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Friday, 27 February 2015

Saint Francis of Assisi


Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was one of seven children born to cloth merchant Pietro Bernadone and his wife Pica de Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was a noblewoman originally from Provence.

Pietro returned from a business trip to France in 1182  to find out his wife had given birth to a son. Pietro was cross because she'd had his new son baptized Giovanni after John the Baptist. The last thing Pietro wanted his son to be a man of business, not a man of God. So he renamed his son Francesco (or Francis),  the equivalent of calling him Frenchman, in celebration of the country whose cloth fairs had made his family rich.

The house where Francis of Assisi lived when young

As a youth, Francis loved all things French - the songs, the romance of France, and especially the free adventurous French troubadours who wandered through Europe.

The young Francis  was known for drinking and enjoying the company of his many friends, who were usually the sons of nobles. The streets of the romantic town of Assisi echoed to the merry singing and jovial lifestyle of Francis and his companions.

Francis has had no theological training and little formal education apart from some elementary instruction from the priests of St Giorgio in Assisi who taught him to read and write Latin.


In 1201, Francis joined an Assisi military expedition against Perugia and was taken captive. He spent a year as a prisoner of war in a Perugian fortress.

A fever after his return as well as his experience as a prisoner caused Francis to contemplate his hedonistic lifestyle.  Francis changed so much that his friends feared his illness had turned his brain.

From early in his life, Francis displayed signs of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him. In one instance he was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. Francis not only gave him his father's money but his own as well. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage.

In 1205 Francis enlisted in another military expedition to Apicia. He had there a dream, where God appeared to him and said, "Francis I want you to fight my campaigns instead ". He returned home and gave up his playboy lifestyle and determined, despite all the ridicule, to follow the new course that God has planned for him.

Two years later Francis had another dream where Christ called him to repair his church. Francis took him literally and, in the middle of winter, he sold some of his father's cloth to purchase stones for the local damaged church of San Damiano. His father unsurprisingly demanded the money back. Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him in front of the public. He embraced the life of a penitent, during which he restored several ruined chapels in the countryside around Assisi.

Eventually Francis realized Christ had been talking about the world wide church and not just his local one. From then on he aspired to reform the world by preaching.


On February 24, 1209 Francis heard a sermon based on Matthew 10:9 that changed his life forever. The gospel passage recounts Christ telling his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.

Francis started wearing a coarse grey cloth habit with a pointed hood, under tunic drawers and a waistcoat. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Gospel precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.

Francis of Assisi attracted many followers captivated by his happy demeanor. "It is not fitting", he taught "when one is in God's service to have a gloomy face or a chilling look."

Francis called his associates Friars minor (Lesser brothers). These Friars went about preaching and teaching in the local language, not Latin, healing the sick and worshipping God. They sung songs of praise and prayer as they walked around on their travels.

Francis and his eleven followers walked barefoot to Rome to ask Pope Innocent III for official recognition as an order. The pope was dubious, but after a dream in which he saw the church was bursting apart and a poor man, whom he identified as Francis appearing to hold it together, he granted their wish.

The Pope approving the statutes of the Order of the Franciscans, by Giotto, 1295–1300. By PHGCOM. Wikipedia Commons

According to tradition, the official founding date of the Franciscan Order was April 16, 1210.

They adopted  rules based on Jesus' instructions to his disciples. Francis and his followers spent their days working, begging or preaching, the evenings sleeping and at midnight they rose to pray.

Good humored Francis and his fellow Friars were known as God's Jesters as their joy was so contagious. As Francis was hoeing his garden he was asked "what would you do, if you were suddenly to learn that you were to die at sunset today?" Francis replied  "I would finish hoeing my garden."

In 1211 the 17 year old Chiara Scifi, a heiress of Assisi, heard Francis preach the Lenten Sermon in San Rufino and was so struck by what he said that she began to meet with the Saint to discuss her vocation. As a result she and Francis formed the Poor Clares, an order for women.

In his later years, sickened by the increasing businesslike organisation of his order,  Francis retired to a hermitage of Mount Alvernina, to live in secluded prayer.

Francis liked to use drama as a teaching tool. For instance he enacted the nativity story in a stable with live animals, thus originating the nativity play.

In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade Francis went to Egypt accompanied by another friar to ask for peace. The pair were brought to Muhammad Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, whom they attempted to convert. Though unsuccessful,  the sultan did ask Francis to pray that God would show him the true law and faith and  is treatment at the hands of an assumed enemy of the faith caused the leader of the Franciscans to rewrite the rules of his order to assert the possibility of living at peace with Muslims.

He attempted to convert the Sultan of Egypt,and though unsuccessful,  the sultan did ask Francis to pray that God would show him the true law and faith and he respected him for rising against the patriotic feelings
of the day.


Francis went in for jovial singing, he especially loved jolly French songs and music played on the fiddle. He possessed no musical instrument so he accompanied himself by sawing one stick with another.

Francis wrote  Canticle For The Sun which he and his fellow Friars would sing as they walked around preaching. The song praised God for:

"Brother Sun, Sister Water and Mother Earth".
All Praise be Yours, My Lord, Through all that you have made
And first my Lord Brother Sun
Who brings the day; and light you gave to us through Him."

Francis felt that nature, all God's creations, were part of his brotherhood. The sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope. He considered all nature as the mirror of God.

Many stories have been told of Francis'  ability to charm wild animals It was said that he would talk to the animals and they would talk back. In fact most of these stories originate from a book, The Little Flowers Of Saint Francis, which was written a century after his death.

It was often reported that wild animals—rabbits, birds, even a wolf—became tame before Francis of Assisi. He especially cared for animals that were associated with Christ. If he saw a lamb being led off to slaughter, he would try to rescue it by pleading or trading for it.

Legend of St. Francis, Sermon to the Birds, upper Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Despite his refusal to kill any animals Francis was not a vegetarian. He was particularly partial to pig’s knuckles and chicken legs and marzipan.

Occasionally Francis enjoyed a fancy pastry and on his deathbed asked a dear friend, Lady Jacob to bring him some almond cakes.

Francis observed literally Jesus' command to "take no thought for the morrow." He would not allow the cook of his Order even to soak vegetables overnight for cooking the next day.


Rather unattractive. Francis was dark with a slight build, short head, prominent ears and spindly legs. As a young man he was gaily attired.

Oldest known portrait in existence of the saint, dating back to St. Francis' retreat to Subiaco (1223–1224): 

After his conversion Francis looked like a bare foot beggar, with his unkempt beard.

In his old age Francis' body was bent over by a lifetime of prayer and fasting.

Before his conversion Francis, spent his money on magnificent clothing. When, in the middle of winter, Francis sold some of his father's cloth to purchase stones for a church building, his father demanded the money back. In front of the Bishop's palace  the eager young Christian not only returned his fathers money but his own clothes declaring  "naked I will go to the Lord". One of the Bishop's farm hands gave the frozen Francis his own tunic.

From then on Francis clad himself in a coarse grey cloth habit with a pointed hood, under tunic drawers and a waistcoat. His sackcloth robe was tied at the waist by a plain cord with three knots representing the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. When the Franciscans first appeared in England in 1224 they were called Greyfriars.

Francis listed personal filthiness among the insignia of piety in line with the early teachings of the Christian Church.


On September 29, 1220, Francis handed over the governance of the Order to Brother Peter Catani at the Porziuncola.

After a period of ecstatic prayer during a 40 day fast on Mount Alverno, in the Apennines, Francis saw in 1224, a radiant fiery angel with six wings carrying a crucified man. He went into a trance and stigmata appeared. It was as if long pointed nails were in his hands and feet and a spear wound  in his side. The stigmata was attested to by two Popes , Gregory 1X and Alexander 1V.

Francis had to keep his feet bandaged because of the stigmata, and and because he couldn't walk on them he had to use a donkey.

Francis considered his stigmata part of the Imitation of Christ Cigoli, 1699

By 1226, Francis was a very sick man, in great pain from gastric ulcers, often feverish from malaria and growing blind from an eye condition he had contracted in the East. For the latter he underwent the somewhat unpleasant treatment of burning the problem in his eye away with hot irons.

Francis nicknamed his illnesses his sisters, and he apologized to "Brother Ass the body" for having improperly encumbered him with his penances.

When Francis of Assisi realized he was dying he was happy. He sent a farewell letter to Chiara and asked for his favorite marzipan and some music.

Francis died on the evening of October 3, 1226 at the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Portinuncula Assisi singing Psalm 142, "Voce mea ad Dominum".

After Francis of Assisi died, the head of his order, Brother Elias, feared Saracens would steal his body. So he hid Francis' coffin beneath the main altar in the Basilica of Saint Francis.The plan worked, his exact burial place remained unknown until it was re-discovered in 1818.

On July 16, 1228, Francis was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX.

Saint Francis' feast day is observed on October 4th. It has become customary for Catholic and Anglican churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals on his feast day.

Beginning on October 3rd, the town of Assisi lights oil lamps using consecrated oil in remembrance of the saint.

Gary Holloway, who founded the Martin Van Buren fan club as Van Buren was the only American President without one, had a penchant for dressing up like Francis. His reasoning was that the habit is "comfortable, fun to wear and people offer me a seat on the bus."

Sources,, Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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