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Saint Francis of Assisi

Written by: Wynn, Thomas P.    Posted on: 03/18/2003

Category: Biographies

Source: CCN

The body of a paper prepared for Dr. William Matheny at Liberty University by Thomas P. Wynn

Saint Francis of Assisi

INTRODUCTION        St. Francis of Assisi is one of the Catholic Church's most loved, yet misunderstood, saints.  He was not, as many people perceived  just a good natured person that wandered through the fields and forests  singing songs and promoting nature worship.  Nor was he a sentimental  humanitarian that lived among the poor and destitute because he felt sorry  for them and their condition. He was a man influenced by many things  ranging from his upbringing as a child through his experiences while he was involved in the Crusades.       

A prayer that is commonly recited today that is attibuted to  St. Francis that goes like this:         

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.          Where there is hatred, let me sow love.          Where there is injury, pardon.          Where there is doubt, faith.          Where there is despair, hope.          Where there is darkness, light.          Where there is sadness joy.  Amen.       

This very well sums up the mission that St. Francis took upon  himself.  He went about trying to bring the positive things back into the lives of those who the good things of life seemed to have passed by.  This  paper will attempt to take a look at the life and times of this man.

HIS EARLY LIFE        Francesco Bernadone was born in 1182.  He was the eldest son of a prosperious cloth merchant of the name Pietro de  Bernardone.  His  father was not a native of Assisi, but rather from the area of Lucca.  He  was part of a rather well known family of weavers and merchants.  Francesco's mother was Lady Pica.  She was of some noble lineage.  She meet  Pietro while on one of his business trips.       

A legend says that, when it was time for Francesco to be  born that the child would not be delivered while Lady Pica stayed in the  beautiful bedroom.  As it was, a  pilgrim came to the door and announced  that the child would not be born here, but rather in the stable in the straw  of one of the stalls.  Once this change was accomplished then the child was  born.  It is believed that the child's first cradle was like that which  Christ must have had.       

A clouded picture has emerged about the possible early childhood of Francesco.  It is possible that he could have grown up having most of the pleasures of life that could be offered to him during this time.  His career could have gone beyond all expectations for somebody living in that day and age.  But one of Francesco's first biographies, written by Thomas of Celano, gives us an unpleasant picture of the education of this period. He tell us that children were scarcely weaned before they are taught by their elders to both say and do improper things, and that from false human respect, no one dared behave honorably.  Because of this education it is said that no good and healthy tree could grow.       

It is the considered opinion of many scolars, that at an early age Francisco began to assist his father in the shop.  He apparently showed great promise as a businessman.  He was even considered the most eligible bachelor of his time.  He must have been a much liked and admired young man.

THE WORLD OF ST. FRANCIS        Assisi is one of the oldest cities in Italy.  It is mentioned in  the books of Ptolemy.  In 46 BC the Latin poet Propertius was born there.  Legend says that Christianity was brought to the region by a St.  Crispolitus who was supposable a disciple of the Apostle Peter.       

The European world was only now just emerging from the dark time that existed after the breakdown of the Roman Empire.  Many conflicts were evident among emerging cities of power as well as between church leaders and secular leaders.  Also, during this time the Crusades were being fought in an attempt to win back the holy places from the Moslems.       

The state of the church was also in a state of turmoil.  Corruption was running rampant.  Positions of power within the church were being bought and fought over just as if they were positions within the secular world.  High church positions were very influential with local political leaders as well as, in some cases, influenced by the same. Places of importance could easily be bought from both sides of the fence. 

      The time period was also a flowery time of knighthood and chivalry. Towns and cities would vie to see who could give the most lavish and magnificent tournaments.  Young men would travel about the country side challenging other groups to tournaments of skills such as jousting and other war-like skills.       

As time went on, battles broke out between Assisi and Perugia.  Francis, in a bit of loyalty to his home, fought in the war.  Those who  fought did so only to defend their homes and the shrines in which they  lived and worshiped in.  Francis joined a company of lancers and in some  skirmish was taken prisoner.  It is said that he was the cheerleader while they were in prison.  It is said that while in prison he contracted some  disease that seemed to follow him around for some time.  It may have been  during one of his lapses into this disease that he may first seen his  calling by God. He may have misunderstood this calling to be one in which  he should devoted himself more to the defense of his home.         

It is believed that Francis had a dream in which he saw his  father's shop filled with with shiny armor and swords, all encrusted with  the pattern of the cross of the Crusaders instead of the rolls of fine  cloth.  He interpreted this dream as telling him to go to the battle fields  of the Crusades, so Francis outfitted himself and went off with the others  in attempt to win the Holy Land back from the heathen world. 

While along the road his sickness may have risen again.  It is  thought that he may have tried to ride on before he was well enough to. It is during this lapse that it is thought that he again had a dream in which  it is thought that a voice came to him saying that he had misunderstood  the meaning of the first dream, and that he should return home.  He  returned home a sick and rejected man.  He was both disappointed and  humiliated by his performance.  He did not know what he should do next.

THE CONVERSION OF ST. FRANCIS        It is believed that one day while he was wandering around in his self pity that he came upon a man coming up the road toward him.  This man stirred up such a fear in Francis as he had not experienced before in all his battles.  This man was a leper.  It was now that he realized the true meaning of his dreams.  Here he was challenged not by a man with a sword, but rather by the sword that pierces a man's heart who knows the truth.  It is said that Francis jumped from his horse and ran and threw his arms around the leper, realizing his new mission.       

It was at this time that things really started happening that will have a big affect on how Francis saw his new mission.  While praying in the Church of St. Damian, an old shrine of Assisi which had fallen into ruin, it is again said that he heard a voice saying to him "Francis, seest thou that my house is in ruins?  Go and return it for me."  He gets up and goes and sells his horse and all his things.  He then went and sold several bales of his father's cloth, taking the proceeds to be used to rebuild the church.  His father became irate.  He treated his son as a criminal and had his arrested.  Many of Fransicso's friends pleaded for  his release.  It was only after the quarrel had dragged on for some time that the matter was brought before the bishop.  The church responded with the statement that Francis should restore the money to his father or he would not receive the blessings he sought.  Again, the church tried to decide what a person would receive from God.  So Francis took the clothes from his back and the money he had and piled them before his father.  He then turned, accepted the blessing from the church, and left.  He left behind the things of his world and also his family.  He went out into the cold world with nothing but a shirt on his back.  He was so filled with joy of having the burdens of the world removed from his back that he broke out in song of praise to God.       

The problem that had gotten him into such trouble still was very big in his mind.  It dawned on him that the way to build a church was not with the money of the town or his family.  The way to build a church was not using his own money.  He realized the way to build a church was using his own hands and sweat.  So he started gathering stones and doing the work himself.  An unusual twist happened when he went to the people to beg for stones instead of bread.  He soon realized that he was no longer rebuilding a physical church of God but also was rebuilding a spiritual one when the people realized his need and helped supply them.

THE FOUNDING OF THE BROTHERS MINOR        The next stage of his program was taking his same energies of architectural reconstruction to the little church of St. Mary of the Angles at the Portiuncula.  The Benedictines gave Francis this chapel in the early 12th or 13th centuries.  It was here that a small group of friends have joined him.  It was here that the beginnings of his monastic group starts. It is here that his fiends attach themselves to him and his passion for simplicity.  While living outside during his building times he also ministered to a group of lepers.       

While attending Mass one day the priest read the following from Gospel of Matthew (10:7-13): "At that time Jesus said to his disciples.  And going, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils: freely have you received, freely give.  Do not possess gold, nor silver, nor money, in your purses: nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff; for the laborer is worthy of his meat.  And into whatsoever city or town you shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till you go thence.  And when you come into the house salute it, saying: Peace be to this house.  And if that house be worthy, your peace shall come upon it; but if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you."  In hearing  these words Francis determined that his mission was to go and evangelize. So he now goes from Francis the hermit and church builder to Francis the apostle and evangelist.

        As time passed the need for food became a problem.  The people of the town became weary of the brothers coming into town every day to beg food.  It became clear that they would have to do something to protect themselves.  They established a rule that they would share among themselves and if a man did not do his fair share of the work then he would not eat.  They did some farming to support themselves as well as the group of lepers that have attached themselves to them.       

The group continued to grow, and this caused Francis to want an official approval from the Pope, so he and several of the brothers travel to Rome to seek approval from Pope Innocent III.  He did have an audience with the pope  and presented the rule which he desired for his companions: to live in obedience, in chastity, and without property, and to follow the teaching and footsteps of Christ.  The pope expressed some concerns that these rules may be good now, but that his followers might have some trouble with them at a later time.  Francsis persisted with the stubbornness of a person who had his convictions in an even higher authority.  He wanted the brother to be set free from any worldly influence that would get in their way in trying to serve the poor and be obedient to God.  Pope Innocent III gave his approval to the group.  The group continued to grow by leaps and bounds.       

One of the things that Pope Innocent III requested from Francis was that his group draw up a set of rules and establish who the leader of the group should be.  He went back and drew up a set of rules that was little more that a series of Gospel texts interspersed with admonitions, prayers and simple directions.  This really wasn't much of a legal  document, but it did satisfy the Pope for a short while.  For an official leader the group selected Francis.  This helped overcome some of the shortcomings of the rules with him having final authority.

        Later in 1221, after the group had grown from the original 12 men to a rather large group of about 5,000 men, it was determined that the rules had to be more definite about what they stated.  A revision was attempted, but this did revision was not very satisfactory, so they were again revised two years later.  It is this set of rules that basically still governs the Francsis Order today.       

Are these revisions to be regarded as an evolution of a betrayal of the Francis' ideal?  Paul Sabatier in his Vie de S. Francsis (1894) cast Francis in the role of a charismatic individual caught up in the conflict with the institutional church, which, contrary to his intent, disfigured his ideal.  Other scholars insist that Francis had no master plan for development of the order, that he was confused by the problems created by growth, and that he was painfully aware of his legislative and executive inadequacies, that he freely sought the direction of the church, and that he approved of - or at least acquiesced in - the evolution of the order from an unstructured fraternity to a juridical body.  Proponents of the latter opinion describe the final rule as an amalgam of the genius of Francis and the wisdom of the church.

THE MISSION OF ST. FRANCIS        Francis spent the rest of his ministry going about telling everybody that he met about the love of Jesus.  He attempted to visit the Holy Land several times.  The reason for this desire to visit there might have stemmed from his original desire to fight the Moslems, as he had before his conversion.  Only this time he was not going to fight them with the sword and shield that he carried the first time, but rather with the sword and shield of the Gospel of Christ.  On his first attempt he was shipwrecked. On a second attempt he fell very ill and could not continue. On his third trip he did succeed in reaching the holy land.  He soon became very disturbed by the ways that the Christian were supposed to be represent the cross.  With great risk to his own life he went across the enemy lines among the Arab armies.  He demanded to see the Sultan with whom he shared the Gospel message.  The Sultan was moved by Francis'  courage to bring the message, but was not persuaded to convert to Christianity.  He did ask Francis to "Pray for me, that God may reveal to me which faith is pleasing to Him."       

Another story that presents him as being aman in tune with nature  is one in which he shared the Gospel with thebirds of the field.  It is  said  that one day as Francis and his followerswere traveling along, he saw  several birds along the way.  He reflected that these, too, were God's  creatures and stopped and started talking to the birds about God.  It is  said that the birds stopped and listened to whathe was saying.  After he  had finished, the birds all flew up and sat on his arms and head.  It was as  if they had heard and understood what Francis was talking about.  From that  point on, birds and creatures of the fields would come and eat out of his  hand.  It is also said that Francis tamed a wolf that had terrorizing the town of Gubbio.  As time passed Francis was depicted in this setting  among the animals of the world rather than inthe environment of the poor  that he worked so hard to help.       

It is also believed that the custom of erecting a manger  scene can  be attributed to Francis.  It is said that in 1223 Francis went to Pope  Honorius III to get permission to use a crib, figures of Mary, Joseph, and  the Christ child to represent the mystery of the nativity. Permission was granted and this was the first nativity scene.  This may have been one of the contributing factors that started the legend of Francis' birth.       

This incident and the fact that Francis went to the Pope to obtain permission to establish his order supports the idea that he was trying to obey the Catholic Church.  It seems that he very seldom went off on his  our accord without having first going to the church for its approval.  In  fact, it is also believed that Francis was elevated to the office of  deacon, but never to priest.  He seemed to be a respector of those who  were in a higher position than he was.       

It is told one day while Francis and his Brothers were traveling  about that they were being heckled by a leper.  Francis stopped and asked  the leper what it is that he could do for him.  The leper, possibly is a  smart-mouthed kind of way, responded; "I wish you to wash me from head to  foot, for I smell so bad that I disgust myself."  Francis then went and prepared  some water with some herbs and spices and removed the lepers rags.  He  then washed the leper from head to toe.  It is said that the skin of the  leper then became like that of a child.  The leper relized the physical  change in his life and repented of his sins and turned to God.  Some  people might discard this story without realizing that anything is  possible to those who are unselfish and totally committed to service.  It  could have been that St. Francis had come close enough to God that he was  able to tap into God's healing power.

HIS DEATH        Late in the year 1226, after many years of slowing  weakening, and almost blind Francis was brought back to Assisi.  As he was dying, the bishop of St. Clare, who had admired St. Francis, was embroiled in  a bitter argument with the mayor of Assisi.  St. Francis sent two friars  to call them together so as to settle the argument.  They supposable sang  "Canticle of the Sun", in which St. Francis had added the verse "All praise  be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you;  through those who endure sickness and trial.  Happy those who endure in  peace; by you, Most High, they will be crowned."         

The bitter argument had appently gone on for some time.  It had  appently come to the point that the  bishop had excommunicated the mayor  from the church, and the mayor had forbidden anybody to sell anything, buy anything or enter a contract with the bishop.  The entire town was  involved.  As a result of the song, the mayor wept and pardoned the bishop.  The bishop said, "In my office it is fitting that I be humble.  But  because by nature I am inclined to argue, you should have indulgence toward  me." Then the two men embraced each other and resolved their problems.         

A short time later St. Francis had the other friars remove his robes from him and lay his body in the church where he had made his first announcement about his mission to searve God.  It is said that at nightfall he turned to his Brothers and said "I have done my duty.  May Christ now teach you yours."       

It was reported by one of his followers that on the body of St.  Francis was the stigmata of Christ.  That is that on his hands and feet  were marks resembling the nail prints of Jesus, and on his side was also a mark that resembled the spear mark.

CONCULSION        In looking at the life of St. Francis, as so many people have, one again has to decide whether or not this man was simply a disturbed nature fanatic or somebody that was called of God.  I believe that he was called of God.  It appears to me that he was trying to establish the simple faith that Christ had instructed his desciples to have.  He did not have the liberty to move from one Christian demonination to another.  He had to try and work within the structure of the Catholic Church.  He had to establish a simple way of faith within a structure which had become very large and complex.       

Just as with any person who has done something great, the stories about them have a way of growing beyond their original scope.  I think that this has happened with some of the stories of St. Francis. He was a man who submitted himself to trying to do God's will.         

He created an organization that has attemped to follow his footsteps.  Pope Innocent III's concern about the later generations having to follow such a strict set of rules was a valid concern.  Some of the following leaders of the Brothers Minor had trouble with trying to live up to such a high ideal.


Attwater, Donald, A Dictionary of Saints, (P J Kenedy & Sons, New York 1958)

Bowie, Walter Russell, Men of Fire, (Harper & Row, New York, 1961)

Cairns, Earle E., Christianity Through the Centeries (Zondervan Publishing House, 1954) 

Chesterton, G.K., St. Francis of Assisi (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1924) 

Dent, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, The Mirror of Perfection, St. Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis (London EveryMan's Library Dutton: New York 1966)

Encyclopedia Americana, 1987 ed. s.v. "St Francis of Assisi"

Englebert, Omer, The Lives of the Saints, (Collier Books, New York, 1964)

Foy, Felician A., 1989 Catholic Almanac, (Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, Huntington, Indiana)

Jorgensen, Johannes, St. Francis of Assisi, (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1955)

von Galli, Mario, S.J., Living Our Future: Francis of Assisi and the Church Tomorrow (Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1972)   

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