Francis of Assisi (Italian: San Francesco d'Assisi; Latin: Sanctus Franciscus Assisiensis), born
Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, informally named as Francesco (1181/1182 – 3 October 1226),
was an Italian Catholic friar, deacon, philosopher, mystic and preacher. He founded the men's
Order of Friars Minor, the women's Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the
Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity.
Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis on 16 July 1228. Along with Saint Catherine of Siena, he was
designated Patron saint of Italy. He later became associated with patronage of animals and the
natural environment, and it became customary for churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals
on or near his feast day of 4 October. In 1219, he went to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Sultan
to put an end to the conflict of the Crusades. By this point, the Franciscan Order had grown to
such an extent that its primitive organizational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to
Italy to organize the Order.
Once his community was authorized by the Pope, he withdrew increasingly from external affairs.
Francis is also known for his love of the Eucharist. In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas
live nativity scene. According to Christian tradition, in 1224 he received the stigmata during the
apparition of Seraphic angels in a religious ecstasy, which would make him the second person in
Christian tradition after St. Paul (Galatians 6:17) to bear the wounds of Christ's Passion. He died
during the evening hours of 3 October 1226, while listening to a reading he had requested of
Psalm 142 .
Francis of Assisi was born in late 1181 or early 1182, one of several children of an Italian father,
Pietro di Bernardone dei Moriconi, a prosperous silk merchant, and a French mother, Pica de
Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was a noblewoman originally from
Provence. Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born in Assisi, and Pica had him
Frenchman"), possibly in honor of his commercial success and enthusiasm for all things French.
Since the child was renamed in infancy, the change can hardly have had anything to do with his
aptitude for learning French, as some have thought.
Francesco became a devotee of troubadours and was fascinated with all things Transalpine. He was handsome, witty, gallant, and delighted in fine clothes. He
spent money lavishly. Although many hagiographers remark about his bright clothing, rich friends, and love of pleasures, his displays of disillusionment toward
the world that surrounded him came fairly early in his life, as is shown in the "story of the beggar". In this account, he was selling cloth and velvet in the
marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deal, Francis abandoned his wares and
ran after the beggar. When he found him, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his act of
charity. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage.
Around 1202, he joined a military expedition against Perugia and was taken as a prisoner at Collestrada, spending a year as a captive. An illness caused him to
re-evaluate his life. It is possible that his spiritual conversion was a gradual process rooted in this experience. Upon his return to Assisi in 1203, Francis returned
to his carefree life. In 1205, Francis left for Apulia to enlist in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. A strange vision made him return to Assisi, having lost his
taste for the worldly life. According to hagiographic accounts, thereafter he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions. In response,
they asked him laughingly whether he was thinking of marrying, to which he answered, "Yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen", meaning his "Lady
Saint Francis Abandons His Father. Francis of Assisi breaking off his relationship with his father and renouncing his patrimony, laying aside publicly even the
garments he had received from him.
On a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor in begging at St. Peter's Basilica. He spent some time in lonely places, asking God for spiritual enlightenment. He
said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the forsaken country chapel of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to
him, "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." He took this to mean the ruined church in which he was presently
praying, and so he sold some cloth from his father's store to assist the priest there for this purpose. When the priest refused to accept the ill-gotten gains, an
indignant Francis threw the coins on the floor.
In order to avoid his father's wrath, Francis hid in a cave near San Damiano for about a month. When he returned to town, hungry and dirty, he was dragged
home by his father, beaten, bound, and locked in a small storeroom. Freed by his mother during Bernardone's absence, Francis returned at once to San
Damiano, where he found shelter with the officiating priest, but he was soon cited before the city consuls by his father. The latter, not content with having
recovered the scattered gold from San Damiano, sought also to force his son to forego his inheritance by way of restitution. In the midst of legal proceedings
before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony. Some accounts report that he stripped himself naked in token of this renunciation,
and the Bishop covered him with his own cloak.
For the next couple of months, Francis wandered as a beggar in the hills behind Assisi. He spent some time at a neighbouring monastery working as a scullion.
He then went to Gubbio, where a friend gave him, as an alms, the cloak, girdle, and staff of a pilgrim. Returning to Assisi, he traversed the city begging stones
for the restoration of St. Damiano's. These he carried to the old chapel, set in place himself, and so at length rebuilt it. Over the course of two years, he embraced
the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi, among them San Pietro in Spina (in the area of San
Petrignano in the valley about a kilometer from Rivotorto, today on private property and once again in ruin); and the Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of
the Angels in the plain just below the town. This later became his favorite abode. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, in the lazar houses near Assisi
occasions to take his message out of Italy. In the late spring of 1212, he set out for Jerusalem, but was shipwrecked by a storm on the Dalmatian coast,
forcing him to return to Italy. On 8 May 1213, he was given the use of the mountain of La Verna (Alverna) as a gift from Count Orlando di Chiusi, who
described it as “eminently suitable for whoever wishes to do penance in a place remote from mankind”. The mountain would become one of his favourite
retreats for prayer.
In the same year, Francis sailed for Morocco, but this time an illness forced him to break off his journey in Spain. Back in Assisi, several noblemen (among
them Tommaso da Celano, who would later write the biography of St. Francis), and some well-educated men joined his Order. In 1215, Francis may have
gone to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council, but that is not certain. During this time, he probably met a canon, Dominic de Guzman (later to be Saint Dominic,
the founder of the Friars Preachers, another Catholic religious order). In 1217, he offered to go to France. Cardinal Ugolino of Segni (the future Pope Gregory
IX), an early and important supporter of Francis, advised him against this and said that he was still needed in Italy.
In 1219, accompanied by another friar and hoping to convert the Sultan of Egypt or win martyrdom in the attempt, Francis went to Egypt during the Fifth
Crusade where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta two miles (3.2 kilometres) upstream from the
mouth of one of the main channels of the Nile. The Sultan, al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin, had succeeded his father as Sultan of Egypt in 1218 and was
encamped upstream of Damietta, unable to relieve it. A bloody and futile attack on the city was launched by the Christians on 29 August 1219, following
which both sides agreed to a ceasefire which lasted four weeks. It was most probably during this interlude that Francis and his companion crossed the
Muslims' lines and were brought before the Sultan, remaining in his camp for a few days. The visit is reported in contemporary Crusader sources and in
the earliest biographies of Francis, but they give no information about what transpired during the encounter beyond noting that the Sultan received Francis
graciously and that Francis preached to the Muslims without effect, returning unharmed to the Crusader camp. No contemporary Arab source mentions
the visit. One detail, added by Bonaventure in the official life of Francis (written forty years after the event), has Francis offering to challenge the Sultan's
"priests" to trial-by-fire in order to prove the veracity of the Christian Gospel.
Francis and others treating victims of leprosy or smallpox
Such an incident is alluded to in a scene in the late 13th-century fresco cycle, attributed to Giotto, in the upper basilica at Assisi. It has been suggested that
the winged figures atop the columns piercing the roof of the building on the left of the scene are not idols (as Erwin Panofsky had proposed) but are part of
the secular iconography of the sultan, affirming his worldly power which, as the scene demonstrates, is limited even as regards his own "priests" who shun
the challenge. Although Bonaventure asserts that the sultan refused to permit the challenge, subsequent biographies went further, claiming that a fire was
actually kindled which Francis unhesitatingly entered without suffering burns. The scene in the fresco adopts a position midway between the two extremes.
Since the idea was put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was the author of the
Upper Church frescoes.
According to some late sources, the Sultan gave Francis permission to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land and even to preach there. All that can safely
be asserted is that Francis and his companion left the Crusader camp for Acre, from where they embarked for Italy in the latter half of 1220. Drawing on a
1267 sermon by Bonaventure, later sources report that the Sultan secretly converted or accepted a death-bed baptism as a result of the encounter with
Francis. The Franciscan Order has been present in the Holy Land almost uninterruptedly since 1217 when Brother Elias arrived at Acre. It received
concessions from the Mameluke Sultan in 1333 with regard to certain Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and (so far as concerns the Catholic Church)
jurisdictional privileges from Pope Clement VI in 1342.
Copyright EMMI TOSF Ministry.