The Italian mystic St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) founded the religious order known as the Franciscans. He became renowned for his love, simplicity, and practice of poverty.
Because his father called him Francis, so did everyone else, although he was given the name Giovanni when he was baptized shortly after his birth in the town of Assisi in central Italy in 1182. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a successful cloth merchant, and Francis grew up with a love of fine clothes and good times. He led the other young men of the town in enjoying good food and drink, singing, and dancing.
When Francis was 20, he was taken prisoner in a war between Assisi and Perugia. A year later, sobered by jail and sickness, he underwent several religious experiences in quick succession. In one of these, while he was praying in the decrepit chapel of S. Damiano outside Assisi, he heard a voice from the crucifix telling him, "Francis, go repair my house, which is falling in ruins." Taking the words literally, Francis went quickly back to the city, sold his horse and some cloth from his father's shop, and came back to give the money to the priest at S. Damiano.
His father, furious at Francis' squandering money on churches and beggars, hauled him before the bishop to bring him to his senses. When the hearing began, Francis calmly took off all his clothes, gave them to his father (the astonished bishop quickly covered Francis with a cloak), and said that he was now recognizing only his Father in heaven, not his father on earth. His life from this time on was lived without money and family ties.
The 13th century was a time of troubadours, and Francis had their best characteristics. He was happy, he sang, he loved nature; he spoke to the birds and the animals as though they were his friends. In his "Canticle of Creatures" (also called "Canticle of the Sun") he wrote about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Once he was heard to beg pardon of his own body, which he called Brother Ass, for having weighed it down with penances. Francis referred to his way of life as his marriage to Lady Poverty.
The 13th century was also a time when the Christian religion was taken very much for granted, and Francis felt the need to return to the original spirit of Christ. This meant living in poverty, and it also meant loving other people. A number of the young men of Assisi, attracted by Francis' example, joined him in his new way of life. In 1209 Francis and his companions went to Rome, where they presented their ideas to Pope Innocent III and received his approval. They found themselves influencing more and more people, including a lady named Clare, whom Francis helped to enter a monastery of nuns and who later began the "second order" of Franciscans, the order for women.
In 1212 Francis left for the Holy Land. His ship ran into bad weather, and he had to return to Italy. Two years later his adventurous spirit and missionary zeal drove him to seek the Moors in Spain, but sickness prevented him from completing the trip. He tried once more, in 1219, going to Egypt with the Crusaders. At the siege of Damietta, Francis boldly walked through the battle lines into the camp of the Saracens and met the sultan of Egypt, who, apparently impressed with Francis' ideas about brotherly love, gave him permission to continue on to the Holy Land.
When Francis heard that trouble had started in Italy among some of his followers, now numbered in the thousands, he returned home. The group had been held together by the force of his own personality, but now Francis saw the need for a more practical guide to his kind of Christian life. He insisted that the new rule stress the poverty he felt was so important: the order could not possess money; all its houses must be simply furnished; and each friar could have only a tunic and cord (Francis himself wore an old sack tied at the waist), a pair of breeches, and, if really necessary, a pair of shoes. Francis went to Rome in 1223 to present the new rule to Pope Honorius III, who approved it wholeheartedly. It was during this visit that, according to tradition, Francis met Dominic. The Franciscan and Dominican religious orders have always felt a close relationship that dates back to the friendship between their founders.
Francis returned to Assisi and began to spend more and more time alone, in prayer, leaving the decisions about his organization to others. While he was praying on Mt. Alvernia in 1224, he had a vision of an angelic figure, and when the vision disappeared Francis felt the wounds of Christ's stigmata in his hands, side, and feet. He was careful not to show them, but several close friends reported after his death that Francis had suffered in his body as Christ had suffered on the cross. His last 2 years were lived in almost constant pain and near-blindness. He died in 1226, and 2 years later he was canonized a saint.
Among the many biographies of St. Francis, Paul Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1894), remains a classic. G. K. Chesterton's excellent St. Francis of Assisi (1923) captures the spirit and style of the saint. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis (trans. 1887; new ed. 1958) is a collection of refreshing legends and stories about St. Francis written shortly after his death.