“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is discord, harmony; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is error, truth; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.”— Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Giovanni Bernardore, commonly known as Francesco, the founder of the Franciscan order, was born in the little town of Assisi, in Central Italy, between Perugia and Foligno, in 1182. His father Pietro, a well-to-do merchant, gave the boy a good education. The name of Francesco ("the Frenchman"), which soon altogether replaced his baptismal name, is said to have been given him soon after his birth by his father, returning to Assisi from a trip to France; according to another account it was due to his early acquisition of the French language.
Francis showed little inclination to concern himself with his father's business, but lived a wild life with the young men of his own age. In 1201 he joined a military expedition against Perugia, was taken prisoner, and spent a year as a captive. It is probable that his conversion to more serious thoughts was gradual. It is said that when he began to avoid the sports of his former companions, and they asked him laughingly if he were thinking of marrying, he answered "Yes, a fairer bride than any you have ever seen" -- meaning his "Lady Poverty," as he afterward used to say.
Francis spent much time in lonely places, asking God for enlightenment. By degrees he took to nursing the most repulsive victims in the lazar-houses near Assisi; and after a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he had a vision in which he heard a voice calling upon him to restore the Church of God which had fallen into decay. Francis understood this to refer to the ruined church of St. Damian near Assisi, and sold his horse together with some cloth from his father's store, giving the proceeds to the priest for this purpose.
Pietro, highly indignant, attempted to bring his son to his senses, first with threats and then with corporal chastisement. After a final interview in the presence of the bishop, Francis renounced all expectations from his father, laying aside even the garments received from him, and for a while was a homeless wanderer in the hills around Assisi. Returning to the town, where he spent two years at this time, he restored several ruined churches, among them the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, just outside the town, which became later his favorite abode.
The Beginning of the Franciscans
At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, in 1209), a sermon which he heard on Matthew 10:9 made such an impression on him that he decided to devote himself wholly to a life of apostolic poverty. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance. He was soon joined by a prominent fellow townsman, Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work, and by other companions, who are said to have reached the number of 11 within a year.
The brothers lived in the deserted lazar-house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time traveling through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations. Their life was extremely ascetic, though such practises were apparently not prescribed by the first rule which Francis gave them (probably as early as 1209), which seems to have been nothing more than a collection of Scriptural passages emphasizing the duty of poverty.
In spite of the obvious similarity between this principle and the fundamental ideas of the followers of Peter Waldo, the brotherhood of Assisi succeeded in gaining the approval of Pope Innocent III. Many legends have clustered around the decisive audience of Francis with the pope. The realistic account in Matthew of Paris, according to which the pope originally sent the shabby saint off to keep swine, and only recognized his real worth by his ready obedience, has, in spite of its improbability, a certain historical interest, since it shows the natural antipathy of the older Benedictine monasticism to the plebeian mendicant orders.
Work and Extension of the Franciscans
It was not, however, a life of idle mendicancy on which the brothers entered when they set out in 1210 with the papal approbation, but one of diligent labor. Their work embraced devoted service in the abodes of sickness and poverty, earnest preaching by both priests and lay brothers, and missions in an ever widening circle, which finally included heretics and Mohammedans. They came together every year at Pentecost in the little church of the Portiuncula at Assisi, to report on their experiences and strengthen themselves for fresh efforts.
There is considerable uncertainty as to the chronological and historical details of the last fifteen years of the founder's life. But to these years belong the accounts of the origin of the first houses in Perugia, Crotona, Pisa, Florence, and elsewhere (1211-13); the first attempts at a Mohammedan mission, in the sending of five brothers, soon to be martyrs, to Morocco, as well as in a journey undertaken by Francis himself to Spain, from which he was forced by illness to return without accomplishing his object; the first settlements in the Spanish peninsula and in France; and the attempts, unsuccessful at first, to gain a foothold in Germany. The alleged meeting of Francis and Dominic in Rome at the time of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) belongs to the domain of legend; even Sabatier's argument to show that such a meeting actually took place in 1218 is open to serious objection.
Historical in the main are the accounts relating to the journey of Francis to Egypt and Palestine, where he attempted to convert the Sultan Kameel and gave fearless proofs of his readiness to suffer for his faith; the internal discord, which he found existing in the order on his return to Italy in 1220; the origin of his second and considerably enlarged rule, which was replaced two years later by the final form, drawn up by Cardinal Ugolino; and possibly the granting by Pope Honorius III (in 1223) of the Indulgence of the Portiuncula - a document which Sabatier, who formerly rejected it, has recently pronounced authentic on noteworthy grounds.
The Last Years of Francis
Francis had to suffer from the dissensions just alluded to and the transformation which they operated in the originally simple constitution of the brotherhood, making it a regular order under strict supervision from Rome. Especially after Cardinal Ugolino had been assigned as protector of the order by Honorius III-- it is said at Francis' own request -- he saw himself forced further and further away from his original plan. Even the independent direction of his brotherhood was, it seems, finally withdrawn from him; at least after about 1223 it was practically in the hands of Brother Elias of Crotona, an ambitious politician who seconded the attempts of the cardinal-protector to transform the character of the order.
However, in the external successes of the brothers, as they were reported at the yearly general chapters, there was much to encourage Francis. Caesarius of Speyer, the first German provincial, a zealous advocate of the founder's strict principle of poverty, began in 1221 from Augsburg, with 25 companions, to win for the order the land watered by the Rhine and the Danube; and a few years later the Franciscan propaganda, starting from Cambridge, embraced the principal towns of England.
But none of these cheering reports could wholly drive away from the mind of Francis the gloom which covered his last years. He spent much of his time in solitude, praying or singing praise to God for his wonderful works. The canticle known as Laudes creaturarum, with its childlike invocations to Brother Sun, Sister Moon with the stars, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and finally Sister Death, to raise their voices to the glory of God, dates from this period of his life. The hermit stage which opened the career of many monastic founders was reserved for the end of his who had once been so restless in his activity. He spent the short remainder of his life partly on Monte Alverno on the upper Arno, where he fasted 40 days and longed for union with God, to be demonstrated by the impression on his body of the wounds of Christ (stigmata); partly at Rieti under medical treatment; and partly in his beloved Portiuncula at Assisi waiting for his deliverance from the flesh. He died October 3, 1226, at Assisi, and was canonized two years later by Pope Gregory IX, the former cardinal-protector of the order.
The text of this article is excerpted, with minor edits, from "Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order," in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. V (1953), pp. 355-356, and is in the public domain. Formatting, images and further resources added by the editor.