St. Francis was born in Assisi, Umbria, Italy, in 1182 to Christian parents, his father, Pietro, and his mother, Pica. His baptismal name was Giovanni. After Pietro, a wealthy textile merchant, returned from a business trip to France, he added the name Francesco. Francesco was a fun-loving young lad, quite popular, and a troubadour. He and his many friends merrily romped about the countryside singing and enjoying each other’s company.
In 1202 there was a skirmish between Assisi and Perugia, a nearby city. Francis was captured and held in prison for a year. He fell ill late during his confinement, and his illness persisted for another year following his release. The forced solitude provided periods of lengthy contemplation which served as the beginning of a spiritual transformation.
Recovered, Francis toyed with the idea of being a soldier. He obtained new clothes and military equipment, and wearing them, rode off on his horse. He happened upon a poor man in shabby clothes. Francis dismounted and changed clothes with the poor man. He had a particularly keen awareness and a deep compassion for the disadvantaged.
Shortly thereafter Francis had a dream in which he heard a voice say, “Francis, is it better to serve the Lord or the servant? Why are you trying to turn your Lord into a servant?” This was a decisive moment, his life forever changed. He reordered his priorities, committed himself to God, spent more time in prayer, and practiced material detachment.
Francis’ father was not enamored with his son’s new lifestyle and had him locked into a room in his warehouse. Then while he was away on business, his mother released Francis, and he moved to San Damiano where he lived with the priest.
Then one day in 1206 he was kneeling in prayer before a crucifix in the small, dilapidated church in San Damiano. Again he heard a voice which said three times, “Go and repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.” Francis understood this to mean the church building itself, and he set out to repair it. He took a bolt of cloth from his father’s storehouse, mounted a horse, and rode to a nearby village and sold both the cloth and the horse intending to use the proceeds to help pay for the improvements, all without his father’s approval. Francis presented the money to the priest, but aware of how Francis had obtained it, he refused to accept it.
Francis decided to turn to begging for the church, and dressing himself in the tattered clothes of the poor, he worked the streets of Assisi. Coming from an upper class family, this attracted huge attention and the townsfolk mocked him mercilessly. When this came to the attention of his father, he was furious. Pietro took hold of him and dragged him before the Bishop Guido of Assisi in his courtyard before a crowd of people. He wanted the bishop to command Francis to return the money. In a dramatic moment, Francis renounced the family business and declined his future inheritance. Then, not only did he return the money, he stripped himself, and naked, he handed his clothes to his father so he would owe nothing to his father, and he pledged to live a life of simplicity in joyful service of the Lord.
He was given a brown tunic, a rope belt, and a pair of sandals, which would eventually become the religious habit of his new community. He took solace in the beatitude, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). He lived for a time as a repentant hermit.
Francis turned to Jesus for future direction, and after a Mass asked the priest to open the Book of the Gospels three times. First text was, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mt 19:21); the second, “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money” (Lk 9:3); and the third, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
It dawned on him that “repair my church” did not refer so much to a building, as it did to people of God whose faith had deteriorated, and that the rebuilding task was to reinvigorate their faith. Francis became an itinerant preacher, and he traveled the countryside zealously proclaiming Jesus and his gospel, and he called the people to repentance. He had a special love for the sick and lepers, and he prayed with them and for them, and he cured a number of them. He also begged alms for the poor and sought donations to rebuild several churches.
Francis was so fervent that he attracted several who asked to be his companions. The group quickly grew to twelve. Francis wrote preliminary rule of life and went to Rome in 1210 to seek papal approval for his new community. Pope Innocent III initially was reluctant, citing that there were plenty of religious orders already, but after a dream of his own in which Francis was propping up the Lateran Basilica, he granted verbal consent. Francis called his companions friars, and the new community was called the “Order of Friars Minor,” (O.F.M.), “minor” because they were supposed to be truly humble.
Upon his return to Assisi, he, along with Clare of Assisi, founded a group of religious women, the Order of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano, who eventually became known as the Poor Clares. He also founded a group for lay people who wished to join his movement first called the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which eventually became known as the Third Order of St. Francis. His own group swelled to three thousand, and because some of the members wanted him to relax his strict approach to poverty, he rewrote his rule of life in 1220 with a renewed emphasis on radical detachment, and the order received formal papal approval in 1221.
Francis’ health took a turn for the worse in 1223. He went nearly blind, and he suffered from a number of other afflictions. On September 14, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Francis went to Mount Alverno to pray privately. Francis implored, “O Lord, I beg of you two graces before I die, to experience in myself the fullness of the pains of your cruel Passion, and to feel for you the same love that made you sacrifice yourself for us.” Francis was given the stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus’ Passion, and he received them humbly and concealed them by wearing socks on his feet and pulling the sleeves of his habit over his hands. It gave him great consolation to share in Jesus’ suffering before his own death. During this time he wrote his famous Canticle to the Sun.
Francis died on October 3, 1226, and two years later, Pope Gregory IX canonized him a saint. He wanted to be buried in a paupers’ field, but his remains eventually were buried in a crypt on the lower level of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
In art, St. Francis is almost always clothed in a brown robe, the Franciscan religious habit; the crown of his head is tonsured or shaved; and sometimes his hands reveal the wounds of the stigmata. Some of the most frequently depicted scenes include Francis at the foot of the Cross with Jesus reaching down toward him, Francis carrying a cross behind Jesus, or kneeling before a crucifix, or distributing food to the poor, or preaching a sermon to the birds. He is also often shown with a deer or a wolf.
St. Francis is the patron saint of animals, animal welfare societies, the environment, merchants, needle workers, tapestry makers, the city of Assisi, co-patron of the country of Italy along with St. Catherine of Siena, Catholic Action, and numerous Franciscan communities. His feast day is October 4 and it is recommended as an ideal day to offer the blessing of animals.