Saint Francis of Assisi
Assisi, Perugia (Italy) in 1182.
Assisi, Perugia (Italy) on October 3, 1226.
Pope Gregory IX canonized him on July 16, 1228.
Francis was born in Asisi, Italy in the year 1182. His father, Pietro Bernardone, was a rich cloth merchant. His mother’s name was Pica. Because his family was quite wealthy, throughout his childhood and adolescence he never felt need. As a young man, he liked going to parties and having fun with his friends, without worrying about his future; he was not at all interested in his studies, nor did he show any desire to learn his father’s trade.
When he was 20 years old, a war was declared between Perugia and Assisi. Francis took part in the military campaign and soon after was captured. He spent a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia, which gave him time to reflect upon the way he was living. He felt moved to change his life. In 1203, he was freed due to an illness and returned to Assisi.
Once he recovered from the illness, he bought majestic armor and a horse, and entered the army again to go and fight against the enemies. On the way, he met a soldier who didn’t have enough money to buy himself armor. Francis was moved by compassion and decided to give the soldier his own armor. That night, he dreamt that in exchange for the military armor, he received spiritual armor from the Lord to fight against the enemies of the soul. Once again, he fell ill and could not enter the combat. He returned once again to Assisi.
When Francis arrived in Assisi he was determined to change his life. He broke away from his attachments to a worldly life and his dreams to become a knight, seeking solitude and intensifying his life of prayer. A great desire to serve and to help others began to arise within him. One day, as he was walking through a field, he saw a leper. Although he experienced a strong repugnance, he felt interiorly inspired by the Lord to overcome himself and kiss the leper’s wounds. After that act of virtue, the saint felt moved to visit the sick and the poor.
In the second half of the year 1205, while Francis was in prayer before the crucifix in the church of St. Damian in Assisi, he heard the voice of the Lord repeat three times: “Francis, repair my House, which, as you see, is falling into ruins.” The saint understood that God was asking him to rebuild the poor chapel in ruins. He sold his goods and went to St. Damian’s to live like a hermit while he rebuilt it. The Lord, however, did not refer to that little church, but to His “House”, that is, the Church. He was speaking on a supernatural level. During his life, Francis would also fulfill that which the Lord asked of him symbolically through the image of a house.
When Pietro Bernardone, Francis’s father, found out that Francis had left his house and distributed his goods amongst the poor, he fell into a rage and presented himself before the bishop. Before the prelate, Bernardone disowned his son and demanded him to return everything he had received from his family. In that very instant, in front of everyone, Francis stripped himself and gave his clothes to his father, saying, “Until today I have called you my father on earth; now I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” Dressed in a poor and tattered habit, Francis walked through the streets of Assisi begging for alms to restore the church of St. Damian. Many of his acquaintances mocked him; they were accustomed to seeing him boasting of his wealth and dressed in elegant clothing.
Soon after, Francis asked the Benedictine monks for permission to live in a dilapidated chapel called Holy Mary of the Angels, also known as the Portiuncula. It was located about four kilometers away from the town. He lived there as a hermit, dedicated to prayer and to the restoration of both chapels, St. Damian and the Portiuncula.
In the year 1208, while the saint was proclaiming the Gospel in Mass one day, he felt that the Lord spoke to him directly: “Go and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.” (Mt 10:7-10) From that moment on, Francis decided to dedicate himself entirely to evangelization, living in utter poverty.
His apostolic life began, and soon several companions joined him. The first was Bernard of Quitavalle, a rich merchant from Assisi, who left behind everything to go to the Portiuncula with Francis. Then came Pietro Cattaneo, a canon of the Cathedral. Little by little they started to form a group. Francis began to send them out two-by-two as missionaries.
In 1209, Francis wrote down his plan for the “way of life” of this community and decided to go to Rome to ask for the approval of Pope Innocent III. Some of the clergy in Rome were reluctant to show their support because his “way of life” was too strict, but the Pontiff realized that it was a work of God and gave his assent. The Rule that Francis had written was made up of the exact guidelines the Lord set out in the Gospel, lived out in a radical way.
Upon his return from Rome, the friars established themselves for several months in Rivotorto, a town near Assisi. In 1210, the growing community moved to the Portiuncula. That same year, a young girl from the nobility named Clare manifested to Francis her desire to consecrate herself to God and to live the same Rule the friars were living. Through Clare a second institution was born in St. Damian.
Led by his apostolic zeal, Francis desired to bring the Word of God to every continent. The Franciscans increased in number and opened missions in Europe and Francis decided to found communities in Syria and Morocco.
The first general chapter of the Order was celebrated in 1219 in Assisi. No more than ten years had passed since the pontifical approval, but there were already more than five thousand friars. Francis exhorted them to seek union with God, to be faithful to the Church and to the Gospel, and to live in poverty and detachment from material things. All of this was necessary, Francis held, in order for their apostolate to be fruitful.
Francis obtained permission from the Holy Father to go to Egypt in order to meet with the Muslim sultan and preach the Gospel to the Egyptians. Before the negative response of the Muslims, Francis headed towards the Holy Land to visit the places sanctified by the presence of the Lord.
Meanwhile, tensions began to appear within the Order in Italy. Francis asked Pope Honorius III to name a cardinal as protector of the Order and he agreed, naming Cardinal Ugolino, future Pope Gregory XI, for the task. Francis commended the government of the order to his vicar, Fray Pietro Cattano, and decided to dedicate himself fully to preaching and to writing a definitive Rule. Honorius III approved this last Rule on November 29, 1223.
The following year, Francis went on a 40-day retreat in Mount La Verna to meditate on the Passion of the Lord. During that retreat he had a vision of a seraph by whom Francis received the marks of the Crucified Lord in his hands, feet, and side. He then returned to Assisi, and on his way he preached in all of the towns he passed.
The saint’s health began to deteriorate, and he received several different treatments in a few cities in the area. He was finally moved to the Episcopal palace of Assisi in April of 1226. His full recovery was doubtful.
When Francis felt that his death was drawing near, he asked to go back to the Portiuncula. On October 3, towards the afternoon, he gave his brothers his blessing. He then asked to be placed on the ground because he wanted to die the same way as the poorest men die. The next day, the friars carried the body of Francis to Assisi to be buried. Before the funeral, they took his body to St. Damian so that Clare and the Sisters could bid farewell for the last time.
Only two years after his death, on July 16, 1228, Pope Gregory IX, who had been the protector of the Order as a cardinal, canonized St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis had a great love for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Thomas of Celano, his first biographer, refers constantly to this devotion in his Second Life of St. Francis:
“He burned with such great fervor for the Sacrament of the Body of the Lord that it penetrated him to the bone, and he lived with a crazy admiration of His precious humility and His self-effacing charity. He considered it to be a serious contempt to not hear Mass daily, if possible. He received communion frequently and with such devotion as to inspire the same devotion in those who were with him. As he had such reverence for that which is worthy of all reverence, he offered the sacrifice of all the members, and when he received the Slain Lamb, he also offered his soul in the fire that continuously burned on the altar of his heart. Sometimes he wanted to send brothers across the world to carry precious ciboria, and wherever the brothers might find the price of Redemption [, the Eucharist,] in an indecent place, they might reserve it in a more select place. He wanted the hands of a priest to be venerated because those hands had the divine power to bring about [the Eucharist]. He frequently said, “If I were to see at the same time a saint come from heaven and a poor little priest, I would go forward to pay my respects to the priest. I would run to him to kiss his hands and say, “Oh, St. Lawrence, wait, because this man’s hands touch the Word of Life and possess something that exceeds that which is human.”
He spent long hours in adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, trembling before the divine presence. In a prayer written by St. Francis, we find this exclamation: “Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest. Oh stupendous dignity! Oh humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation he hides himself beneath an ordinary piece of bread.”
Through the life and writings of St. Francis of Assisi, we can see that he had a devotion to Mary. He felt a special predilection for Marian sanctuaries, especially for the Church of Holy Mary of the Angels, which he called the Portiuncula, one of the churches he himself restored. Thomas of Celano writes in his Second Life of St. Francis, “He often said that by revelation of God he knew that the Most Blessed Virgin loved that church with a special love among all the churches built in her honor throughout the entire world, and for that reason the saint loved that church more than any other church.” In fact, according to St. Bonaventure, he wanted his brothers to move there, “so that in the same place where, through the merits of the Mother of God, the Order of the Minors had its origin, it might receive a renewed growth with Her help.”
His devotion was made up of concrete gestures. St. Francis prayed the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. Celano says in the Second Life of St. Francis, that “He honored her with his own Praises, poured out prayers to her, and offered her his love in a way that no human tongue can express.” To celebrate the feasts of the Virgin Mary, he prepared himself in the preceding days with fasts and penance.
Two famous prayers of St. Francis to the Virgin Mary have been conserved:
A Salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Hail, O Lady, Holy Queen, Mary, holy Mother of God, who are virgin made Church, chosen by the most Holy Father in heaven, who consecrated you with His most holy beloved Son and with the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good.
Hail His Palace! Hail His Tabernacle! Hail His Dwelling! Hail His Robe! Hail His Servant! Hail His Mother!
And hail all you holy virtues which are poured into the hearts of the faithful through the grace and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that from being unbelievers, You might make them faithful to God.
Antiphon from the Office of the Passion
Holy Virgin Mary, there is none like unto Thee born in the world among women· Daughter and Handmaid of the Most High, the Highest King, the heavenly Father, Mother of Our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, Spouse of the Holy Spirit: pray on our behalf with St. Michael the Archangel and all the Virtues of Heaven and all the Saints before Thy Most Holy Beloved Son, the Lord and Master.
Assisi, Italy, is the main pilgrimage destination related to the saint. The entire city of Assisi speaks to us of St. Francis and St. Clare. The following is a list of the most important places to visit:
-In the Basilica of Holy Mary of the Angels we can see the Portiuncula, a small chapel in the center of the basilica that was restored by St. Francis himself. The first Franciscans lived there as a community. We can also see the Cappella del Transito, a chapel built where the saint died. In the same area, we can see a rosebush without thorns. St. Francis, when assaulted by a temptation, threw himself into the rosebush to overcome the temptation. After such a heroic act, the rosebush miraculously lost its thorns. Other relics can also be found in this basilica.
-The Basilica of St. Francis contains the remains of the saint and of the first Franciscans.
-The church called Chiesa Nuova was built upon the house where the saint was born.
-The Carceri Hermitage, literally prison hermitage, is made up of little caves in a boulder where St. Francis isolated himself to pray and do penance.
-The Convent of St. Damian is the place where Jesus from a crucifix asked the saint to repair His house. St. Francis lived there for some time and rebuilt the chapel. Later it became the convent founded by St. Clare and St. Francis. St. Clare lived and died in the convent.
-In the Basilica of St. Clare one can see the original crucifix of St. Damian that spoke to St. Francis. One can also visit the remains of St. Clare and other relics of both saints.
A little less than two miles away from Assisi there is a little town called Rivotorto, where some of the first Franciscans lived in two little rooms within the Shrine of Holy Mary. St. Francis wrote the Rule of the Franciscan order in that shrine.
Around 60 miles away, in the province of Arezzo, one can visit the Shrine of Mount La Verna, where St. Francis had a vision of Jesus as a seraph, who imprinted in his flesh marks of the Passion. In this shrine, in addition to the Stigmata chapel, there are other relics of the saint, like a tunic, a cloth with his blood, his cell with a bed of stone, etc.
When St. Francis went to Rome, he stayed in a neighorhoood called Ripa. The room in which he lived while in Rome is conserved in a church called San Francesco a Ripa.
St. Francis travelled through Perugia, Gubbio, Cortona, Trasimeno, Foligno, Narni, etc, and in many of these cities the places where he stayed or the hermitages to which he retired to pray are conserved.
By the saint:
Several writings of St. Francis have been conserved: The Rule (the first and the second version), his testament, letters, prayers, etc. They can be found in religious bookstores and in several Franciscan websites.
From the Popes:
-Homily of Pope Benedict XVI in the Basilica of St. Francis on June 17, 2007 (800 year anniversary of the conversion of St. Francis).
-Encyclical of Pope Pius XI “Rite Expiatis,” released on April 30, 1882.
-Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII “Auspicato Concessum,” September 17, 1882.
From other authors:
Many books and essays have been published about the saint. They can be found in Catholic bookstores and on the internet. Here are a couple of suggestions:
-St. Francis’s first biographer was Fray Thomas of Celano. Pope Gregory IX asked him to write a biography about St. Francis a few years after the death of the saint, to be used for his canonization. That first biography is titled First Life of Saint Francis. In 1244, the Franciscans, in the General Chapter, asked him to write another biography, which is titled, Second Life of St. Francis. Around the year 1254 he wrote a third book called Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis.
-Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure.
-The Joyful Beggar by Louis de Whol.
-The Flowers of St. Francis, published anonymously. It includes several stories and miracles of St. Francis.