Childhood & Early Life
St. Francis of Assisi was born sometime between December 1181 and September 1182 in Assisi, an independent Ghibelline commune in the center of Umbria region of Italy. Some biographers have put his date of birth to September 26, 1182. He was one among his parents’ seven children.
His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a prosperous silk merchant, who also owned farmland around Assisi. It is said that he loved everything French and was proficient in French language.
His mother, Pica de Bourlemont, came from an aristocrat family from Provence. Not much is known about her except that she was very beautiful. She must have also been very religious for when St Francis was born she had him baptized as Giovanni di Bernardore, after John the Baptist.
At that time, his father was away on business trip to France. When he came home, he was not pleased with such a marked association with a man of God and therefore changed his son’s name to Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone; Francesco literally means Frenchman.
Francesco had elementary education at a school associated with the Church of San Giorgio in Assisi. Here, in addition to mathematics, music and poetry, he learned to read and write Latin. From his father, he learned French.
As an adolescent, he led a carefree and rich life. By the age of 14, he left school to lead a group of young boys into merry making; wining, dining and very often breaking the city curfew. However, even during this period, his heart went out for the poor.
Although his father now made him attend his cloth business, his heart was not there. If young Francis had any ambition, it was to become a war hero like a French knights. He learned the art of archery, wrestling and horsemanship.
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War with Perugia
His chance came when in November 1202 war broke out between Assisi and its long-time enemy Perugia. Twenty year old Francis joined the cavalry and went off to fight; but untrained and inexperienced, he was taken a prisoner.
Seeing his expensive dress and new armor, the Perugia soldiers decided to demand ransom for his release. He was therefore thrown into a dank and unhealthy prison at Collestrada, where he remained imprisoned for almost a year, waiting for his father to pay the ransom.
It was during this period that Francis is believed to have his first vision, although nothing is known about it. Living in the damp and cold atmosphere, he was also afflicted with disease. Therefore, by the time the negotiation for the ransom was complete, Francis was a changed man,
In 1203, Francis returned to Assisi, battle-scarred and sick. Once recovered, he started leading his old life; but it soon became apparent that his heart was no longer in that. The change became more pronounced when one day he met a leper.
In his earlier days, Francis would have surely left the place in hurry. This time, although he was repulsed at first, he controlled himself and disembarked from his horse to embrace and kiss him. He later said that as he did that, he experienced a feeling of sweetness in his mouth.
According to some scholars, he saw the leper as a symbol of moral conscience while others believe he saw him as Jesus incognito. Whatever it was, after this, his lifestyle underwent a complete change and he felt free.
In late 1205, he tried to join the papal forces under Count Gentile against the emperor Frederick II in Apulia. This time too he was dressed in best; his armor was decorated with gold and the cloak was made out of best silk. But, he never reached the battlefield.
Just a day after he started his journey, he had a vision. In it, God bade him to return to Assisi and wait for His call. Abiding the divine order, Francis returned to Assisi, braving taunt and humiliation as well as his father’s wrath for wasting money on the armor.
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From now on, he began to focus more on God, less on his father’s business. Visiting remote mountain retreats or old quiet churches, he now began to spend a lot of time on praying and nursing lepers. He was then in his early twenties.
Sometime now, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he emptied his purse at the tomb of St. Peters. To test himself, he then exchanged his clothes with a poor mendicant and joined the beggars at St. Peter's Basilica, begging for food.
One day, on his return to Assisi, he sat praying in front of a crucifix in the forsaken church of San Damiano. Suddenly, he heard the voice of Christ, which said, "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin."
Francis took it literally because the church in which, he was praying was actually in ruins. He then went to his father’s shop and bundling up some expensive drapery he next went to Foligno, at that time an important market, and sold both the drapery and his horse.
The officiating priest refused to take the gold, fearing his father’s wrath. Indeed, his father was terribly angry. He took Francis to the Bishop and demanded that not only he return the money, but also forego his inheritance.
Francis took off his clothes and happily declared that he was no longer the son of Pietro di Bernardone and the only father he recognized was the Father in Heaven. Wearing cast of rags, he went into the woods, leaving everything behind.
A New Life
Francis now wandered among the hills of Assisi, singing hymns and praying. Thereafter, he worked for sometime as scullion at a nearby monastery, before finally returning to Assisi; for he was still to rebuild the church of San Damiano.
This time, he completed his job by begging for stones and then rebuilding the church with his own hand. Later, he rebuilt the churches of St. Peter's and St. Mary of the Angels, both located near Assisi, in the same manner. All the while, he continued nursing the lepers.
On February 24, 1208, sitting in his hut near St Mary, he heard the priest reading out from the Gospel. It said that the followers of Jesus Christ should not possess anything; not two tunics, two shoes, or a staff or scrip and they should move around exhorting people to repent.
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It seemed that those words were directly meant for him and he immediately threw away the little worldly goods he had, obtaining a coarse woolen tunic, used by the poorest of poor, to cover his body. He then went about proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Setting Up the Order
By 1209, a band of followers began to gather around Francis. First to join him was Bernard of Quintavalle, a wealthy businessman and jurist. Next was Peter of Cattaneo, a well-known canon. But, he was yet unsure of God’s Will.
To find direction, he opened the Bible randomly and each time, it opened at pages, where Christ asked his followers to leave everything and follow him. Francis and his followers now began to live as ‘fratres minors’ or lesser brothers in a deserted house in a lepers’ colony near Assisi.
Also, in 1209, Francis went to Rome with eleven of his disciples to seek permission to set up a new order. Initially reluctant, the Pope agreed to admit the group informally, asking them to come back for official admission when they were greater in number. .
They returned in 1210 and on April 16, the Franciscan Order was officially admitted by Pope Innocent III. After the ceremony, they returned to Porziuncola, where the Benedictines of Monte Subasio transferred the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels to the new order.
Francis and his friars now began to preach in Umbria. It attracted lot of followers and one of them was Clair of Assisi. On March 28, 1212, she left home to join Franciscan Order with few other ladies.
For them, Francis now established the Order of Poor Ladies, lodging the new nuns in the church of San Damiano. It was later renamed as Poor Clares. He also formed the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance for the householders.
He now began sending preachers to other parts of Italy. In the autumn of 1212, he himself set out for Jerusalem; but had to return when his ship ran into bad weather. Next in 1214, he traveled to Spain to preach to the Moors; but sickness caused him to return once more.
In 1219, he joined the Fourth Crusade, where he walked through the battleline to meet the King of Egypt. Although the King was highly impressed, Francis’ intention did not fruitify. Moreover, he had to return to Italy because trouble began to erupt among his friars, now numbering thousands.
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Providing Institutional Structure
So far, Francis had held the order by his own personality; but now he felt that there was a need to form more detailed rules. Therefore, on his return to the headquarters of the Order at Porziuncola, he set out to form number of rules.
Known as ‘Rule without a Papal Bull’ (Regula prima, Regula non bullata), they provided more institutional structure to the order. But they failed to get the approval of the Pope.
On September 29, 1220, Francis handed over the leadership of the Order to Brother Peter Catani and on his death few months later to Brother Elias. He, however, continued to involve himself in running the Order.
In around 1222, Francis modified the ‘Rule without a Papal Bull’ to write the ‘Second Rule’ or ‘Rule with a Bull, setting regulations on different aspects like entry into the order, discipline and preaching. On November 29, 1223, it was approved by Pope Honorius III.
His task done, Francis now began to withdraw himself from external world. On September 24, 1224, while he was praying on the Mountain of Verna in preparation of Michaelmas, he had a vision of a seraph, who gave him the gift of stigmata, the five wounds of Christ.
Suffering, he was first taken to different cities like Siena, Cortona, Nocera. But when his wounds did not heal, he was brought back to his hut next to the St. Mary in Porziuncola. On realizing that his days are now numbered, Francis spent his last days dictating his spiritual Testament.
Death & Legacy
St. Francis lived two more years, suffering from constant pain and blindness. He died singing Psalm 142 on the evening of October 3, 1226. Thereafter, he was temporarily buried in the church of San Giorgio at Assisi.
On July 16, 1228, he was pronounced a saint by Pope Gregory IX and on July 17, the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi was laid by him.
On May 25, 1230, St. Francis was buried, under the Lower Basilica. But fearing invasion by the Saracens, Brother Elias had his tomb moved to undisclosed location, where it remained hidden until it was re-discovered in 1818.