St. Francis, born Giovanni di Pietro Bernadore, was a mystic Italian Catholic friar. To this day, he is one of the most revered of all the saints and is remembered as the founder of the Franciscan Orders. But what made him so special? Why does he stand out to this day? St Francis is a perfect example of practicing what you preach. He gave up a life of wealth and luxury, of drinking and parties, to live as a beggar and devote his life to rebuilding the Catholic Church. This is his remarkable life story.
St. Francis of Assisi as a Young Man
St. Francis was born in Assisi, a duchy of Spoleto, Italy, in 1181. His father, Pietro di Bernardone dei Moriconi, was a wealthy Italian cloth merchant and landowner, and his mother was from France. One of seven children, St. Francis enjoyed a fine, albeit overindulged, upbringing.
As a young man, St. Francis was known to be handsome, witty, charming, and pampered but kind-hearted. By the time he was 14, St. Francis had become bored with education and had left school. He did what any spoiled teenager would do; he spent his time rebelling against authority, drinking, and partying.
The expectation was that he would grow out of his rebellious phase and follow his father into the family business. It was clear, however, that St. Francis had no interest in the life of a businessman and was disillusioned with the world in which he lived.
A perfect example is the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the beggar. It is that said one day Saint Francis was at the market selling cloth on behalf of his father. St. Francis was concluding a business deal when a beggar approached him and asked for alms. By the time the deal was finished, the beggar had left. Young St. Francis abandoned the stall to track down the beggar. When he found the poor soul, St. Francis emptied his pockets and gave the beggar everything he had.
St. Francis’s father supposedly flew into a rage, scolding his son for abandoning the family business to run to the aid of a mere beggar, but St. Francis did not care. St. Francis dreamed of being a hero, and wanted to be a knight who went off to fight in foreign wars and returned as a war hero. He should have been careful what he wished for.
In 1202, Assisi and Perugia went to war. The future St. Francis of Assisi saw his chance and joined up with the cavalry, ready to fulfill his dreams of becoming a war hero. However, the war wouldn’t exactly go in his favor.
Mural of St. Francis of Assisi, Templo de San Francisco de Asís (Coyoacán), Mexico City (Cathedrals & Churches / CC BY 2.0 )
St. Francis the Warrior and St. Francis the Prisoner
The war got off to a bad start for the troops of Assisi. They soon came under heavy attack and were severely outnumbered. St. Francis and his allies were forced to retreat from the bloodbath that ensued. The Assisi men who had stayed on the battlefield were swiftly and brutally put to death.
The young, naïve, not to mention inexperienced St. Francis of Assisi didn’t last very long on the run from the troops of Perugia. The enemy forces soon caught up with him and imprisoned him.
The fact that he was dressed like an aristocrat and wearing expensive new armor saved his life. It was obvious to the Perugia troops that St. Francis would fetch a decent ransom. He and the other wealthy prisoners were rounded up and taken to Collestrada. They were held in a miserable underground cell there.
Francis stayed a prisoner in the dungeons of Collestrada for nearly a year. It is more than likely that conditions were grim and that the prisoners were mistreated. During his stint as a prisoner, it is believed that St. Francis contracted various illnesses. It is also during this period that he apparently began receiving visions from God . Whether one believes these visions were a result of the illnesses or not likely depends on their religious persuasion.
St. Francis after the War
St. Francis of Assisi was eventually released in 1203 when his ransom was finally accepted. When he returned to Assisi, it soon became clear that he was a changed man. He was believed to be both physically, and perhaps mentally, ill.
He attempted to return to his old, debauched ways but couldn’t acclimatize to his old life. In 1205, he left Assisi and signed up to join the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. During this second stint as a soldier, he experienced a vision that caused him to return back home and lose interest in worldly life.
By the time St. Francis had returned home for the second time, he was a young man in his twenties. He believed he had finally found his calling, not as a war hero or businessman, but as a man of God. He spent a lot of time hiding away in the mountains, praying to God for enlightenment. When he wasn’t in the mountains, he was visiting old churches asking for spiritual guidance and nursing lepers .
St. Francis of Assisi and others treating victims of leprosy, from La Franceschina, a chronicle of the Order by Franciscan Jacopo Oddi of Perugia, circa 1474. His exposure to the disease may have led to his supposedly divine visions. ( Public Domain )
It was during this time that St. Francis of Assisi went on a pilgrimage to Rome and joined the local poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica . Eventually, he came to the forsaken church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. It is said that while praying before an old Byzantine crucifix, he heard the voice of Christ.
The icon of Christ supposedly said to him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” St. Francis of Assisi took this instruction literally, believing Christ wanted him to repair the Church of San Damiano.
St. Francis of Assisi Reaches a Turning Point
To pay for the repairs, St. Francis of Assisi returned to his father’s store and sold a bolt of cloth, as well as his horse. He did not ask his father for permission. When St. Francis returned to the church, the priest refused to accept the stolen money. Indignant, Francis threw the coins on the floor and stormed out.
Knowing his father would be more than angry at his theft, St. Francis chose to hide away in the mountains for a month, hoping his father’s wrath would cool. Unfortunately, St. Francis had miscalculated.
His father had only grown angrier over the month, and when St. Francis returned to Assisi, tired and starving, he was promptly dragged home. His father beat him, tied him up, and locked him in a small storeroom. After being freed by his mother, Francis fled back to San Damiano.
His father was not finished with him, however. St. Francis was soon hauled before the Bishop of Assisi by his father. His father not only wanted his money back, but also sought to disinherit his son. St. Francis responded by renouncing his father and his patrimony. Some versions of the tale state that St. Francis threw off his clothes in front of the bishop and left the church in a rough tunic given to him by the bishop.
This was the turning point where St. Francis left behind his old life of wealth and privilege and chose the life of a beggar. Over the next two months, he traveled the hills surrounding Assisi as a beggar. He then traveled to a local monastery where he worked as a scullion or low-class servant.
St. Francis of Assisi renounces his earthly father, painting by Stefano di Giovanni, circa 1437 ( Public Domain )
St. Francis then moved on and visited Gubbio, where a friend gifted him his iconic cloak, girdle, and staff. From Gubbio, he returned to Assisi. Once back in Assisi, he quickly got to work repairing the church of San Damiano.
St. Francis of Assisi in his iconic clothing, 17th century oil painting by Philip Fruytiers ( Public Domain )
He traveled the streets of Assisi begging for stones he could use to restore the church. He then carried those stones all the way to the church and single-handedly rebuilt the church, piece by piece.
His work wasn’t done with the completion of San Damiano’s restoration, however. Over the next two years, he restored several other ruined chapels, including San Pietro in Spina, the Porziuncola, and the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. This last chapel became his favorite and was where he would later choose to live. Once again, he returned to nursing lepers when he wasn’t restoring chapels.
The Church of San Damiano near Assisi, rebuilt by St. Francis of Assisi (Christian Konig / CC BY SA 3.0 )
St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Orders
In 1208, St. Francis attended a mass at the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. The sermon that day was on the “Commissioning of the Twelve” from the Book of Matthew . This gospel told Jesus’s disciples to go and spread the word of God. St. Francis of Assisi was inspired to do the same.
He decided the Catholic Church had become too corrupt, and its teachings too bloated. He wished to return to a simpler form of preaching. In his poor man’s robes, he traveled the local countryside teaching people the ways of penance, brotherly love, and peace. St. Francis had no license nor authority to do this, but he didn’t let it stop him.
The teachings of St. Francis of Assisi soon began to attract followers. By the end of the year, Francis had eleven followers. They all lived together in the deserted leper colony of Rivo Torto, just outside of Assisi. They lived a simple life of wandering the mountains and spreading St. Francis’s teachings.
Eventually, Saint Francis took his followers to Rome, so that he might found a new religious order. Pope Innocent III was impressed with what St. Francis had done and informally admitted the group; they were then tonsured. This meant the new order was safe from accusations of heresy. They were told that once St. Francis’s order had grown in size, they could return for an official audience with the pope.
Pope Innocent III with St. Francis of Assisi, approving the statutes of the Order of the Franciscans, by Giotto, circa 1300 (PHGCOM / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Franciscan Order was officially founded on April 16, 1210. The Pope had experienced a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Lateran Basilica. He took this as a message from God that St. Francis was genuine.
This was not to say that St. Francis of Assisi enjoyed unanimous support within the Catholic Church. Many saw his teachings as both unsafe and impractical. His various eccentricities, such as preaching to animals, earned him the nickname “God’s Fool”.
St. Francis of Assisi, preaching to the birds, painting circa 1260 ( Public Domain )
Becoming St. Francis of Assisi
Many believe that in 1224, St. Francis of Assisi received a vision that gifted him the stigmata of Christ. These are marks that resemble the wounds Christ received from being crucified, including holes in his hands from the nails, and a wound in his side from the spear. This made St. Francis of Assisi the first recorded person to receive the wounds of the stigmata.
Skeptics did not believe these were holy wounds, however. Due to the fact that St. Francis had spent years treating lepers, it has been claimed that the wounds were actually symptoms of leprosy, rather than a holy sign.
St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. Painting by Jan van Eyck, circa 1430 ( Public Domain )
Whatever the truth, the wounds took a toll on St. Francis of Assisi’s health. Over the next two years, his health steadily declined. He died on October 3, 1226 in his hometown of Assisi. In his final days, knights were sent to guard him. It was widely believed that he would be canonized after his death, and there were fears that relic hunters from nearby towns would come and steal his body, due to the value of such holy relics.
On July 16, 1228, Pope Gregory IX declared Francis a saint. The next day, the pope visited Assisi to lay the foundation stone for the Basilica of St. Francis. St. Francis of Assisi was buried under the basilica in 1230, but then quickly moved again so that his body could be hidden from relic hunters .
After multiple campaigns to locate the body, the sarcophagus of St. Francis of Assisi was rediscovered in 1818, and a new crypt was constructed which allowed the relics to be displayed.
Whether one is religious or not, the tale of St. Francis of Assisi is an inspiring one. He was a man who abandoned a life of luxury to do what he believed was right. In an age when the Catholic Church was infested with corruption, St. Francis fought against it.
This made him somewhat of a controversial figure. His enemies pointed to his various illnesses and used them to explain his eccentric behavior and alleged visions from God. Whether true or not, this does not diminish the good he did.
Ultimately, St. Francis of Assisi was the epitome of “practice what you preach,” at a time when the Catholic Church was doing the opposite. While many church figures lived in the lap of luxury, St. Francis of Assisi abandoned earthly pleasures to do what he believed in. For that, he deserves to be remembered, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.
Top Image: St. Francis of Assisi was said to preach to animals as well as humans. Source: J. Ossorio Castillo / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell