The Italian Almanac


St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis on the Catholic Encyclopedia


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St. Francis of Assisi (1182 - 1226)

Francis Bernadone was born in Assisi in 1182 to Pietro and Picca Bernadone. Pietro was a cloth merchant and probably the richest man in Assisi. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, "Francis, repair my falling house." He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged, and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father's wealth--one account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father's feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself "wedded to Lady Poverty", renounced all material possessions, and devoted himself to serving the poor. In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. (It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name.) Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores, and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labors. He moved in with the priest, and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins, and by working as a day laborer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. ("Friar" means "brother," as in "fraternity", and "minor" means "lesser" or "younger." I take the meaning to be that a Franciscan, meeting another Christian, is to think, "I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself." They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, "using words if necessary," but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. Francis was partial to a touch of the dramatic (see his parting from his father, for example), and it was probably he who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home the Good News of God made man for our salvation, home to men's hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the moslems. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that moslems were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a moslem volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a moslem volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis's deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in moslem hands.

Back in Italy and neighboring countries, the Order was suffering from its own success. Then, as now, many persons were deeply attracted by Francis and his air of joy, abandonment, and freedom. What is overlooked is that these were made possible only by his willingness to accept total poverty, not picturesque poverty but real dirt, rags, cold, and hunger, and lepers with real pus oozing from their sores and a real danger of infection. Many idealistic young men were joining the Order in a burst of enthusiasm and then finding themselves not so sure that such extremes of poverty were really necessary. When there were only a few friars, they were all known to Francis personally, and the force of his personality kept the original ideals of the Order alive in them. Now that the Order was larger, this was no longer enough. In 1220 Francis resigned as minister-general of the Order, and in 1221 he agreed to a new and modified rule, which he did not approve, but could not resist. He died on 4 October 1226. The Franciscan split into the Conventual Franciscans, who held a limited amount of property in common, and the Spiritual Franciscans, who disavowed all property. They taught that Christ and the twelve apostles had held no property, singly or jointly. This view offended those who held property, and was declared to be heretical. In 1318, several Spiritual Franciscans were burned at the stake in Marseilles.