Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
October 3, 1226
Founder of the Franciscan Order
"Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor, Of You Most High, he bears the likeness."
—Francis of Assisi, "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon of St. Francis of Assisi." Catholic Online. http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/prayers.php?section_id=41&name=Saint%20Prayers.
An Italian of the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans, an important religious order (group) that bears his name. Untrained and not even a priest when he set out on his itinerant (wandering) preaching in the early thirteenth century, Francis wanted to reform the church and bring it more in line with the needs of the common people. Born to a rich family, he gave up his personal wealth and formed a small group of followers who lived a simple lifestyle and preached about nature and the birds and animals of the forest as if they communicated with them. In 1210 Francis and his followers gained the approval and recognition of the pope, Innocent III (see entry).
Francis wanted to take his message of love and peace to the Islamic world, preaching to the Moors, or North African Muslims living in Spain. He also attempted to make a truce between battling Christians and Muslims during the Fifth Crusade (1218–21), crossing enemy lines to speak with the leader of the Egyptian forces, Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil (see entry). Although he did not convert to Christianity, the sultan was impressed with Francis's honesty and devotion and allowed him to return unharmed to the Crusader camp. Francis was loved by many, but he also was feared by those who were suspicious of his emphasis on simplicity. In 1126, only two years after his death, Francis of Assisi was canonized, or made a saint of the Catholic Church.
Five Pillars of Islam
Francis of Assisi tried to convert Sultan al-Kamil to Christianity, but the sultan was also interested in converting the Christian to his religion of Islam. In fact, during the Crusades, one way for prisoners to escape death was to convert to the religion of their captor. The basic tenets, or principles, of Islam—called the Five Pillars of Islam—are organized in five groups.
First, a Muslim must make a shahadah, a statement of belief in Allah, the Muslim God, and in Muhammad, as the prophet of Allah. Second are the salah, the prayers that a faithful Muslim recites five times a day. Since there are no priests in the Islamic religion, these prayers form a direct link between the believer and Allah. Prayers are said at dawn, midday, late afternoon, sunset, and nightfall, thus setting the rhythm for the entire day. Recited in Arabic, these prayers are chosen from the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, known in English as the Koran. A typical prayer goes:
God is Great. God is Great. God is Great. God is Great. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Come to prayer! Come to prayer! Come to success! Come to success! God is Great! God is Great! There is none worthy of worship except God.
The third concept is the zakah, which means "purification" or "growth." This is a donation of a part of one's income to charity in order to teach that wealth is not the most important thing in life. The fourth tenet is sawm, or fasting, which involves eating nothing between sunset and sunrise during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The fifth and final pillar is the hajj, a pilgrimage, or spiritual journey, to the Muslim holy city of Mecca for those who are physically able to do so. More than two million Muslims make this pilgrimage each year.
Ironically, many of these same beliefs—praying, fasting, and giving away part of one's wealth—were exactly what Saint Francis was preaching. The Christians and Muslims who fought each other during the Crusades had (and still have) much in common in terms of the basic beliefs of their separate religions.
From Riches to Rags
Francis of Assisi's life turned the romantic "rags to riches" tale on its head. Born Giovanni Bernardone, Francis gave up his family fortune to serve what he saw as the will of God. Still, he achieved more than riches in his lifetime; his fame spread far and wide, and he remains one of the best-known and best-loved saints of the Catholic Church, inspiring hundreds of books and several motion pictures. His father, Pietro Bernardone, was among the richest men in the city of Assisi, located in central Italy, where Giovanni was born in 1182. The father, a cloth merchant, was traveling on business in France when his first son was born, and he did not much care for the name his wife had chosen for their son, after the biblical John the Baptist. Pietro wanted a practical child who would follow him into business, not someone who might go into the church. He gave his son the nickname "Francesco" ("Francis" in English), a reminder of Pietro's trip to France at the time of the boy's birth.
Being the first son, Francis was spoiled by his parents. He was more interested in having a good time than in studying. His father taught him French, which was the international language of business at the time, and it is thought that Francis also traveled with his father on business trips to other countries. In addition, the young boy learned Latin, which was the language of the universities and the church. Francis, however, was never a good writer; as an adult he would dictate letters for others to write down and then sign them with a cross. A happy youth, he had many friends and gathered around him a similarly fun-loving crowd—mostly nobles and children of the wealthy—that enjoyed a good party and singing. By day he worked in his father's cloth store and proved to be a good salesman. Francis also had dreams of becoming a knight, or professional soldier, riding a fine horse and being elevated to the ranks of the nobility, for though his family was wealthy, it was not aristocratic. Perhaps in war he could prove himself. He dreamed of becoming "Sir Francis."
He had his chance for military glory in 1202, when Assisi and its rival city, Perugia, went to war. That year Francis fought at the Battle of Ponte San Giovanni and was taken prisoner. He was lucky to survive, since most of the force from Assisi had been wiped out in the battle. He was thrown in prison, not with the common foot soldiers but rather with nobles who had been captured. Still, his imprisonment was not an easy one, for he was chained to a dungeon wall for a year. In 1203 his freedom was finally bought, and he returned to his home in Assisi, where he fell ill for many weeks. When he finally recovered, he had not lost his desire to become a knight.
Next, he took up his sword in the service of Pope Innocent III, who was battling the princes of Germany over the successor to the throne of the German kingdom, or the Holy Roman Empire, as this loose association of German states was called. The leader of that empire thought of himself as the leader of Europe, but the pope also saw himself in that role. This rivalry always caused conflict, and now Francis was going to take part in it too.
A Dream Changes Francis's Life
Francis had been away from Assisi for only one day when he had a dream that changed the direction of his life. While staying at an inn in the town of Spoleto, he dreamed that God told him that the military life was not the way for him to live the good life. Instead of serving a military commander, he should serve the Lord. Francis returned to Assisi in a state of confusion. Unsure what to do, he began visiting the churches of the city and praying. In 1206 he again heard the voice of God telling him to repair a small church in Assisi, which he did, seeing it as his new mission in life. He took money from his father's business to repair the church. His father was angered and took his son before the bishop, or regional church official, demanding that Francis return the money, which he did. Then he also took off all the clothes his father had given him, leaving on only a simple shirt. Francis said he now had only one father—namely, God.
Francis took a vow, or promise, of poverty and began begging for food and shelter. This was at first amusing to the citizens of Assisi and embarrassing for his wealthy father, but Francis was convinced that this was what God had planned for him. While he continued to repair old churches, the meaning of the message he had received suddenly became clear to him during Mass (Catholic church service) one day. God did not mean for him to rebuild churches with stone and mortar but to reform the institution of the church by preaching the truth of Jesus and caring for the sick. Francis followed the exact words of the Bible and went out to spread the word of God and Jesus Christ in a simple, direct manner. He did not threaten the common people with damnation or a miserable after life in hell, nor did he criticize the wealth of powerful Catholic officials. His was a simple message announcing the joy one could find in Christianity if only one had faith. Soon followers came to Francis, and he formed a small group of the faithful, who called themselves Franciscans.
Francis had never been to a university or studied theology (religious faith and practice). He simply found his calling by preaching to the common people. However, he also wanted official recognition for his group. Tradition has it that in 1210 Francis took matters into his own hands and traveled to Rome to request an audience, or formal visit, with the pope. When Francis came before Innocent III he was almost thrown out because he looked like a tramp. The pope listened to him and then sent him away. That night the pope dreamed of a little man in rags, like Francis, who saved his church from collapsing. The next day Innocent III sent for Francis and gave him official permission to preach. Francis's example encouraged others not only to join his Franciscan order but to begin new ones as well. From Assisi came another child of the wealthy who decided to give up riches in exchange for a life devoted to the church. This religious follower was a young woman named Clare, whom Francis met and inspired. She ultimately went on to form the women's order of the Poor Clares.
Taking the Message to the "Heathens"
As membership in his new order spread throughout Italy—including the towns of Perugia, Pisa, and Florence—Francis decided that he wanted to deliver his message to the larger world, to preach the Bible to the Muslims. In 1212 he set sail for the Holy Land, but when his ship encountered bad weather, he had to return to Italy. In 1214 he set off for Spain to preach to the Muslim Moors who lived there. Again he was unsuccessful, for illness made him cut short his journey and return to Italy. Finally, during the Fifth Crusade, he found an opportunity to spread his message of peace and harmony.
In 1219 the Crusader forces were trying to attack Muslim strongholds in Egypt. It was thought that if they could first destroy the power of Islam in that region, they could move on to the Holy Land in Palestine and liberate Jerusalem, considered a holy city in Christianity. The two armies were fighting over control of the city of Damietta, which was located at the mouth of the Nile River and blocked access to the upriver journey to Cairo, the Crusaders' ultimate target. However, the city of Damietta held off the Crusaders, who were being led by the pope's aide, Pelagius. Al-Kamil, the Egyptian sultan, or leader, and his forces were battling the Crusaders from outside the city walls at their own camp.
For more than a year the two sides fought, with men dying on both sides. In August 1219 Francis arrived in the Crusader camp. As James M. Powell has noted in his Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213–1221, Francis "came not to cheer on the discouraged Christian army or to fight the heathen [people who do not acknowledge God and the Bible], but on a mission of peace." Francis had a vision announcing the defeat of the Crusaders at an upcoming battle. In his sermon to the troops he predicted this defeat. On August 29 Francis's vision came true, for the Crusaders were drawn into a trap and suffered heavy losses. Sultan al-Kamil proposed a truce following this defeat, and it was then that Francis saw his opportunity to speak with the Muslims.
Francis was mistaken for a messenger sent from the Crusaders to respond to the proposed truce. He was taken to the sultan and attempted to preach the truth of Christianity to him. The sultan brought into his tent his own religious advisers, who urged him to kill Francis. Al-Kamil, impressed by Francis's honesty and bravery, instead showered him with gifts and sent him safely back to the Crusader camp. Francis had attempted to achieve the final goal of the Crusades—freeing the Holy Land from Muslim control—by converting the Muslims rather than by defeating them in battle. As Powell has noted, this was the beginning "of the long-term commitment of the Franciscan order to missions among the Moslems, and especially to the custody of the Holy Places."
Francis Returns to Italy
Francis's last years were spent in Italy, where his order by that time included thousands of new followers. Earlier, his personality had held the members together, but they now needed rules to live by. Francis insisted that the primary rule of the order be to live in poverty. He did not want to eliminate poverty but instead to make it holy. The houses of the order had to be plain, and friars, as the members were called, were to wear only a robe tied with a cord. If it was really cold, then shoes were permitted. In 1223 he presented the new rule of the order to Honorius III, the pope in Rome; in fact, some of the emphasis on simplicity was left out of the document the pope approved. The new members of the Franciscan order wanted to adopt a more intellectual approach to their work. In the future the Franciscans would become less known as happy friars wandering the countryside and preaching God's love than as an order associated with learning, whose members became teachers at the great universities of the Middle Ages.
Francis, however, was determined to continue living the simple life and returned to Assisi, where he spent more and more time alone and in prayer. While praying at a mountain chapel north of the city, it is said that he showed signs of the stigmata, the wounds that Christ suffered on the cross. His hands, feet, and side began to bleed in the exact places where nails and a soldier's spear had pierced Christ's body during the Crucifixion, or death on the cross. Francis was marked by these wounds for the rest of his life. Some modern historians say that these wounds may have been signs of leprosy, a disfiguring skin disease, for Francis had worked closely with lepers and other people with diseases throughout his life.
Francis's health was failing. Although he was only in his forties, his life of poverty and serving others had taken its toll. He died in 1226 and was buried in Assisi. Following his death the legend of Francis continued to grow, and he was made a saint in 1228. Assisi still attracts large numbers of tourists who want to see the home of this famous saint, known for his fondness for life and nature and for his devotion to a simple life of peace and love. Francis was the first Christian to carry this message to the Holy Land as a possible alternative to the violence of the Crusades.
For More Information
Bishop, Morris. Saint Francis of Assisi. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.
Green, Julien. God's Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.
House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life. Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2001.
Powell, James M. Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213–1221. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
Spoto, Donald. Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi. New York: Viking Compass, 2002.
"Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon of St. Francis of Assisi." Catholic Online.http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/prayers.php?section_id=41&name=Saint%20Prayers (accessed on July 21, 2004).
"Fifth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies.http://the-orb.net/textbooks/crusade/fifthcru.html (accessed on July 21, 2004).
"St. Francis of Assisi." Catholic Online.http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50 (accessed on July 21, 2004).
"St. Francis of Assisi." New Advent.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm (accessed on July 21, 2004).
"The Testament of St. Francis." Internet Medieval Sourcebook.http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-test.html (accessed on July 21, 2004).
Francis of Assisi
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
FRANCIS OF ASSISI (Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, 1181/2–1226) was a Christian saint and the founder of the Franciscans. John was Francis's baptismal name, but a fondness for France on the part of his merchant father and an acknowledgment of the national origin of his mother prompted the parents to call him Francis. Endowed with a jovial disposition and the means to pamper it, Francis enjoyed the good life of his times; this life was, however, interrupted when his hometown warred with neighboring Perugia. Inducted, imprisoned, and then released, Francis returned home with his military ambitions dampened. A business career with his father held no attraction.
Francis's conversion was the culmination of a period of prayerful reflection in a local grotto, an encounter with a leper, an invitation from God to repair Assisi's abandoned chapel of San Damiano, and Francis's study of Matthew 10, which imparted to him a sense of irreversible dedication to the kingdom of God. Within a few months (by April 1208) others asked to share his life, and thus a brotherhood was born.
In 1209 Francis journeyed to Rome to seek papal approval for the brotherhood. After some hesitation, Innocent III gave verbal assent to the rule authored by Francis, who then returned to Assisi and remained at the chapel of the Portiuncula; from there the brothers, two by two, preached gospel renewal. Intent on extending this preaching, Francis departed for Syria, but bad weather hampered the venture. Later a more successful journey took him to meet the sultan in Damietta. In 1212 Francis offered the religious habit to the young noblewoman Clare, and quickly other young women from Assisi sought to share her way of life at San Damiano, forming the order known as the Poor Clares. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council promulgated reforms championed in his preaching.
In 1220 Francis resigned his post as head of the Franciscans. Still, with more than five thousand brothers, his involvement continued. After reworking his rule, Francis submitted it to Pope Honorius III in 1223, and it received written approval. That same year Francis presented a living Christmas crèche at Greccio, which encouraged the popularity of that custom in subsequent centuries. At Alverna he received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ crucified), thereby reflecting outwardly that which he interiorly imitated.
Though suffering serious illness in his last years, Francis composed his intensely joyful "Canticle of Brother Sun." The closing strophe addresses "Sister Death," whom he welcomed on October 3, 1226. Within two years Francis was proclaimed a saint. In 1939 he was officially offered to Italy as its patron; in 1979 he was recognized by Pope John Paul II as the patron saint of ecology.
As Francis's brotherhood increased in size, his work encompassed the nurturing of followers including the Poor Clares and the Secular Franciscans (laymen and -women who wished to follow Francis). Franciscans were not committed to one particular work but engaged in whatever labors their travel and presence brought them. Francis's work and thought indicate a living, ecclesial faith that seeks to be for and with the poor.
Central to every aspect of his life was Francis's experience of the trinitarian God. He wanted to reveal the Father to all by imitating the Son through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Like his Lord, he was eager to make his way back to the Father and to summon all creation to accompany him on that painful but peaceful journey. An adult innocence aided him in transcending the spirit-matter dichotomy, making him a sublime example of both the spirituality of matter and the materialization of spirit.
Francis embraced voluntary poverty because he wanted to imitate his Lord, who had made himself poor (2 Cor. 8:9). In this poverty Francis found a freedom that fostered fraternity. The poor, in their more evident dependence on God, reminded Francis of the mystery of divine sympathy and of each creature's intrinsic poverty. In the spirit of poverty he urged his brothers to renounce their desire to dominate, and though called to minister to all, to favor labor among the lepers and farmhands.
Aware that the Roman Catholic church was capable of taming the gospel, Francis persisted in the belief that Christ was to be found in this institution, especially in the Eucharist. He sought a cardinal protector for the Franciscan order and acknowledged the pontiff to be the final arbiter in spiritual matters. Although Francis's relations with the Curia Romana may have weakened his project, the majority of scholars submit that his relation to the hierarchy was loyal, challenging, and constructive.
Movements for peace and for the marginalized have in Francis a ready patron. He sent his brothers out, not against but among the Saracens, and he required that all his followers (lay included) not bear arms. His pursuit of Lady Poverty inspires those of every age who seek simplicity. His fondness for animals and nature has deepened humanity's understanding of the interrelatedness of all creation grounded in a creator whose richness it reflects.
Francis managed to steer a course that avoided the excesses of feudal authority and of the bourgeois pursuit of money. In his rule he taught his followers to use only that which was needed, to own nothing, and to renounce any desire to dominate; he insisted that authority for the minores (those who wished to lead a biblically inspired simple life) meant fraternal service. The church, although initially cautious, soon adopted some of his insights for its own apostolic strategy; between 1218 and 1226 six papal bulls were issued relating to aspects of his vision. The Holy See recognized that the manner of his preaching touched the lives of the people; it also gave the vernacular a new respectability and provided themes for artists such as Cimabue and Giotto. Though no intellectual, Francis's emphasis on humanity inspired the deeply incarnational systems of Bonaventure and of Duns Scotus.
Francis's legacy to the Christian tradition was a revitalized gospel that clearly perceived many forms of brotherhood: with superiors—once, having been denied by a bishop the right to preach in his diocese, Francis exited, paused, reentered, and resubmitted his petition successfully; with strangers—in his rule of 1221 he calls for a simple, nonpolemical style of missionary presence; with the underclass—when a brother asked if it were proper to feed some robbers, he responded affirmatively, for in every person he saw a possible thief and in every thief a possible brother or sister; with nature—he urged his brothers when establishing the boundaries of their shelters not to build walls but to plant hedges. The movement founded by Francis offered the church a new form of gospel commitment. It combined a contemplative life with an apostolic work that was mobile, diverse, and urban. Although it was a consecrated life, it was not removed from daily concerns.
Kajetan Esser, the scholar most responsible for the critical texts of Francis's writings, discusses 181 manuscripts in his Opuscula Sancti Francisci Assisiensis (Rome, 1978) and his Rule and Testament of St. Francis (Chicago, 1977). The excellent Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York, 1982), edited by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius Brady, offers a list for the first time in English of Francis's authentic writings (twenty-eight in all) and inauthentic writings (including the popular "Peace Prayer"). The most practical single volume for primary sources remains St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, English Omnibus of the Sources (Chicago, 1973), edited by Marion A. Habig. It includes lives of Francis by Celano and by Bonaventure, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (a treasure of fourteenth-century popular literature), and an extensive bibliography, though not always reliably translated. Classic biographies include Omer Englebert's astute Saint Francis of Assisi (Chicago, 1965), and Father Cuthbert of Brighton's accurate Life of St. Francis of Assisi (London, 1912). Paul Sabatier's Life of St. Francis of Assisi (London, 1894) is provocative. Of the more than sixty modern biographies, G. K. Chesterton in St. Francis of Assisi (London, 1923) captures his heart and Nikos Kazantzakis in Saint Francis: A Novel (New York, 1962) presents a poet. A former mayor of Assisi, Arnaldo Fortini, in his Francis of Assisi (New York, 1981), offers an invaluable historical appendix. Anglican bishop J. R. H. Moorman presents, in his new edition of Saint Francis of Assisi (London, 1976), a precise historical life. Leonardo Boff characterizes Francis, in Saint Francis (New York, 1982), as a model for human liberation.
Raymond J. Bucher (1987)
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
Born: c. 1182
Assisi, Umbria, Italy
Died: October 1226
Assisi, Umbria, Italy
Italian religious leader
The Italian religious leader St. Francis of Assisi founded the religious order known as the Franciscans. He became renowned for his love, simplicity, and practice of poverty.
Francis was born Giovanni di Bernardore, but because his father called him Francis, so did everyone else. He was baptized shortly after his birth in the town of Assisi in central Italy in 1182. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a successful cloth merchant, and Francis grew up with a love of fine clothes and good times. He led the other young men of the town in enjoying good food and drink, singing, and dancing. He was educated in math, poetry, and music and learned to read and write while attending a school that was part of the Church of Saint Giorgio of Assisi. Francis was expected to become a cloth merchant like his father and did not plan to attend college.
Francis joined the forces from Assisi in their fight against Perugia, another town in Italy. When he was twenty, he was taken prisoner. A year later, sobered by jail and sickness, he underwent several religious experiences in quick succession. In one of these, while he was praying in the run-down chapel of Saint Damiano outside Assisi, he heard a voice from the crucifix telling him, "Francis, go repair my house, which is falling in ruins." Francis went quickly back to the city, sold his horse and some cloth from his father's shop, and came back to give the money to the priest at Saint Damiano.
Francis's father, furious that his son wasted his money on churches and beggars, took him before the bishop to bring him to his senses. When the hearing began, Francis calmly took off all of his clothes, gave them to his father (the astonished bishop quickly covered Francis with a cloak), and said that he was now recognizing only his Father in heaven, not his father on earth. He lived his life from this time on without money and without family ties.
The thirteenth century was a time of troubadours, or poet-musicians, and Francis had the best of their characteristics. He was happy, he sang, he loved nature; he spoke to the birds and the animals as though they were his friends. In his "Canticle of Creatures," also called "Canticle of the Sun" (a canticle is a religious song), he wrote about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Once he was heard to beg pardon of his own body for its sins. Francis referred to his way of life as his marriage to Lady Poverty.
The thirteenth century was also a time when the Christian religion was taken very much for granted, and Francis felt the need to return to the original spirit of Christ. This meant living without materialistic attachments, and it also meant loving other people. A number of the young men of Assisi, attracted by Francis's example, joined him in his new way of life. In 1209 Francis and his companions went to Rome, Italy, where they presented their ideas to Pope Innocent III (c. 1160–c. 1216; the pope is the head of the Catholic Church) and received his approval. They found themselves influencing more and more people, including a lady named Clare, whom Francis helped to enter a monastery of nuns and who later began the "second order" of Franciscans, the order for women.
In 1212 Francis left for the Holy Land, or Palestine (the land in the Middle East where Christ had lived). His ship ran into bad weather, and he had to return to Italy. Two years later his adventurous spirit and missionary zeal drove him to seek the Moors, who were Muslim, in Spain, but sickness prevented him from completing the trip. He tried once more, in 1219, going to Egypt with the Crusaders (religious warriors who attempted to take control of the Holy Land). At the siege of the city of Damietta in Egypt, Francis boldly walked through the battle lines into the enemy camp and met the king of Egypt, who, apparently impressed with Francis's ideas about brotherly love, gave him permission to continue on to the Holy Land.
When Francis heard that trouble had started in Italy among some of his followers, now numbering in the thousands, he returned home. The force of his own personality had held the group together, but now Francis saw the need for a more practical guide to his kind of Christian life. He insisted that the new rule stress the poverty he felt was so important: the order could not possess money; all its houses must be simply furnished; and each Franciscan could have only a tunic and cord (Francis himself wore an old sack tied at the waist), a pair of pants, and, if really necessary, a pair of shoes. Francis went to Rome in 1223 to present the new rule to Pope Honorius III, who approved it wholeheartedly. It was during this visit that, according to tradition, Francis met Dominic, who had founded his own religious order. The Franciscan and Dominican religious orders have always felt a close relationship that dates back to the friendship between their founders.
A religious vision
Francis returned to Assisi and began to spend more and more time alone in prayer, leaving the decisions about his organization to others. While he was praying on Mt. Alvernia in 1224, he had a vision of a figure that looked like an angel, and when the vision disappeared Francis felt the wounds of the crucified Christ in his hands, side, and feet. He was careful not to show them, but several close friends reported after his death that Francis had suffered in his body as Christ had suffered on the cross. His last two years were lived in almost constant pain and near-blindness. He died in 1226. Two years later he was made a saint.
For More Information
Homan, Helen. Francis and Clare, Saints of Assisi. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1956.
House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi. New York: HiddenSpring, 2001.
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
Friar and preacher
His Conversion. One of the most striking embodiments of evangelical revival in the Middle Ages is Francis of Assisi. In his youth, Francis experienced a radical upheaval in his values and assumptions about life. In his Testament (1226), he attributes this change to his attitude toward lepers: “When I was still in the world, it was too bitter for me to see lepers; after the Lord granted me to show mercy to lepers, that which had first seemed bitter to me now changed into sweetness of the soul and of the body and a little while later I went out of the world.” The reason for Francis’s conversion, then, was not so much poverty, for love of which he later became famous, as the awareness of human suffering and its importance as a means of union between the Christian and Christ. With this discovery Francis acquired a new sense of what it meant to live a Christian life.
Love of Poverty. Francis’s renunciation of the world reached its height when his father brought him before an ecclesiastical court, suing for the return of goods Francis had sold without his permission and seeking to cut off his son’s inheritance. This episode has been connected to Francis’s discovery that poverty was a liberating experience that releases one from all servitude and connects one to the great mass of the poor. Francis did not preach rebellion to the poor, nor did he attack the lifestyle of the clergy; he spoke exclusively of the need to imitate Christ. He soon found a large number of followers who wished to join in the task of living out the Gospel joyfully, without property or stable institutions, relying on begging and occasional work for their support.
The Franciscan Order. With papal approval, Francis and his followers began to preach in a manner that was not primarily theological, but exhortative and penitential. Francis’s preaching was not intended to educate people. His hearers were frequently fascinated by him and decided to join his order. From Francis’s own lifetime, the Franciscan experience was also open to women, even if they were not able, in the social conditions of the time, to enjoy the same freedom to roam about as the friars. Inspired by Francis, Clare of Assisi founded a group of women who lived the religious life and came to be known as the Poor Clares, and took up the work of relieving human suffering by assistance to the poor and the sick. In Francis’s time, the Franciscans also became associated with groups of pious laypeople interested in imitating their life. These laypeople, who soon acquired a formal connection with the order, became members of hundreds of Franciscan confraternities throughout Europe, which assisted the practical existence of the order and served as important centers of Franciscan piety and devotion. The success of these confraternities was not always well received by the secular clergy, who saw their reputation weakened by the new orders, as it had been in earlier centuries by popular admiration for monks and other ascetics. Despite this degree of clerical opposition, the new orders were phenomenally successful, responding as they did to the restlessness of urban society and its search for a more intimate and sustaining spirituality. These same needs made for the success of other mendicant orders founded after the Franciscans and Dominicans, such as the Carmelites and the Friar-Hermits of St. Augustine.
The Canticle of the Sun. (Francis’s last years were afflicted by illness as well as by misunderstandings and difficulties with his brethren within the order. In the midst of these difficulties, however, Francis’s joy, which later generations would see as his trademark, emerged. His poverty and renunciation of all that might ease his suffering never stopped him from feeling that life was a precious good because it was the manifestation and gift of the supreme goodness of God. This goodness, he believed, did not touch humankind alone, but was expressed in the beauty of nature, through which God makes himself known to men. For this reason, in the midst of his last sufferings Francis produced his Canticle of the Sun (1225). The poem, which was composed in the vernacular, served lay brothers in the order as his Latin Testament served for the clerical members; his unlettered brothers and those who had heard and seen him preach throughout Italy found in this poem the exaltation of God through his creatures. In the conclusion of the poem, Francis wrote of the two supreme goods of men, peace of the heart and holiness before God. The canticle is a message that, beginning with the universe, concludes with man as the only being who can appreciate God’s work in the universe and in man’s own heart; most dramatically, God’s work is seen even in death, which according to Francis ought to cause fear and trembling only in those who, although endowed with eyes, have not been able to see God and who, having allowed themselves to be fascinated by deceitful appearances, are unable to elevate themselves to the eternal beauty of the Creator in his creation.
Stigmata and Canonization. Francis’s ideals had a powerful influence among all those who met and heard him. The most striking revelation took place at his death, when his body is said to have manifested the stigmata (wounds of Christ in the hands, feet, and side). Immediately after this miracle, the view of Francis as a second Christ and a renewer of Christ on earth became fixed among believers. Only two years after his death, in 1228, Gregory IX, who had been protector of the Franciscan order and a friend to Francis, proclaimed him a saint.
His Legacy. Francis left to his order the mission to live and work among the masses. The forms of piety developed and fostered by Francis reflect this mission. For example, he is said to be the inventor of the Christmas manger, an expedient intended to reveal to the simple faithful the human reality of Christ. Likewise, it was under the influence of Francis and his order that the sufferings of the crucified Christ began to be depicted much more realistically. The Franciscans have always been present among the poor, not merely to provide pastoral care for them, but also to share their poverty. This witness to poverty made the Franciscans one of the most lively forces in the Church of the later Middle Ages.
Rosalind B. Brooke, The Coming of the Friars (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975).
Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi, Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translated by Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady (New York: Paulist Press, 1982).
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi
The Italian mystic St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) founded the religious order known as the Franciscans. He became renowned for his love, simplicity, and practice of poverty.
Because his father called him Francis, so did everyone else, although he was given the name Giovanni when he was baptized shortly after his birth in the town of Assisi in central Italy in 1182. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a successful cloth merchant, and Francis grew up with a love of fine clothes and good times. He led the other young men of the town in enjoying good food and drink, singing, and dancing.
When Francis was 20, he was taken prisoner in a war between Assisi and Perugia. A year later, sobered by jail and sickness, he underwent several religious experiences in quick succession. In one of these, while he was praying in the decrepit chapel of S. Damiano outside Assisi, he heard a voice from the crucifix telling him, "Francis, go repair my house, which is falling in ruins." Taking the words literally, Francis went quickly back to the city, sold his horse and some cloth from his father's shop, and came back to give the money to the priest at S. Damiano.
His father, furious at Francis' squandering money on churches and beggars, hauled him before the bishop to bring him to his senses. When the hearing began, Francis calmly took off all his clothes, gave them to his father (the astonished bishop quickly covered Francis with a cloak), and said that he was now recognizing only his Father in heaven, not his father on earth. His life from this time on was lived without money and family ties.
The 13th century was a time of troubadours, and Francis had their best characteristics. He was happy, he sang, he loved nature; he spoke to the birds and the animals as though they were his friends. In his "Canticle of Creatures" (also called "Canticle of the Sun") he wrote about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Once he was heard to beg pardon of his own body, which he called Brother Ass, for having weighed it down with penances. Francis referred to his way of life as his marriage to Lady Poverty.
The 13th century was also a time when the Christian religion was taken very much for granted, and Francis felt the need to return to the original spirit of Christ. This meant living in poverty, and it also meant loving other people. A number of the young men of Assisi, attracted by Francis' example, joined him in his new way of life. In 1209 Francis and his companions went to Rome, where they presented their ideas to Pope Innocent III and received his approval. They found themselves influencing more and more people, including a lady named Clare, whom Francis helped to enter a monastery of nuns and who later began the "second order" of Franciscans, the order for women.
In 1212 Francis left for the Holy Land. His ship ran into bad weather, and he had to return to Italy. Two years later his adventurous spirit and missionary zeal drove him to seek the Moors in Spain, but sickness prevented him from completing the trip. He tried once more, in 1219, going to Egypt with the Crusaders. At the siege of Damietta, Francis boldly walked through the battle lines into the camp of the Saracens and met the sultan of Egypt, who, apparently impressed with Francis' ideas about brotherly love, gave him permission to continue on to the Holy Land.
When Francis heard that trouble had started in Italy among some of his followers, now numbered in the thousands, he returned home. The group had been held together by the force of his own personality, but now Francis saw the need for a more practical guide to his kind of Christian life. He insisted that the new rule stress the poverty he felt was so important: the order could not possess money; all its houses must be simply furnished; and each friar could have only a tunic and cord (Francis himself wore an old sack tied at the waist), a pair of breeches, and, if really necessary, a pair of shoes. Francis went to Rome in 1223 to present the new rule to Pope Honorius III, who approved it wholeheartedly. It was during this visit that, according to tradition, Francis met Dominic. The Franciscan and Dominican religious orders have always felt a close relationship that dates back to the friendship between their founders.
Francis returned to Assisi and began to spend more and more time alone, in prayer, leaving the decisions about his organization to others. While he was praying on Mt. Alvernia in 1224, he had a vision of an angelic figure, and when the vision disappeared Francis felt the wounds of Christ's stigmata in his hands, side, and feet. He was careful not to show them, but several close friends reported after his death that Francis had suffered in his body as Christ had suffered on the cross. His last 2 years were lived in almost constant pain and near-blindness. He died in 1226, and 2 years later he was canonized a saint.
Among the many biographies of St. Francis, Paul Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1894), remains a classic. G. K. Chesterton's excellent St. Francis of Assisi (1923) captures the spirit and style of the saint. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (trans. 1887; new ed. 1958) is a collection of refreshing legends and stories about St. Francis written shortly after his death. □
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
Founder of the Franciscan Order
The Simple Garb of the Friar.
Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 and early in life experienced a mystical conversion to a life of poverty, itinerant preaching, and aid to the poor and disenfranchised. Like-minded persons soon gathered to him and by 1209 had formed what was to be the Franciscan Order of Friars or Friars Minor. Authorized by Pope Innocent III as a group of public preachers, they came together for their first general chapter in 1217. A Rule, that is, a guide to the organization and behavior of the order's adherents, was created in 1221 and officially approved for the Order of Friars Minor by Pope Honorius III in 1223. The rule stressed qualities that Francis saw in the apostolic form of Christianity illustrated by the lives and deeds of Jesus and his disciples. One element distinguishing the Friars Minor from the other mendicant or "begging" orders like the Dominicans, Augustinians, and Carmelites was Francis' insistence on absolute personal and corporate poverty. Franciscans were to live by begging or manual labor, reside in simple surroundings, and, most important, own no money or property. This was reemphasized at his death in 1226 in his Testament, a last work which again stressed that Franciscan friars were to own nothing, either as individuals or as a group. This issue of extreme apostolic poverty eventually led to divisions within the church, and a bull (the most solemn and weighty form of papal letter) of 1230 by Gregory IX implicitly favored wealth within the church and seemed to allow the order to own some simple property. This position was supported by the faction of "Conventuals" under the leadership of Bonaventure, who, in writing a "life" of Francis, defended the ownership of property such as the highly ornamented priestly garments known as vestments. Against the Conventuals was the Spiritual party, particularly associated with the name of Peter John Olivi (1248–1298) who argued against any type of possession and for an intense apocalyptic spirituality with a focus on the "use" of material goods, such as books, religious ornaments, and clothing, in only the most basic and necessary form. The garb of the Friars Minor, with its simple robe, rope belt, and sandals, was often depicted in medieval art and established a symbolic standard for simplicity of dress.
Richard Howlett, ed., Monumenta Franciscana (London: 1882; reprint, Wiesbaden, Germany: Kraus Reprint Co., 1965). Contains a fifteenth-century Middle English translation of the second Rule of St. Francis found in British Library MS Cotton Faustina D. IV, 2:67.
Malcolm D. Lambert, Franciscan Poverty: The Doctrine of the Absolute Poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan Order 1210–1323 (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1961).
A. G. Little, Franciscan History and Legend in Medieval Art (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1937).
John A. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988).
Francis, St, of Assisi
The appeal of Francis remains vast, sustained by a large body of hagiographical works, among which the Italian Little Flowers of St Francis (c.1375), a partial translation of a Latin work of c.1325 by Ugolino of Monte Giorgio, is especially popular, although unreliable for historical detail.