Francis was born to Pietro di Bernardone, a prominent businessman, and his wife Pica Bourlemont, about whom little is known except that she was originally from France. He was one of seven children. Pietro was in France on business when Francis was born, and Pica had him baptized as Giovanni di Bernardone in honor of Saint John the Baptist, in the hope he would grow to be a great religious leader. When his father returned to Assisi, he was furious about this, as he did not want his son to be a man of the Church. Pietro decided to call him Francisco (Francis), in honor of the child’s maternal heritage.
Rebellious toward his father’s business and pursuit of wealth, Francis spent most of his youth lost in books (ironically, his father’s wealth did afford his son an excellent education, and he became fluent in reading several languages including Latin). He was also known for drinking and enjoying the company of his many friends, who were usually the sons of nobles. His displays of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him became evident fairly early, one of which is shown in the story of the beggar. In this account, he found himself out having fun with his friends one day when a beggar came along and asked for alms. While his friends ignored the beggar’s cries, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his stupidity, and when he got home, his father scolded him in a rage.
In 1201 he joined a military expedition against Perugia, was taken prisoner at Collestrada, and spent a year as a captive. It is probable that his conversion to more serious thoughts was a gradual process relating to this experience. After his return to Assisi in 1203, Francis recommenced his carefree life. But in 1204 a serious illness started a spiritual crisis. In 1205 Francis left for Puglia to enlist in the army of Gualtiero di Brienne. But on his way, in Spoleto, a strange vision made him return to Assisi, deepening his spiritual crisis.
It is said that when he began to avoid the sports and the feasts of his former companions, and they asked him laughingly if he was thinking of marrying, he answered “yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen” – meaning his “lady poverty”, as he afterward used to say. He spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing lepers, the most repulsive victims in the lazar houses near Assisi. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he claimed to have had a mystical experience in the Church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified came alive and said to him three times, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” He thought this to mean the very ruined church in which he was presently praying, and so sold his horse together with some cloth from his father’s store, to assist the priest there for this purpose.
His father Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to bring him to his senses, first with threats and then with corporal chastisement. After a final interview in the presence of the bishop, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, laying aside even the garments he had received from him. For the next couple of months he lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi. Returning to the town for two years this time, he restored several ruined churches, among them the Porziuncola, little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, just outside the town, which later became his favorite abode.
founding of the order
At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, on February 24, 1209), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis was inspired to devote himself wholly to a life of poverty.
Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance. He was soon joined by his first follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Many other companions joined Francis, and reached the number of eleven within a year. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, and the community lived as “fratres minores”, in Latin, “lesser brothers”. The Franciscans are sometimes called Friars Minor, a term derived from “fratres”, in Latin, “brothers”.
The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations.
In 1209 Francis led his first 11 followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. At first his attempt to speak with the Pope was refused; but the following night, according to accounts, Innocent saw in a dream the church was crumbling apart and a poor man appearing to hold it up. The next morning, recalling the poor man he had refused the day before, he recognized him as the man he saw in his dream, and decided to change his verdict the following day.
From then on his new order grew quickly with new vocations. When hearing Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1209, Clare of Assisi became deeply touched by his message and she realized her calling. Her brother Rufino also joined the new order.
On Palm Sunday, 28 March 1211 Francis received Clare at the Porziuncola and hereby established the Order of Poor Dames, later called Poor Clares. In the same year, Francis left for Jerusalem, but he was shipwrecked by a storm on the Dalmatian coast, forcing him to return to Italy.
On 8 May 1213 he received the mountain of Verna as a gift from the count Orlando di Chiusi. This mountain would become one of his favorite retreats for prayer. In the same year, Francis sailed for Morocco, but this time an illness forced him to break off his journey in Spain. Back in Assisi, several noblemen (among them Tommaso da Celano, who would later write the biography of St. Francis) and some well-educated men joined his order.
In 1215 Francis went again to Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. During this time, he probably met Dominic de Guzman.
In 1216 Francis received from the new pope Honorius III the confirmation of the indulgence of the Porziuncola, now better known as the Pardon of Assisi : which the Pope decreed to be a complete remission of their sins for all those who prayed in the Porziuncola.
In 1217 the growing congregation of friars was divided in provinces and groups were sent to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and to the East.
In 1219 Francis left, together with a few companions, on a pilgrimage of non-violence to Egypt. Crossing the lines between the sultan and the Crusaders in Damietta, he was received by the sultan Melek-el-Kamel. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they retreated. When Francis proposed to enter the fire first and, if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as the true God, the sultan was so impressed that he allowed him to preach to his subjects. Though he didn’t succeed in converting the sultan, the last words of the sultan to Francis of Assisi were, according to Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, in his book “Historia occidentalis, De Ordine et praedicatione Fratrum Minorum (1221)” : “Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.”. This was a fine example of dialogue with the enemy and respect for a different culture. But when Francis went back to Crusaders, he was declared a heretic and they wanted his head. Ironically, it was finally the (Muslim) sultan who prevented the (Christian) Crusaders from killing him.
At Saint Jean d’Acre, the capital of what remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he rejoined the brothers Elia and Pietro Cattini. Francis then most probably visited the holy places in Palestine in 1220.
Around 1220 St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas by setting up the first presepio or crèche (Nativity) in the town of Greccio near Assisi. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshippers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight.
When receiving a report of the martyrdom of five brothers in Morocco, he returned to Italy via Venice. Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was then nominated by the Pope as the protector of the order. When problems arose in the order, a detailed rule became necessary. On 29 September 1220 Francis handed over the governance of the order to brother Pietro Cattini at the Porziuncola. However, brother Cattini died on 10 March 1221. He was buried in the Porziuncola. But when numerous miracles were attributed to the late Pietro Cattini, people started to flock to the Porziuncola, disturbing the daily life of the Franciscans. Francis then prayed, asking Pietro to stop the miracles and obey in death as he had obeyed him during his life. The report of miracles ceased. Brother Pietro was succeeded by brother Elia as vicar of Francis.
During 1221 and 1222 Francis crossed Italy, first as far south as Catania in Sicily and afterwards as far north as Bologna.
On 29 November 1223 the final rule of the order (in 12 chapters) was approved by Pope Honorius III.
While he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty day fast for Lent, Francis was reported to have received the Stigmata on 13 September 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. “Suddenly he saw a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel on a cross. This angel gave him the gift of the five wounds of Christ.” This is the first known account of the stigmata. However, no one knew about this occurrence until after his death, when Thomas told a crowd of Franciscans that he had witnessed this account.
Suffering from these Stigmata and from an eye disease, he had been receiving care in several cities (Siena, Cortona, Nocera) to no avail. In the end he was brought back to the Porziuncola. He was brought to the transito, the hut for infirm friars, next to the Porziuncola. Here, in the place where it all began, feeling the end approaching, he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on the evening of 3 October 1226 singing Psalm 141. His feast day is observed 4 October.
On 16 July 1228 he was pronounced a saint by the next pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal Ugolino di Conti, friend and protector of St. Francis. The next day, the pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is discord, unity;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is error, truth;
where there is dispair, hope;
where there is sadness, joy;
where there is darkness, light.
O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek happiness for myself,
to be consoled as to console,
to be loved as to love,
to be understood as to understand.
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.
- Canticum Fratris Solis (the Canticle to Brother Sun)
- Prayer before the Crucifix, 1205 (extant in the original Umbrian dialect as well as in a contemporary Latin translation)
- Regula non bullata, the Earlier Rule, 1221
- Regula bullata, the Later Rule, 1223
- Testament, 1226
- Michael De La Bedoyere, Francis: a biography of the saint of Assisi (1962)
- Julien Green, God’s Fool: the life of Francis of Assisi (1983)
- Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: a revolutionary life (2003)
- Lord Longford, Francis of Assisi: a life for all seasons (1978)
- The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), a dramatized film by Roberto Rossellini
- Francis of Assisi (1961), a dramatized film by Michael Curtiz
- Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), a dramatized film by Franco Zeffirelli
- Francesco (1990), a dramatized film by Liliana Cavani inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Peter Camenzind.
- Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi (2003), a documentary film narrated by Liev Schreiber and Robert Sean Leonard
- Amazon’s Saint Francis of Assisi page