems to have been a devout follower of Christ even from his early years as a boy in Spain.

In Spain at that time, the Christian north was locked in a struggle against the Muslim south. As a result of the war, famine broke out in the town of Palencia, where the teenaged Dominic was studying for the priesthood. He was enraged by the unwillingness of the wealthy to help the poor, and sold all his possessions to feed the hungry.

In his mid-twenties, Dominic became a priest in the town of Osma, and there began a lifelong friendship with the bishop Diego. The king of Castile (kas-TEEL), the dominant Christian region in Spain, sent the two men to Rome on a diplomatic mission, and on their way through southern France, they were astounded by the differences between that region and their homeland.

Because of the struggle with the Muslims, the Christians of Spain were serious about their faith, whereas in southern France the priests had given in to lives of pleasure. The most devoted believers seemed to be the heretics, or people who had adopted beliefs that went against established church teachings. Chief among the heretical groups were the Cathars, sometimes known as the Albigenses (albuh-JIN-seez).

The typical response of the church to heresy was condemnation and punishment, but Dominic took a different approach. Moved by what he saw as their misguided faith, he sought to reason with the Cathars, and persuade them of their errors. For some time, he made considerable progress in his efforts at conversion, but two occurences doomed his mission. First was the death of Diego, who he had depended upon in his efforts; then, in 1208, the murder of a church official in the area sparked the Albigensian Crusade, a "holy war" against the region. The result was slaughter and mayhem, and Dominic returned to Spain in disgust.

All was not lost, however: Dominic attracted a group of friars around him, and in 1215 was granted permission to start the Dominican Order. As with the Franciscans, the Dominicans included women, in separate orders of nuns. In the last six years of Dominic's life, the order spread throughout Europe; and in the 1500s, Spanish exploration spread the Dominican influence to East Asia and the Americas.

In time, there were people who not only wanted to hear his message, but many who sought to live as Francis did. Thus was born the Franciscan order, a group of friars (preachers and teachers). In order to establish this order, however, Francis had to get the pope's approval, and at first Innocent refused. After meeting with Francis, however, the pope himself had a strange dream.

In it, he saw the Church of St. John Lateran, the principal church in Rome, start to tilt over and fall; then suddenly a man in rags—who Innocent recognized as Francis—caught it and saved it. The pope approved the establishment of the Franciscan order, and in 1223 he authorized it as a Rule, a group under which other orders were established.

An inclusive message

As was the case with St. Dominic (see box), the order established by Francis had a place for women. An early follower was Clare of Assisi, member of a noble family, who ran away from home with her cousin Pacifica. They went to Francis, who cut off their hair and gave them clothes of rough material, a symbol that they renounced the things of the world. Joined later by Clare's younger sister Agnes, the three nuns developed an order known as the "Poor Clares."

Clearly Francis's message was one that included rather than excluded people. Although stories about him preaching to the animals are almost certainly legendary, they help to symbolize the fact that he believed God's love was for everyone. He even tried to travel to the Holy Land and to Morocco, where Christians were engaged in crusades against Muslims, in hopes of ending the fighting. This was a rare viewpoint for his time, when most Christians in Western Europe regarded such "holy wars" as service to God. Unfortunately, Francis's health and other problems prevented him from making those journeys.

In his latter years, Francis saw the order he had established grow in numbers, but it lost something in its growth. Francis had intended his group to be small, composed of men and women willing to undergo the utmost in hardship; but as the movement grew, its standards were lowered to accommodate more people.

A legendary figure

Seeking to separate himself from the hustle and bustle of the world, Francis went on a pilgrimage to the mountain of La Verda, north of Assisi. It was there, according to legend, that he received the stigmata—nail marks on his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. The stigmata was a phenomenon said to occur to the most devout, and the wounds exactly replicated those Christ had suffered during his crucifixion.

Poor health brought an early end to Francis's life, at the age of forty-four. Another tale about him held that in death, his body was renewed: his skin became white, and his face lost all signs of aging, while the wounds of Christ turned black. Whatever the truth of these claims, they attested to the legendary status he had already acquired within his lifetime. Just two years after his death—an extremely short interval— he was canonized, or declared a saint.

For More Information

Books

Bunson, Margaret and Matthew. St. Francis of Assisi. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992.

Mayo, Margaret. Brother Sun, Sister Moon: The Life and Stories of St. Francis. Illustrated by Peter Malone. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000.

Wildsmith, Brian. Saint Francis. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Motion Pictures

Francis of Assisi. Twentieth Century Fox, 1961.

Web Sites

"St. Dominic and His Life." [Online] Available http://www.op.org/domcentral/trad/stdom.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"St. Francis of Assisi." [Online] Available http://www.cyberenet.net/~kelta/stfrancis.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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