Honored by the Catholic Church as the Patron Saint of animals and ecology, and even Italy, St. Francis was the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, more popularly known as the Franciscans. He is also considered the first Italian poet by literary critics. Apart from being regarded as valuable religious texts, his works have great literary value as well. For the ease of the commoners, Francis always wrote in a dialect of Umbria, instead of Latin. St. Francis called for simplicity of life, poverty and humility before God. He led his life serving the poor and needy.
Franciswas born at Assisi, in Umbria, in 1181. One amongst the seven children of Pietro di Bernardone and his wife Pica Bourlemont, his father was out on a business trip at the time of his birth. Pica had the child baptized as Giovanni di Bernardone, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. She wanted her son to become a great religious leader in the future.
When Pietroreturned from his trip, he wasfurious at the act of his wife and renamed his son as Francesco. He wanted his son to be a man of business, who would reflect his infatuation with France, rather than be a man of God. Francis displayed an affable and charming personality, right from childhood. He had the instincts of being a leader and was neither controlled nor taught by anyone.
Francis displayed all the characteristics that Pietro wanted him to possess. Right from his love for French songs, to poetry and daydreams, Francis reflected France in everything. However, apart from being a good businessman, Francis aimed to be a noble and knight. His wish was soon granted, as Assisi declared war on their longtime enemy, the nearby town of Perugia, and Francis went to war, with other men. While most of the troops from Assisi were killed, the wealthy ones were taken into custody, so that they would be ransomed. Francis was one amongst the nobility.
Though Francis was chained and kept in a harsh, dark dungeon for about a year, coming out of it, Francis did not reflect even an iota of change. He resumed his usual carefree life. In 1204, he was struck by a serious illness that led him to follow a spiritual path. The following year, Francis left for Puglia, to enlist in the army of the Count of Brienne, but returned after he had a strange vision that deepened his ecclesiastical awakening. From then on, Francis started avoiding sports and feasts of his former companions. Instead, he would sit alone in lonely place and ask God for enlightenment. Soon, he took up the job of nursing those affected with leprosy.
After his pilgrim trip to Rome, Francis had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi, wherein he was asked by Christ to save the ruined church. Francis started assisting the priest there, for the purpose. Though his father tried hard to alter Francis' mind, every attempt went in vain. In the last meeting with his father, in the presence of a bishop, he abandoned his father and his patrimony, and even the clothes that he had received. After about two years, Francis restored several ruined churches, out of which Porziuncola, the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, was his favorite.
Founding of the Order of Friars Minor
Inspired by a sermon about Matthew 10:9 (in which Christ has encouraged people to renounce everything and go forth and proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven), Francis devoted himself completely to a life of poverty. Barely clad and barefooted, he started preaching the value of repentance. Within a year, Francis had 11 followers, but he did not wish to be ordained as a priest. His small community came to be known as 'lesser brothers'.
'Lesser brothers' were constantly on the move, exploring the mountainous districts of Umbria, with their cheerful faces, hymns and songs. It was in 1209 that Francis, along with his followers, reached Rome, to seek consent for a new religious order. The Pope admitted the group informally, with the clause that when the group increased both in number and grace, he would make them official. The group was tonsured and Francis was ordained as a deacon. This allowed him the authority to read the Gospel in the church.
After being informally recognized as a group, the new religious order of Francis grew dramatically. In 1211, Francis established the Order of Poor Dames, upon receiving Clare at the Porziuncola, which was later called Poor Clares. Francis' venture to Jerusalem did not succeed, as his ship got wrecked and he was forced to return to Italy. In 1213, he received the mountain of La Verna, as a gift from the Count Orlando di Chiusi. The mountain, located in a remote area, was just ideal place for people who wished to do penance. His venture to Morocco was also disrupted, due to his ill health, forcing him to break his journey in Spain.
Francis traveled to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, where he met Dominic de Guzman. In the following year, he received the authentication of the indulgence of the Porziuncola, from the new Pope Honorius III. In 1219, Francis, along with some of his followers, set on a non-violence journey to Egypt. He tried to convert the Sultan to Christianity, but failed. However, Francis had managed to cast a favorable impression in the minds of the people for Christianity. In 1220, Francis paid a visit to the holy places in Palestine.
In 1220 only, on Christmas, Francis had set up the first known three-dimensional presepio or crèche, in the town of Greccio, near Assisi. To make the worshipper contemplate the real scene during the time of Lord's birth, he used real animals. In the next two years, 1221 and 1222, Francis traveled to Sicily and Bologna. In 1223, Pope Honorius III finally approved the final rule of his order (in twelve chapters). It was during this time that Francis had a vision on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as a result of which he received the stigmata.
Though Francis got treatment for Stigmata and an eye disease in several cities, it brought no relief. Coming back to Porziuncola, he was taken to transito, the hut for infirmed friars. Francis spent his end days in this hut, dictating his spiritual testament. It was on the evening of October 3, 1226, that he left for the heavenly abode, while singing Psalm 141.
It was only two years after his death i.e. in 1228 (on July 16) that Francis was given the title of a Saint, by the next pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal Ugolino di Conti. The following day, the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi was laid. In 1818, Pasquale Belli constructed a crypt for the remains of St. Francis, in neo-classical style, under the Lower Basilica. This was further modified between 1927 and 1930, by Ugo Tarchi. On May 5, 1940 that Pope Pius XII named St Francis a joint Patron Saint of Italy, along with Saint Catherine of Siena. In 1978, Pope Paul VI transferred the remains of St. Francis, in a glass urn, to the ancient stone tomb.
Every year, on October 4th, St. Francis' feast day is observed. Apart from this, a secondary feast is held on September 17, by the Traditional Roman Catholics and Franciscans all over the world, to honor the stigmata received by St Francis. This day is called 'The Impression of the Stigmata of St Francis, Confessor'.
Francis' Love for Nature & Environment
St. Francis was well-known for his love of nature and environment. At the same time, his love for brotherhood included all of God's creation, right from small flowers and birds to animals. For him, his love for birds was equivalent to his love for the Pope. In one of the famous fable related to St. Francis, it is said that he preached a flock of almost hundred sparrows, which only flew when he said that they could leave.
St. Francis of Assisi is also said to have calmed a terrifying and ferocious wolf, which was known to devour men and animals alike. He is also said to have written a poem that expressed his love of the natural world. St. Francis preached people that it was their duty to protect and enjoy nature. One of his fables recounts that the saint thanked his donkey for carrying him and helping him on his deathbed.
Rules, Testament and Admonitions
- Regula non bullata, or Earlier Rule (1221)
- Fragmenta alterius Regulae non bullatae, or Excerpts from another Earlier Rule
- Regula bullata, or Later Rule (1223)
- Regula pro eremitoriis data, or Rule for Hermitages
- Testament (1226)
- Forma Vivendi S. Clarae data, or Form of Life given to Saint Clare
- Ultima Voluntas S. Clarae scripta, or Last Will written for Saint Clare
- Epistula ad fratrem Antonium, or Letter to Brother Anthony
- Epistula ad Clericos, or Letter to the Clergy
- Epistula ad Custodes I, or First Letter to the Custodians
- Epistula ad Custodes II, or Second Letter to the Custodians
- Epistula ad Fideles I, or First version of the Letter to the Faithful
- Epistula ad Fideles II, or Second version of the Letter to the Faithful
- Epistula ad fratrem Leonem, or Letter to Brother Leo
- Epistula toti Ordini missa, or Letter to the entire Order
- Epistula ad Ministrum, or Letter to a Minister
- Epistula ad populorum rectores, or Letter to the Rulers of the Peoples
- Canticum Fratris Solis, or Canticle of Brother Sun
- Chartula fratris Leonis data, or Parchment given to Brother Leo
- Oratio ante crucifixum dicta, or Prayer before the Crucifix
- Exhortatio ad laudem Dei, or Exhortation to the Praise of God
- Laudes ad omnes horas dicendae, or Praises to be said at all the Hours
- Expositio in Pater Noster, or the Prayer inspired by the Our Father
- Officium Passionis Domini, or Office of the Passion
- Salutatio Beatae Mariae Virginis, or Salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Salutatio Virtutum, or Salutation of the Virtues
- Blessing given to Brother Bernard
- Blessing sent to Saint Clare and her Sisters
- Letter written for the citizens of Bologna
- Letter written to Lady Jacopa
- Letter sent to the Brothers in France
- Testament written in Siena
- De vera et perfecta laetitia, or True and Perfect Joy
- Audite poverelle, a song dedicated to Clare and her sisters of San Damiano