Francis of Assisi was a poor man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literallynot in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a mite of self-importance. Francis was famous for his love of all creation. He called for simplicity of life, poverty, and humility before God. He worked to care for the poor. Thousands were drawn to his sincerity, piety, and joy. In all his actions, Francis sought to follow fully and literally the way of life demonstrated by Christ in the Gospels. My report is going to discuss the life and contributions of St. Francis of Assisi.
Francis of Assisi lived about eight hundred years ago. He was born in the city of Assisi, Italy, in 1182. He was the son of Peter Bernardone (A wealthy merchant) and Madonna Pica. His father sold spices and fabrics and was often out of town on business. While Peter Bernardone was traveling in Provence on business, Madonna Pica gave birth to his son. Far from being excited or apologetic because he’d been gone, Pietro was furious because she’d had his new son baptized Giovanni after John the Baptist. The last thing Pietro wanted in his son was a man of God — he wanted a man of business, a cloth merchant like he was, and he especially wanted a son Francesco — which is the equivalent of calling him Frenchman. Francis spent a happy childhood under the watchful eye of Madonna Pica and the attention heaped on him by his father, who was certain that Francis would follow him in the merchant business. His strict education and healthy moral upbringing gave everything he did a sense of balance. Francis enjoyed a very rich easy life growing up because of his father’s wealth and the permissiveness of the times. From the beginning everyone loved Francis. He was constantly happy, charming, and a born leader. If he was picky, people excused him. If he was ill, people took care of him. If he was so much of a dreamer he did poorly in school, no one minded. In many ways he was too easy to like for his own good. No one tried to control him or teach him.
As he grew up, Francis became the leader of a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. Francis himself said, “I lived in sin” during that time.
Francis fulfilled every hope of Pietro’s, and despite his dreaming, Francis was also good at business. But Francis wanted more than wealth. But not holiness. Francis wanted to be a noble, a knight. Battle was the best place to win the glory and prestige he longed for. He got his first chance when Assisi declared war on their longtime enemy, the nearby town of Perugia. When Francis was just barely twenty years old, he fought in the war between Assisi and Perugia and was taken prisoner. Most of the troops from Assisi were butchered in the fight. Only those wealthy enough to expect to be ransomed were taken prisoner. At last Francis was among the nobility like he always wanted to be, but chained in a harsh, dark dungeon. All accounts say that he never lost his happy manner in that horrible place. Finally, after a year in the dungeon, he was ransomed. Strangely, the experience didn’t seem to change him. He gave himself to partying with as much joy and abandon as he had before the battle. That period shaped the young man’s soul and the weaker his body became, the more deeply his sense of charity and love towards others took root in him. By the time he returned to Assisi, he was seriously ill. His mother’s loving care and time itself brought him back to health, but the carefree life he had led before and which had started again by now, seemed empty to him. Driven by his dreams of being a soldier, he decided to follow a condottiere to the southern region of Apulia, but when he had gotten as far as Spoleto, the Lord appeared to him one night in a dream and ordered him to turn back. The words of God echoed in his mind like a summons. This marked the beginning of his gradual conversion and from that moment on, his life was to be filled with prophetic events.
The experience didn’t change what he wanted from life either: Glory. Finally a call for knights for the Fourth Crusade gave him a chance for his dream. But before he left Francis had to have a suit of armor and a horse — no problem for the son of a wealthy father. And not just any suit of armor would do but one decorated with gold with a magnificent cloak. Any relief we feel in hearing that Francis gave the cloak to a poor knight will be destroyed by the boasts that Francis left behind that he would return a prince. But Francis never got farther than one day’s ride from Assisi. There he had a dream in which God told him he had it all wrong and told him to return home. So he went home. He had to return without ever making it to battle — the boy who wanted nothing more than to be liked was humiliated, laughed at, called a coward by the village and raged at by his father for the money wasted on armor.
Francis’ conversion did not happen over night. God had waited for him for twenty-five years and now it was Francis’ turn to wait. Francis started to spend more time in prayer. He went off to a cave and wept for his sins. Sometimes God’s grace overwhelmed him with joy. But life couldn’t just stop for God. There was a business to run, customers to wait on. One day while riding through the countryside, Francis, the man who loved beauty, who was so picky about food, who hated deformity, came face to face with a leper. Repelled by the appearance and the smell of the leper, Francis nevertheless jumped down from his horse and kissed the hand of the leper. When his kiss of peace was returned, Francis was filled with joy. As he rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared. He always looked upon it as a test from God, that he had passed.
He chose to go off in silent meditation amidst the hills and countryside of Assisi, often stopping at the little church of St. Damian, just a few kilometers outside the city. From the cross in the neglected field-chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Francis became the totally poor and humble workman.
He took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it to get money to repair the church. His father saw this as an act of theft — and put together with Francis’ cowardice, waste of money, and his growing disinterest in money made Francis seem more like a madman than his son. Pietro dragged Francis before the bishop and in front of the whole town demanded that Francis return the money and renounce all rights as his heir.
The bishop was very kind to Francis; he told him to return the money and said God would provide. That was all Francis needed to hear. He not only gave back the money but stripped off all his clothes until he was wearing only a shirt. In front of the crowd that had gathered he said, “Pietro Bernadone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.'” Wearing nothing but castoff rags, he went off into the freezing woods — singing. And when robbers beat him later and took his clothes, he climbed out of the ditch and went off singing again.
A few people began to realize that this man was actually trying to be Christian. He really believed what Jesus said: “Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff.”
Francis’ first rule for his followers was a collection of texts from the Gospels. He had no idea of founding an order, but once it began he protected it and accepted all the legal structures needed to support it. His a time when various movements of reform tended to break the Church’s unity.
Francis went back to what he considered God’s call. He begged for stones and rebuilt the San Damiano church with his own hands. Scandal and avarice were working on the Church from the inside while outside heresies flourished by appealing to those longing for something different or adventurous.
Soon Francis started to preach. Francis was not a reformer; he preached about returning to God and obedience to the Church. Francis must have known about the decay in the Church, but he always showed the Church and its people his utmost respect. When someone told him of a priest living openly with a woman and asked him if that meant the Mass was polluted, Francis went to the priest, knelt before him, and kissed his hands — because those hands had held God.
Slowly companions came to Francis, people who wanted to follow his life of sleeping in the open, begging for garbage to eat and loving God. With companions, Francis knew he now had to have some kind of direction to this life so he opened the Bible in three places. He read the command to the rich young man to sell all his good and give to the poor, the order to the apostles to take nothing on their journey, and the demand to take up the cross daily. “Here is our rule,” Francis said as simple, and as seemingly impossible, as that. He was going to do what no one thought possible any more — live by the Gospel. Francis took these commands so literally that he made one brother run after the thief who stole his hood and offer him his robe! Francis never wanted to found a religious order — this former knight thought that sounded too military. He thought of what he was doing as expressing God’s brotherhood. His companions came from all walks of life, from fields and towns, nobility and common people, universities, the Church, and the merchant class. Francis practiced true equality by showing honor, respect, and love to every person whether they were beggar or pope.
Following the Gospel literally, Francis and his companions went out to preach two by two. At first, listeners were understandably hostile to these men in rags trying to talk about God’s love. People even ran from them for fear they’d catch this strange madness. But soon these same people noticed that these barefoot beggars wearing sacks seemed filled with constant joy. They celebrated life. And people had to ask themselves: Could one own nothing and be happy?
Soon those who had met them with mud and rocks, greeted them with bells and smiles.
Francis did not try to abolish poverty, he tried to make it holy. When his friars met someone poorer than they, they would eagerly rip off the sleeve of their habit to give to the person. They worked for all necessities and only begged if they had to. But Francis would not let them accept any money. He told them to treat coins as if they were pebbles in the road. When the bishop showed horror at the friars’ hard life, Francis said, “If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.” Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, What could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige.
Francis was a man of action. His simplicity of life extended to ideas and deeds. If there was a simple way, no matter how impossible it seemed, Francis would take it. So when Francis wanted approval for his brotherhood, he went straight to Rome to see Pope Innocent III. He threw Francis out. But when he had a dream that this tiny man in rags held up the tilting Lateran basilica, he quickly called Francis back and gave him permission to preach.
Sometimes this direct approach led to mistakes that he corrected with the same spontaneity that he made them. Once he ordered a brother who hesitated to speak because he stuttered to go preach half-naked. When Francis realized how he had hurt someone he loved he ran to town, stopped the brother, took off his own clothes, and preached instead.
Francis acted quickly because he acted from the heart; he didn’t have time to put on a role. Once he was so sick and exhausted, his companions borrowed a mule for him to ride. When the man who owned the mule recognized Francis he said, “Try to be as virtuous as everyone thinks you are because many have a lot of confidence in you.” Francis dropped off the mule and knelt before the man to thank him for his advice.
Another example of his directness came when he decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. When he and his companion were captured, the real miracle was that they weren’t killed. Instead Francis was taken to the sultan who was charmed by Francis and his preaching. He told Francis, “I would convert to your religion which is a beautiful one — but both of us would be murdered.”
Francis did find persecution and martyrdom of a kind — not among the Moslems, but among his own brothers. When he returned to Italy, he came back to a brotherhood that had grown to 5000 in ten years. Pressure came from outside to control this great movement, to make them conform to the standards of others. His dream of radical poverty was too harsh, people said. Francis responded, “Lord, didn’t I tell you they wouldn’t trust you?”
He finally gave up authority in his order but he wasn’t too upset about it. Now he was just another brother, like he’d always wanted.
Francis’ actions did not go unnoticed and he was soon joined by his first followers: Bernard of Quintavalle, Peter Catanii and then a short time later, Giles and Philip the Long. Francis and his companions had their first experiences in the Assisi valley, in the hovel in Rivotorto and at the Porziuncola. They were joined by other companions and, like Francis, they dressed in a tunic and rags. The Order of the Friars Minor was officially founded in 1210. The headquarters of the Order moved from Rivotorto to the Porziuncola. This was also when the first contact with Clare of Assisi took place and this represented the beginning of the female branch of the Franciscan movement or, in other words, the foundation of the Order of the Poor Women, who would later be known as the Poor Clares. In 1213, Count Orlando of Chiusi donated Mount La Verna to Francis and this marked the beginning of more widespread teaching. Francis decided to go to Morocco, but had to stop in Spain because he fell ill. In 1216, Honorius III approved the Porziuncola Indulgence, or the Assisi Pardon, which was the most important indulgence in the Christian world after the one that the faithful could obtain in the Holy Land. The saint’s followers then began to preach in Europe and the Orient. In 1219, Francis left for Acre and Damietta as part of one of the Crusades and arrived in Egypt, at the court of sultan Melek el-Kamel. From there, he went on to Palestine. In the meantime, the first Franciscan martyrs died in Morocco. The Poor One returned to Assisi in 1220 and by this time, his ideals of poverty, charity and simplicity had influenced a great number of people. Therefore, at this point he began new cycle of evangelization in Central Italy and traveled up and down the peninsula. At Fontecolombo, near Rieti, he drew up a new Rule, which was then approved by Honorius III. At Greccio in December, he made the first Christmas crche, one of Christianitys most beloved traditions. At this point in his life, he was exhausted and seriously ill and was treated at St. Damian’s. Years of poverty and wandering had made Francis ill. While he was there, he composed the Canticle of Brother Sun, a deeply religious and lyrical prayer that synthesizes all the ideals of humility that made Franciscanism so momentous. Perceiving that he had come to the end of his days, he asked to be brought to the Porziuncola, in Santa Maria degli Angeli, the place from which his message was spread. During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 45) he was half blind and seriously ill. Two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side. On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death.” He sang Psalm 141, and at the end asked his superior to have his clothes removed when the last hour came and for permission to expire lying naked on the earth, in imitation of his Lord. Francis’ final years were filled with suffering as well as humiliation. When he began to go blind, the pope ordered that his eyes be operated on. This meant cauterizing his face with a hot iron.
Francis never recovered from this illness. He died on October 4, 1226 at the age of 45. Two years later, on July 16th, he was canonized a saint by Pope Gregory IX. Francis is considered the founder of all Franciscan orders and the patron saint of ecologists and merchants.
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