Francis of Assisi, St.
FRANCIS OF ASSISI, ST.
Founder of the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Saint Clare, and the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. b. Assisi, c. 1182; d. there, Oct. 3, 1226.
His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a textile merchant; his mother was named Pica. He was baptized John, but was called Francesco, that is, Francis. Having received the usual liberal arts education of the period, he knew Latin and possessed some knowledge of French. His wealth and love of life made him a flamboyant leader of Assisi's youth. In the feuding between Assisi and Perugia he was imprisoned (1202–03). Afterwards, a debilitating illness brought him to a realistic awareness of his strengths and weaknesses. In 1205 he dreamt about joining a campaign against Apulia, but after a dream promising him glory, he changed his plans and at Spoleto returned to Assisi. Soon after, he met a leper and began a life of continuous conversion. A short while later, he entered the abandoned church of San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi where he heard a voice from the cross calling him to rebuild the house of God. Taking his inheritance he used the money to fulfill the mandate, severed relations with his father, and dramatically and publicly renounced dependence on his father, Pietro. After hearing the missionary discourse in the Gospel of Matthew 10: 5–14 on Feb. 24, 1209, he embraced poverty and gave his life to preaching penance and peace.
Early Days of the Order. He began attracting followers and when there were a dozen, Francis drew up a form of life consisting of Gospel passages and some practical norms of living. Francis and his brothers presented the document to Pope Innocent III who approved it orally in 1209 or 1210. They then returned to the chapel of Our Lady of the Portiuncula (Santa Maria degli Angeli) in the valley below Assisi. Clare was invested there March 18–19, 1212 into a new way of life and thus the Second Order was founded. The preaching of Francis and his brothers initiated in Italy a strong penitential movement, which spread elsewhere among the laity, and later developed into the Third Order.
To reactivate the Church's mission to spread the Gospel Francis attempted a journey to Syria in 1212, but was shipwrecked in Dalmatia. A second journey to Morocco was thwarted by his illness in Spain (1213–14). Meanwhile, the order had expanded considerably. In 1217 the order was organized into provinces. In 1219 during the Fifth Crusade Francis traveled to the Middle East where he tried in vain, at Damietta, to convert the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Meanwhile during Francis's absence from Italy there arose internal difficulties among the brothers that clearly showed how much the legally unstable order depended upon the personality of its founder.
After his return to Italy in 1220, Francis requested the pope to name as cardinal-protector Cardinal Hugolino, a man who later, as Pope Gregory IX, played an important role in the formation of the order. In the same year Francis, who remained minister general until his death, accepted Peter Cathanii as his vicar. The rule, which had developed until that time without much direction, was revised and promulgated in 1221 at the Chapter of the Mats in Assisi, with 3,000 friars in attendance. Caesar of Speyer incorporated the related Scripture passages into this, the earliest extant rule (regula non bullata ). After the death of Peter Cathanii in 1221, Francis independently appointed Brother Elias of Cortona as vicar-general. The demand for a stronger juridical structure in the order resulted in a definitive rule (regula bulata ), approved by Honorius III, Nov. 29, 1223.
Death and Afterlife. Francis devoted himself to the spiritual growth of his brothers by means of circular letters and admonitions. He traveled and preached throughout the countryside, but he repeatedly interrupted his activity to retreat to a solitary hermitage. On Dec. 25, 1223, at Greccio he organized the now famous crib ceremony in the description of which it becomes evident that he was a deacon. The date of his ordination to the diaconate is unknown. On the mountain of Alvernia (La Verna) he received the stigmata on Sept. 14, 1224 (the first documented stigmatization). Plagued during the last years of his life with blindness and serious illness, he died at S. Maria degii Angeli (Portiuncula), Assisi during the evening of Oct. 3, 1226. The next day he was buried in Assisi at the church of Saint George. Two years later on July 16, 1228 in Assisi, Gregory IX enrolled Francis in the catalogue of the saints. A day later on the 17th, Gregory laid the cornerstone of a new church (built later by Brother Elias of Cortona) that was destined to shelter Francis' remains. At this same time, Gregory IX charged Thomas of Celano to write the saint's biography; he completed it by early January 1229 at the latest. In 1230 the lower church of S. Francesco was near enough to completion that Francis' remains were solemnly interred there on May 25. For fear that relics might be stolen, the location of the grave was kept secret. After many attempts in 1570, 1607, and 1806, the grave was located in 1818, and its surroundings were expanded into a crypt-church. The Church commemorates Francis' death on October 4 and the feast of the Stigmata on September 17. The order, moreover, celebrates the first approval of the rule (renewal of vows) on April 16, the translatio on May 25, the canonization on July 15, and the discovery of the grave on December 12. Franciscans further celebrate his death with a special transitus ceremony on the evening of October 4.
Francis is venerated as spiritual father by the three branches of the First Order (Franciscans, Franciscan Conventuals, and Capuchins), the branches of the Second Order of Poor Clares (Urbanists, Colettines, Capuchinesses, etc.), the Franciscan Third Order Regular, approximately 30 male congregations, more than 400 communities of Franciscan Sisters, and numerous lay communities of the Third Order Secular.
The miracles Francis performed during his lifetime and after his death have not followed a single pattern, but have answered all kinds of human requests. He is venerated not only by Catholics but, especially since the 19th century, by Protestants as well; there is also a Protestant Third Order of St. Francis. His apostolate of peace and his example of fraternal charity have captured today's imagination. His profoundly Christian love of creation (Canticle of the Brother Sun ) exemplifies his appreciation of God's generous gifts of creation. All that is speaks and proclaims the glory of God. Francis' vision of creation in its profound origins as a generous outpouring of God's love has not always been properly understood. In recent times romantic enthusiasts have often encouraged a superficial praise for creation in and of itself rather in the wondrous beauty of its origin and destiny. However, the publication of a critical edition of Francis' writings by Cajetan Esser in 1974 have gone a long way to remedy that situation. In 1979 John Paul II proclaimed Francis to be the patron saint of ecology.
Feast: Oct. 4.
Bibliography: k. esser, Die Opuscula des Hl. Franziskus von Assisi: Neue textkritische edition (Grottaferrata 1976). r. armstrong, j. hellmann, and w. short, eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, 3 vols. (New York 1999–01). l. boff, Saint Francis: A Model for Human Liberation, tr. j. diercksmeier (New York 1982). a. fortini, Francis of Assisi, tr. h. moak (New York 1981). r. manselli, St. Francis of Assisi, tr. p. duggan (Chicago 1988).