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Francis of Assisi

1182-1226. Founder of the Franciscan Order. Son of Pietro de Bernardone, a wealthy textile merchant, he was christened Giovanni, but supposedly nicknamed Francesco by his father upon returning from a trip to France. He received the usual education for his time and enjoyed a carefree life as a popular youth of Assisi. While taking part in a feud with the nearby city of Perugia he was imprisoned for a year in 1202. He joined the army upon his release, but could not complete a campaign against Apulia because of illness.

Francis's thoughts gradually began to turn to serious reflections, and in 1205 he made a pilgrimage to Rome, after which he had a vision wherein God told him to rebuild the church of St. Damian near Assisi. Selling his horse together with some of his father's cloth goods, he gave the proceeds to the priest for that purpose. His father disowned him, and Francis renounced his worldly possessions, taking up begging to provide for the reconstruction of more churches. In 1209 a sermon on Matthew 10:7- 10 impressed him as being a personal admonition to take up a life of apostolic poverty, and he began preaching brotherly love and repentance. Attracting a number of followers, he composed a short rule in 1209 and succeeded in gaining the approval of Innocent III in 1212. Since Innocent required that the brothers receive minor orders, they called themselves the Friars Minor.

Embarking on a course of preaching and caring for the sick and the poor, the Friars came together each year at Pentecost for a meeting at Portiuncula in Assisi. In 1212 the Second Order was founded when an heiress of Assisi, Clare, was invested by Francis and formed the order for women, the Poor Clares.* Francis began missions to Syria (1212) and Morocco (1213-14), but was unable to complete them due either to illness or other misfortune, and traveled to the Middle East in 1219 in an unsuccessful attempt to convert the sultan Kameel. Since the order was growing out of the bounds of the early simple rule, Francis requested Pope Honorius to name Cardinal Ugolino as protector of the order. A new rule was approved by Honorius in 1223, and the character of the order began to move away from the simple ideal of Francis, especially when an ambitious, politically minded brother, Elias of Cortona,* was appointed vicar-general in 1221.

After his abdication of leadership in 1223, Francis spent the remaining years of his life in solitude and prayer, retiring to a hermitage on Monte Alverno in 1224. During this period he composed his “Canticle to the Sun,” his Admonitions, and his Testament. In 1224 he allegedly received the stigmata. He was canonized by Gregory IX two years after his death. Revered by Protestants and Catholics alike, the ideal of St. Francis is still a vibrant force on the current religious scene, as the professions of the “Jesus freaks” and recent biographies of him indicate.

P. Sabatier, Life of St. Francis of Assisi (1917); O. Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi (1966); L. Cunningham (ed.), An Anthology of Writings by and About St. Francis of Assisi (1973); J.H. Smith, Francis of Assisi (1973); M. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies (1973).