Saint Francis of Assisi
Written by: Wynn, Thomas P. Posted on: 03/18/2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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Dent, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, The Mirror of Perfection, St.
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Encyclopedia Americana, 1987 ed. s.v. "St Francis of Assisi"
Englebert, Omer, The Lives of the Saints, (Collier Books, New York, 1964)
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Church Tomorrow (Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1972)
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