Francis of Assisi

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I was reading a book the other day that mentioned Francis of Assisi. A few days later I came across this old paper that I wrote about him in one of my seminary history classes. He is an interesting fellow. He went from an upstanding man who would inherit his family wealth and status to having his heart gripped by God for an even greater purpose. I hope you enjoy reading about this interesting fellow.

 

Francis was born in 1181 (possibly 1182) to Pietro Bernardone and Pica. Not much is known about his mother, but she is said to have belonged to a noble family of Provence. She would also say of her son, “I am very sure that, if it pleases God, Francis will become a good Christian.”[1] His father was a very wealthy Assisian cloth merchant. There was a legend that he was born in a stable, however, this seems unlikely as it was introduced in the 15th century as a way to seeming to make his beginning resemble more closely to the beginning of the life of Jesus.[2] At his baptism, he received the name Giovanni, after John the Baptist. His father imported fabrics to and from France from Italy which created for him a fondness for the country. Thus, he eventually gave his son the name Francesco or “Francis” as a reminder of the country that he loved.[3]

Francis received little elementary instruction from the priest of St. George’s in Assisi. The majority of his education came, perhaps, from the school of the Troubadours, who was at that time coming into Italy. The Troubadour tradition was based on a type of lyric poetry which explains why Francis would eventually be seen around Assisi improvising hymns. Even though he received two types of education he was not very studious, as such his literary education remained incomplete.[4]

He would go on to work with his father in the textile industry. His father was impressed by his son’s commercial aptitude. While Francis was not good with how to spend his money, he was proficient in making it. Eventually, as is the case with most persons who don’t know how to spend their money, Francis began to surround himself with friends who ‘helped’ spend the money he made. Eventually, he was so influenced by them that when they would call for him he would drop everything and go to them.[5]

It was during these late teen years in Francis’ life that there began to be some civil uprising between his hometown of Assisi and the neighboring town of Perugia. This was not the first skirmish that Assisi had seen. The fortress of Rocca Maggiore in Assisi had been destroyed and Francis was there to help rebuild it.[6] These rudimentary masonry proficiencies would be beneficial later in his life.

Francis was rich and popular among the merchant class and youth in Assisi. He goes from pleasure to pleasure but still has a sense of the real world. He would ponder on the fact that there were people who lived nearby whom could live for a month on what he could spend in a few hours. When he saw these folks they left an impression on him, even to the point that in some instances he would give them everything that he had on him at the time, occasionally even the clothes on his body. One day he was in his father’s shop and a man came in begging for contributions in the name of God. Francis turned him away harshly, however his conscience got the best of him and he ran after the man and gave to him freely. From that day on he would never again refuse alms to anyone who asked him, for the love of God.[7]

He took to arms against the rival city of Perugia in a war which lasted from 1201-1209. This is not, however, the length of Francis’ stand. He was in battle during the autumn of 1202 when the adversary Perugia conquered Assisi and Francis was taken as a prisoner. He would be in captivity for one long year.[8] As Francis sat in captivity he was not downcast as the others who were prisoners with him. He was very light-hearted. Instead of wailing he thought about his future. His companions thought that he was crazy, but he would speak of one day being “adored by the world.”[9]

At some time during this year’s captivity, he developed a fever in which he began to dwell on things eternal. However, overcoming this illness he took back to his first love—glory. After his ransom from the prison, he heard about a knight who would be heading off to battle. He believed that this would be his claim to fame so he joined himself to the cause. However, after a dream, he turned back because God had told him that this was not to be his path. When he returned from “battle” he was ridiculed by his friends and his father.[10]

He again fell ill and began to keep himself detached from society. This was a vain pursuit as his old companions came back around him hoping that he would be the one to fulfill all their idle wants—Francis caved into their demands. This type of livacious style of living was not to last long, as there had been a deep change in the heart of Francis. The world’s pleasures could no longer hold his interest. He began to take strolls through the countryside, in which he reflected on his life. He eventually decided that life was not fulfilled by glory or pleasure and would often retreat himself to a nearby cave in which he would relieve his heart with loud groans over the frivolity with which he had lived his life to this point.[11]

On a ride through the countryside, Francis, who had by this time fell in love with everything in nature and was always surrounded by pure and whole things, came face to face with a leper. Although normally he would be repelled by the appearance of such a disgusting deformity, in this instance he jumped down from his horse, touched the leper, and gave him all that he had. While he rode away he turned back and saw the leper gone and decided that it was a test from God, one which he had passed.[12]

He said of his experience with the leper,

“When I was in sin it seemed to me extremely bitter to see lepers. And the Lord led me toward them and I had pity on them. And as I left them what had previously seemed bitter was changed into sweetness for the soul and body; after that I did not wait long before leaving the world.”[13]

Soon after his encounter, he made a trip to the tomb of St. Peter in Rome. He was aggravated that those who gave were so stingy with their offerings, so he emptied all the money he had with him even exchanging his clothes for those of a beggar and joined in fasting with those at the door of the basilica.[14]

After his return to Assisi, his former friends teased him by asking if he were going to take a wife for himself. His answer was, “Yes, I am about to take a wife of surpassing fairness.” She was no other than “Lady Poverty.” Not long after his return, his search for conversion led him to the chapel of St. Damian’s. while there praying in front of the crucifix he heard a voice which said to him, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” He took this literally to mean the very church in which he was standing.

With haste, he rose and went directly to his father’s shop and procured a load of merchandise and rode to a nearby market. He promptly sold all the cloth and even the horse he rode in on. After collecting the money he had made he headed back to give it to the poor priest who officiated the services at the run down chapel. This priest refused the money from Francis. Francis was enraged and flung the gold at him.

Needless to say, his father was exasperated with him because of his son’s conduct. Francis who was frightened by his father hid in a cave near St. Damian’s for an entire month! When he surfaced and entered town he was pelted with mud and rocks, beaten by his father, and taken home. He was eventually released by his mother while his father was away and he found refuge with the priest at St. Damian’s. When his father returned he disowned Francis and told him that he would not get his inheritance. This was not a problem since God was leading him toward poverty; he was more than willing to give up.[15]

After his divorcement from the family, Francis began to roam the hills behind Assisi, improvising hymns of praise as he went. When he was confronted by some robbers he said, “I am the herald of the Great King.” They then beat him, took all he had, and threw him naked into a snow drift. He was able to make it to a nearby monastery where he worked for awhile in the kitchen. After he was able to acquire clothing he returned to Assisi and began to beg for stones so that he could restore St. Damian’s as he had previously been instructed. He carried each one individually to the location of the chapel and set them in place himself. This was not the first chapel that he restored there were two others that he was able to refurbish; St. Peter’s near Assisi and St. Mary of the Angles also near Assisi but in an area called Porziuncola.[16]

During a morning prayer at St. Mary of the Angles during the feast of Matthias, Francis was met with the full illumination of his mission. The message that he heard during the mass would have included these words:

And as ye go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely yea have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses. Nor script for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go hence. And when you come into a house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy let your peace return to you.[17]

For Francis these words of Jesus sprang to life for him, he took it as his own personal life task. After hearing this he responded, “This is what I want, this is what I ask, and this is what I yearn to do with all my heart.” The rest of his life was marked by this one instance in his life.[18]

As soon as the mass was over Francis rid himself of all the worldly wealth that he had left, his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff, and his empty wallet. He dressed in the clothing of the poorest peasants and traveled around the countryside preaching penance, brotherly love, and peace. The Assisians stopped ridiculing him and began to listen to him. He had already given his life to a form of poverty for some time living in a mud hut outside of St. Mary of the Angels. His example and preaching drew people to him. Bernard of Quintavalle was the first to follow Francis shortly followed by Peter of Cattaneo. Together they repaired the church of St. Nicholas. While in the church Francis wanted to learn what God’s will should be for them by at random opening pages of the Gospels which was on the altar.

Every time he opened to passages where Christ challenged His disciples to leave everything and follow Him. Francis declared to his followers that “this shall be our rule of life.” After this proclamation they went to the public square where they gave away all their possessions to the poor, dressed like Francis, and built their own huts near his at Porziuncola. It wasn’t long until a third follower came and they went out two by two and preached the gospel. Before long Francis found himself with eleven disciples. He thus thought it sensible to write up a written rule for their group. He called this first rule the Friars Minor, which was short and simple containing mostly the precepts from the Gospel passages which the original group had read at St. Nicholas.

After he had drawn up the rule the group of twelve set out for Rome to get the approval of Pope Innocent III. They were intercepted by Guido, the Bishop of Assisi, who knew Francis and went as an advocate before the Pope on Friars Minor’s behalf. Although Innocent III thought that the rule would be unsafe and impractical, having been moved by a dream, allowed it by verbal sanction and granted Francis and his disciples to leave to preach repentance everywhere. They were not given written sanction until they had established themselves. Before leaving Rome they were all given the ecclesiastical tonsure, and Francis ordained as a deacon. Thus the first order of Francis was established as the Friars Minor.[19]

They were able to establish a permanent residence in Assisi when out of generosity the Benedictines gave Francis the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. Here they built huts and lived pure, simple lives. They were marked by their going two by two and singing in their joy as they went. Rather than cloistering themselves away from the world they were very interactive with their world. They toiled with the laborers in the fields, and when they could not find work they would beg. In short, Francis and his followers gained enormous influence, and men of different grades of life and ways of thought flocked to the order.[20]

It was time for Lent in 1211 when Clare, whose brother had already joined the order Friars Minor, became interested in the lifestyle of Francis. She had gone to Porziuncola to see the restored chapel. While there she spoke with Francis about how she could live according to the Gospel. They spoke on this topic for some months. Clare would have to make a decision soon because she was of marrying age and her family wanted to make arrangements.

On a moonlit evening, Clare ran away from home and to the church of St. Mary of the Angels. There Francis was waiting with the other members of the order the church illuminated by torches. The group sang as she consecrated herself to the service of Christ promising to live as the others did. They cut her hair and she removed her jewels and exchanged her satin garments for a gray tunic bound by a chord. That night she became a member of what would become known as the second Franciscan order also known as the “Poor Ladies” or “Poor Clares.” She stayed at a Benedictine convent until the Franciscans obtained San Domiano. Francis called Clare the most Christ-like person he ever knew. Many women followed in her footsteps and joined the order after her.[21]

Francis was known as “God’s Fool” and for good reason. He took some dangerous missions to convert the Saracens during a crusade. He wasn’t able to make it because of a shipwreck, so he decided to evangelize central Italy instead. It also seems as though he loved all of God’s creatures and they him as well. Francis’ brotherhood included all of God’s creation. We call someone a nature lover if they spend their free time in the woods or admire its beauty. Francis really felt that nature, all God’s creations, were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow was as much his brother as the pope. In one famous story, Francis preached to hundreds of birds about being thankful to God for their wonderful clothes, for their independence, and for God’s care. In the story the birds stood still as he walked among him, only flying off when he said they could leave. Another famous story involves a wolf that had been eating human beings. Francis interceded when the town wanted to kill the wolf. Francis talked the wolf into never killing again. The wolf became a pet of the townspeople who made sure that he always had plenty to eat.[22]

We are uncertain if he took part in the Lateran Council of 1215, however, he was present at the death of Innocent III. Shortly after Honorius III was made pope the famous Porziuncola Indulgence was placed before him. Legend has it that while Francis was praying at the Porziuncola Christ appeared to him and asked him what favor he wanted. Francis responded that he wanted souls to be saved so he wanted Porziuncola to be a place where people having confessing their sins could be forgiven. The pope granted the request but set the parameter that it could only be done once yearly, the second of August. While this is the traditional account there is no record in the archives of the Catholic Church to indicate that it actually occurred. However, most accept it because of the tradition of the story.[23]

The Franciscans were a people on mission. They sent missionaries to many locations. Francis wanted to reserve France for himself, and he went. He was however not there long and had to send someone else in his place.[24]

The third order of Franciscans was founded in 1221. It was called the brothers and sister of Penance. This third order was devised by St. Francis as a sort of middle state between the cloister and the world for those who, wishing to follow in the saint’s footsteps, were disqualified by marriage or other ties from entering either the first or second order.[25]

Francis lived out the rest of his years giving away everything he had. He would continually give until it hurt. His demeanor never dropped as his years grew larger in number. He continued to promote the brotherhood of all creatures and devoted himself to preaching repentance, poverty, chastity, and obedience. One of his prayers was:

“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light, and
Where there is sorrow, joy.
Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved
as to love; for it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”[26]

The influence of Francis was great. He reached many people with the Gospel of Christ. The way he lived his life was an example for all people. The end of his life was filled with suffering and persecution. While he was praying on a hillside it is reported that he received the five marks of the crucifixion in his body, the stigmata. He became increasingly ill and headed back toward Assisi where he would eventually die naked in a hut with his closest friends by his side. Before his death he gave some last orders to those in his group, “I have done my part, may Christ teach you to do yours.” He kept his faith to lady poverty until the end and just before his death had read to him the Passion according to John and died quoting Psalm 141.[27]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Sabatier, Paul, ed. by Jon M. Sweeney, The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003), 6.

[2] Robinson, Paschal, “St. Francis of Assisi,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm.

[3] Matz, Terry, “St. Francis of Assisi,” Catholic Online Copyright 1996-2000, http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50.

[4] Robinson

[5] Sabatier, 7

[6] Brunette, Pierre, O.F.M. translated by Paul Lachance, O.F.M. and Kathryn Krug, Francis of Assisi and his Conversions (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997), xi.

[7] Sabatier, 7

[8] Ibid, 1

[9] Sabatier, 7

[10] Matz

[11] Sabatier, 12

[12] Matz

[13] Brunette, 39

[14] Robinson

[15] Ibid

[16] Duane W.H. Arnold and C. George Fry, Francis: A call to Conversion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 43.

[17] Matthew 10:7-13, The Holy Bible.

[18] Arnold, 45

[19] Robinson

[20] Ibid

[21] Arnold, 49

[22] Terry Matz

[23] Robinson

[24] Ibid

[25] Robinson, Paschal. “Franciscan Order.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06217a.htm.

[26] Chidananda, Swami. http://www.dlshq.org/saints/francis.htm

[27] Robinson

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