One of the most recognised and revered religious figures
in history, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born in 1881/82
(the exact year is not known) in the town of Assisi, in
Umbria. One of the smallest regions in central Italy,
Umbria lies between the Apennine Mountains and the
Tiber valley and is the only Italian region that has neither a
coastline nor a common border with other countries. Saint
Francis died on October 3, 1226 which is why we celebrate St. Francis Day on October 4th.
Francis, one of seven children, was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Little is known
about his mother other than she came from a Noble family of Provence. Francis was
baptised ‘Giovanni’ Francesco di Bernardone, but his father later changed his name to
Francesco, because he loved France, where he was when his son was born.
In Thomas of Celano’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, he says, “No one loved
pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, and delighted in fine clothes
and showy display. Handsome, gay, gallant, and courteous, he soon became the prime
favourite among the young nobles of Assisi, the foremost in every feat of arms, the leader of
the civil revels, the very king of frolic.” Celano goes on to say, “But even at this time Francis
showed an instinctive sympathy with the poor, and though he spent money lavishly, it still
flowed in such channels as to attest a princely magnanimity of spirit.”
When he was about twenty years old, Francis fought the Perugians in one of many petty
skirmishes and was defeated. He spent a year in captivity as a prisoner during which time
(1203) his father raised the money to pay his ransom. He was ill with fever for much of the
time, which made him realise how empty and wasteful his life had been – so when he
recovered, he set out to find glory in a military career. Around this time a Knight of Assisi,
who was in arms in the Neapolitan States against the Emperor, asked Francis to accompany
him. The night before they set off Francis had a dream. “He saw a vast hall hung with
armour marked with the Cross. ‘These’, said a voice, ‘are for you and your soldiers.’ ‘I
know I shall be a great prince’, exclaimed Francis exultingly, as he started for Apulia.” In
1205, Francis took ill again and had another dream. This time he was told to turn back to
Assisi, which he did at once.
When he returned, Francis’s friends
asked him if he was going to take a
wife. He said, “Yes, I am about to
take a wife of surpassing fairness,
Lady Poverty”. Detail from the
Allegory of Poverty fresco by Giotto
(c.1330) in the Lower Church. St.
Francis marries Poverty, shown here
as a winged woman dressed in rags,
at whom children throw stones or brandish sticks. Christ himself gives her hand to Francis.
Francis left behind his wealth and became Francis, friar and preacher. It wasn’t easy for the
spoilt and indulged young Francis, but after encountering a leper on the road, he overcame
his repulsion, embraced the man and gave him all the money he had on him. Then he made a
pilgrimage to Rome and at the tomb of St. Peter, Francis gave away all his money, exchanged
his clothes with a ragged vagrant, and then fasted for the rest of the day among the horde of
beggars at the door of the Basilica.
On his return to Assisi, Francis was praying in a wayside Chapel when a voice said to him,
‘Go Francis, and repair my house.’ Francis misunderstood and draped the old Church in gold
cloth from his father’s shop. His father was so angry he took Francis home, beat him and
locked him in a dark closet. Later Francis was
given shelter by the priest, who helped him to
understand what God really meant him to do. His
father disowned and disinherited him.
He accuses his son before the episcopal tribune
of squandering his fortune, so Francis returns to
him even the clothes he is wearing and repudiates
him. Giotto enhances the decisiveness of this
public separation by means of the two groups of
people and buildings on opposite sides.
Francis said, “Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say
only 'Our Father who art in Heaven'.” Then and there, as Dante sings, were solemnised
Francis's nuptials with his beloved spouse, the Lady Poverty. He then surrendered all his
worldly goods, honours, and privileges.
Francis founded the men's Franciscan Order, the women’s
Order of St. Clare and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis.
Most Franciscans are members of Roman Catholic
religious orders founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.
Besides Roman Catholic communities, there are also Old
Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, ecumenical and Nondenominational Franciscan communities.
Claire of Assisi (1194-1253]
The most prominent group is the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called simply the
"Franciscans.” They seek to follow most directly the manner of life that Saint Francis led.
This Order is a mendicant religious order of men tracing their origin to Francis of Assisi. It
comprises of three separate groups, each considered a religious order in its own right. They
are the Observants, who are simply called Franciscan friars, the Capuchins, who live in
poverty by design; they own nothing and live essentially as beggars in the world, and the
Conventual Franciscans. The Conventual order was split into two factions: those who desired
the traditional Franciscan life of solitary meditation in rural areas, and those who desired to
live together in friaries and work among the urban poor. The latter group was originally
known as the "Friars of the Community. However, they all lived according to a body of
regulations known as, The Rule of St. Francis.
On July 16, 1228, Francis was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX
and is known as one of the two patrons of Italy, the patron saint the
environment and – what we in the twenty-first Century know him best
as – the patron saint of animals. One famous sermon was when he
preached to a flock of birds. Travelling with several friars Francis
looked up and saw the trees were full of birds. He ran towards the birds
and begged them to listen to the word of God.
Thomas of Celano records that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as
Francis walked among them touching and blessing them. This event was a turning point for
Francis. He blamed himself for not having preached to the birds before and told all birds,
animals and reptiles to praise and love their Creator.
The stories of Saint Francis and animals are legendary. One famous story is about a
ferocious wolf that attacked people outside the town of Gubbio. All efforts to drive the wolf
away failed, so Saint Francis went to him with, not a weapon or a trap, but the message of the
Gospel. He told the wolf to repent for hurting people and from that day, the wolf and the
townspeople lived together in peace.
On 14 September 1224, in the solitude of prayer on Mount
Alverna, while praising God and pouring out his love for Him,
Francis saw the crucified Christ borne aloft by six wings. In
this moment of seraphic ecstasy, he received the marks of his
Lord's crucifixion-the stigmata-on his hands, feet, and side.
The Prayer of Saint Francis is attributed to Francis of Assisi in
the 13th-century. In its present form it can’t be traced back
further than 1912, when it was printed in France in French, in a small spiritual magazine
called La Clochette (The Little Bell) as an anonymous prayer.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O 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.
The prayer has been known in the United States since 1936 and Cardinal Francis Spellman
and Senator Hawkes distributed millions of copies of the prayer during and just after World
War II. Some forty years later, Margaret Thatcher, when she became Prime Minister of
England quoted the English version of the prayer on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street,
on the day she moved in.
There are dozens of books, scores of music, both classical and modern, as well as many
films based on Saint Francis of Assisi. And he began one tradition that persists to this day:
the Christmas crèche.
More about Saint Francis’s life, death and the Christmas Gospel at Mass, in St. Peter’s
Christmas Review.
P.S. The next time my
neighbour’s son, who is eight,
says, ‘Daddy thinks you’re mad
because you talk to the frogs in
your pond.’ I shall tell him all
about Saint Francis of Assisi.
Acknowledgements: The Catholic Conservation Centre, The National Shrine to Saint Francis
and Thomas of Celano’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi.

SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI One of the most recognised and