Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi, is popular in name. He is most well-known within Roman Catholicism, but his fame and reverence extend far and wide. Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and the environment.
He was also a lover of peace and worked hard to achieve it. The veneration of this man who lived a very simple life is more relevant today than ever, and his story is worth retelling.
Early Life of Francis of Assisi
In the Duchy of Spoleto to the east of Rome in late 1181, Francis was born to an Italian father, Pietro, and a French mother. His father was a successful and wealthy silk merchant, while little is known of his mother save for the fact that she was a noblewoman.
Francis was therefore born into the lap of luxury, and he wanted for nothing during his childhood. Originally baptized as “Giovanni” by his mother, who gave birth to him while his father was away in France, he gained the name Francesco (meaning Frenchman or Free Man) from his father after he returned, as his father was obsessed with everything French.
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In his youth, he was a child of excess, and by his teenage years, Francis was known for indulging in a hedonistic way of life. At the age of 14, he left school to pursue his party lifestyle. He was handsome and vain and dreamed of a lifestyle of knightly pursuits. He became proficient in archery, swordsmanship, and horsemanship. He balked at the idea of following in his father’s footsteps in the textile business.
Despite his life of pleasure, Francis was not blind to the suffering in the world. In fact, one could argue his lifestyle was brought about by his disillusionment. One day, while selling his father’s wares in the marketplace, he spotted a beggar asking for alms. After Francis had concluded his deal, he ran after the beggar and gave him all the money he had on him at the time. For this, he was teased by his friend and scolded by his father.
War broke out between Assisi and Perugia in 1202, and eager to prove himself, Francis joined in battle. The horrors of war visited him soon after, and while most of his comrades were killed, Francis was spared on account of the fact that he looked like he was worth a sizable ransom. He was taken prisoner and spent nearly a year in a prison cell. During this time, he fell ill and subsequently took stock of the life choices that had led him to this point. Upon his release in 1203, however, Francis went through a brief spell of returning to his hedonistic lifestyle.
In 1205, Francis left for Apulia/Puglia in southern Italy in order to join the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. However, he never reached his destination. According to the saintly account of his life, he received a vision that made him turn back. Thereafter, he was a truly changed man and endeavored to live a life of poverty in the service of the Lord.
Francis went on a pilgrimage to Rome and joined the beggars in asking for alms at the Basilica of Saint Peter. One day after his return to Assisi, he was praying in a run-down chapel when he received a vision where Christ told him to repair his church. Francis took this to mean the church where he currently found himself, Saint Damiano, so he went out and sold some of his father’s wares to give the money to the priest. The priest, however, refused the money on account of it being ill-gotten. Francis threw the money on the ground in front of the priest, and before he returned home, his father would learn of what had transpired.
Knowing that if he returned home, he would be subject to his father’s wrath, Francis hid in a cave for about a month before returning home. His father’s anger did not subside, and when Francis returned home, his father beat him and locked him in a storeroom. After being freed by his mother, Francis sought shelter in Saint Damiano’s, the same church where the priest rejected his money. Francis’s father, however, had taken legal action against his son, and Francis was stripped of his inheritance. In retaliation, Francis renounced his father. According to legend, he stripped bare in church while he did this, and the priest covered him with his own robes.
Over the course of the next two years, he became a penitent and spent most of his time begging and rebuilding dilapidated churches and chapels around Assisi. When he was not rebuilding places of worship, Francis was looking after lepers.
One morning in 1208, dressed in the clothes of a poor peasant, Francis began preaching. Doing so required a license, and so Francis, without one, was in danger of being arrested. Nevertheless, the authorities let it slide. He preached peace and brotherly love, traveling the countryside and reaching high up into the Umbrian mountains.
In 1209, with 11 followers, he traveled to Rome in order to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to start a new religious order. In Rome, he met with Giovanni di San Paolo, the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina, the confessor of Pope Innocent III, who was sympathetic to Francis’s cause and decided he would represent him to the pope. On April 16, 1210, Pope Innocent III officially endorsed the traveling friars, and the Franciscan Order was born.
The order grew quickly and attracted the attention of women too, and the Second Franciscan Order, also known as the Poor Clares, was created as an order of nuns. The Third Order of Franciscans was also created, also known as the Secular Franciscan Order, which allowed its followers to marry. This third order was immensely successful and initiated a huge growth of Franciscan following outside of Italy, which is exactly where Francis saw his destiny.
Francis & His Mission of Peace
Committed to bringing his message of peace to the world, Francis set out several times but encountered misfortune on a regular basis. In 1212, he set sail for Jerusalem but was shipwrecked off the coast of Dalmatia. The following year, his destination was Morocco, but while in Spain, Francis fell ill and had to turn back.
In 1219, his mission took him into the thick of war. Francis traveled to Egypt with the intention of converting Sultan Al-Kamil, the nephew of Saladin. He was prepared for failure and accepted that the attempt might end up with him being martyred.
After a bloody Christian assault on Damietta, the Crusaders and the Muslims agreed to a brief truce. During this time, Francis and his traveling companion, Friar Illuminatus of Arce, crossed the Muslim lines and were received by the Sultan. According to Christian accounts, he was well received, and although the Sultan was not moved to convert, Francis and Illuminatus were allowed to preach to the Muslims, who also treated their guests with respect.
Because of the peaceful mission of Francis and Illuminatus, the Franciscan order was allowed to establish itself in the Holy Land and has been present there ever since.
Later Years of Saint Francis of Assisi
Francis returned to Italy amid a huge surge in the popularity of the Franciscan Order. It had attracted many members from all over Europe and, as a result, became difficult to manage. In 1220, Francis handed over the reins of management to Brother Peter Catani. Peter died five months later and was succeeded by Brother Elias.
Francis withdrew from the external affairs of the order and focused on traveling and preaching.
In 1224, while undertaking a 40-day fast in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis had a vision in which he saw a Seraph, a six-winged angel, which gave him the wounds of Christ. The most notable of these stigmata were the wounds on his hands. He also started suffering from trachoma, a painful bacterial infection in the eyes. Some scholars also believe Francis’ stigmata may have been signs of leprosy, which is plausible, given that he spent much time administering to lepers.
He saw many doctors in many cities, but there was no cure for his ailment, and on October 3, 1226, he died while singing Psalm 141.
St. Francis of Assisi’s Legacy
In 1228, Pope Gregory IX declared Francis a saint, and the next day, he laid the first stone for the construction of the Basilica of Saint Francis in the town of Assisi.
Francis was a dedicated man who understood the teachings of Christ and the ascetic lifestyle that came with it. Instead of preaching fire and brimstone, Francis was a man of calm and peace. It was through his work that the Franciscans became a vital avenue of dialogue between the Muslims and the Crusaders, thus achieving a semblance of peace in the Holy Land.
Saint Francis was also a figure of compassion. His work dealt mainly with the poverty-stricken and the sick. He was dedicated to helping to ease the suffering. According to legend, it is said that he once embraced and kissed a leper.
Saint Francis of Assisi is also known as the person who invented the nativity scene. His version in 1220 was a live-action affair involving real animals. In fact, it was his love for animals and respect for the environment that has brought him much love and veneration in the modern era. In folklore and legend, Francis is said to have preached to birds and befriended a wolf who had been terrorizing the livestock around the town of Gubbio.
Francis saw nature as God’s creation and took great care of it. In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Francis the patron saint of ecology.
Such is the love for Saint Francis of Assisi that he is even celebrated outside of Catholicism, and Franciscan orders exist in Protestant denominations.
The feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi is observed on October 4.
Saint Francis of Assisi was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. A truly good human being, he overcame internal and external demons and brought a message of love, respect, and compassion to a world full of grief and misery.