St. Francis of Assisi is probably one of the best known of the Church’s saints. Much of the details we know surrounding his life and death have come down to us from the writings of St. Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano. In this short piece we can only take a brief look at his life.
St. Francis was born in Assisi, a city in Central Italy, in the year 1182. His family were reasonably well-off, his father being a cloth merchant. As a young man Francis helped out in his father’s trade.
When we speak about Francis’ conversion, we don’t mean to say that he was living a sinful life. Francis was a good-living young man, but he was a bit frivolous; he liked amusements. However, God was calling him to greater things: a perfect life, hence the word ‘conversion’.
St. Bonaventure writes: “God brought Francis low by illness, in order to prepare his soul to receive the Holy Spirit.” When Francis recovered he met a knight of noble birth, but poor: Francis took off his own fine clothes and gave them to the knight. In a dream that night, God showed Francis a vision of a palace full of armour, and Francis was told that this was for him and his knights. The next morning Francis pondered on the dream and believed that he was destined to achieve great success in battle as a knight, and so he set out to enlist as a soldier. However, the Lord called to him in a dream telling him to return to his own town: thus Francis returned to Assisi.
All this time God was working in Francis. He was out riding one day when he encountered a leper. At first he was repulsed by the sight of the leper, but he very soon overcame this: he ran up to the leper and kissed his outstretched hand, putting some money in it. Francis turned to leave, and when he looked back again the leper was gone. Francis was able to recognise the Hand of God in this encounter. From that time onwards Francis became absorbed in prayer and good works. As St. Bonaventure tells us: “Francis now developed a spirit of poverty, with a deep sense of humility, and an attitude of profound compassion.”
Francis’ father was not at all pleased with this change of behaviour in his son. At one point he had Francis locked up in chains; however, he was soon set free again by his mother. Eventually, his father brought Francis before the local bishop. Francis renounced all claims on his father; the bishop embraced Francis and had him dressed in a simple tunic; Francis was now free to leave and follow God in his new life. In time he would gather followers, as other men joined him to embrace this new way of life: this was the beginning of the Franciscan Order.
San Damiano Cross:
Early in his conversion, Francis was praying before the Crucifix in the church of San Damiano, when the image of Christ spoke to him saying: “Francis, go, repair My House, which, as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.” Francis at once set about repairing the little church of San Damiano, but the Holy Spirit later made him realise that it was the Universal Church he was being commanded to repair.
Later, after Francis went to meet with the Holy Father to obtain approval for the Franciscan Rule, the Pope had a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica [which is the Pope’s church] about to fall, but being held up by a poor beggarman. The Pope recognised Francis in this beggarman and thought to himself: “By his work and teaching, he will uphold Christ’s Church.” And so he approved the Rule.
From its beginnings with a small number of friars, the Order grew rapidly to several thousand friars during Francis’ life. St. Francis sent friars all over Italy and beyond preaching the Holy Gospel. Even during his own lifetime missions opened up in places as far away as France, Germany and, in 1224, England.
In addition to the friars, Francis would go on to found (with Saint Clare) a Second Order for women (originally known as the Poor Ladies, but nowadays known as the Poor Clares), and a Third Order for lay-people who wished to remain in the world (known to-day as the Secular Franciscan Order).
Many of the events surrounding the life of St. Francis may be already familiar to some people. Whether it be the taming of the wolf that had been terrorising the villagers of Gubbio; or the Christmas crib he built in Greccio, in honour of Our Saviour’s birth; or his preaching to the birds and how they listened obediently to him.
There are also many recorded instances where the sick were healed through his intercession – for example, the blind seeing, the lame walking.
Love for Our Lady:
St. Francis had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she has always been very dear to the Franciscan Order. The Order had its very beginnings in the Portiuncula, the ‘little portion’, where a church had been built in honour of Our Lady of the Angels: Francis loved this place above all others. Francis wrote much in praise of the B.V.M. – his ‘Salutation of the Blessed Virgin’, for instance – and he was one of the first persons to address her as ‘Spouse of the Holy Spirit’. He would make her the ‘Advocate’ of the whole Franciscan Order. The Order itself would go on to become one of the earliest champions of the Immaculate Conception.
Francis was a man of deep prayer. Just two years before his death, Francis was praying on the mountainside of Mount La Verna. He saw a Seraph with six fiery wings descending from heaven, with the image of a Man crucified in the midst of the wings; the Man’s hands and feet were stretched out and nailed to a cross. After the vision had disappeared the marks of the nails began to appear in Francis’s hands and feet, just as he had seen them in his vision of the Man nailed to the cross; the nails too appeared with the wounds; his right side seemed as if it had been pierced with a lance.
The man who sought to be perfectly conformed to Christ, now bore the Five Wounds of Christ for the last two years of his life.
Death of St. Francis:
As his life grew to a close and he lay dying, Francis asked to be brought back home to Assisi. The Portiuncula was the birthplace of the Order and it was in that place that he wished to die. Before he died he asked for the Book of Gospels to be brought in and the passage from John where it begins: ‘Six days before the Passover, Jesus, knowing that the hour had come for Him to pass from this world to the Father…’ Francis asked for a hair shirt and that he be sprinkled with ashes. And so he welcomed Sister Death. It was the year 1226.
To-day, the tomb of St. Francis lies in the crypt of Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis, which is in the care of the Conventual Franciscans. For further information please visit their website: http://www.sanfrancescoassisi.org