Francis of Assisi
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Boyhood and early manhood
Born Giovanni Bernardone, commonly known as Francesco. He was either born in 1181 or 1182. His father, Pietro, was a wealthy cloth merchant. Of his mother, Pica, little is known. Francis was one of several children.
Rebellious toward his father's business and pursuit of wealth, Francis would spend most of his youth lost in books (ironically, his father's wealth did afford his son an excellent education, and he became fluent in reading several languages including Latin). He was also known for drinking and enjoying the company of his many friends, who were usually the sons of nobles. His displays of disillusionment toward the world that surrounded him became evident fairly early, one of which is shown in the story of the beggar. In this account, he found himself yet again out having fun with his friends one day when a beggar came along and asked for alms. While his friends ignored the beggar's cries, Francis gave the man everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his stupidity, and when he got home, his father scolded him in a rage.
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 a gradual process relating to this experience.
It is said that when he began to avoid the sports of his former companions, and they asked him laughingly if he was 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.
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 Jesus which had fallen into decay. He thought this to mean 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 him 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 this time, he restored several ruined churches, among them the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, Assisi, just outside the town, which later became his favorite abode.
The beginning of the Brotherhood
At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, in 1209), a sermon which he heard on the Gospel of Matthew 10:9, where Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is upon them, and that they should take no money with them, that they should take no walking stick for the road, and that they should wear no shoes -- 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 eleven within a year, whom he called the "fratres minores", in Latin, "the lesser brothers". The Franciscans are sometimes called Friars, and this is a term derived from "fratres", or "brothers" in Latin.
The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time travelling 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 ascetic, though such practices 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 1209 Francis led his followers to Rome and asked the Pope's permission to found a new religious order and succeeded in gaining the approval of Pope Innocent III. Many legends have clustered around the decisive audience of Francis with the Pope. The most common consists of an initial rejection of Francis' request, followed that night by a dream in which the church was crumbling apart and Francis appeared to hold it together, which caused the Pope to change his verdict the following day. The 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.
St. Francis, Nature and the Environment
Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis deal with his love for animals.
Perhaps the most famous incident that illustrates the Saint’s humility towards nature is recounted in the Fioretti (The Little Flowers), a collection of legends and folk-lore that sprang up after the saint’s death. It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go a preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:
“My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore…always seek to praise God.”
Another legend from the Fioretti tells us that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, there was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf, soon fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, but the saint pressed on and when he found the wolf he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.”
Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens he made a pact between them and the wolf, because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger” the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly, and in return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even makes a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they will not bother the wolf again.
This legends exemplifies the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint's love of the natural world.
However, the academic establishment agrees that St. Francis actually had a rather conventional attitude towards his worldly environment. He did believe that the external world was inherently good as a sign and revelation of God's providence and goodness, its purpose being to inspire our respect and love, but this was not an unusual philosophy in the thirteenth century. His belief in the universal ability and duty of all animals to praise God is more unusual; however, it is far from the "sentimental pantheism" (G. K. Chesterton) suggested by Lynn White, and certainly bears no relation to current ecological or environmental sentiment.
Main sources for the life of St. Francis
- Friar Elias, Epistola Encyclica de Transitu Sancti Francisci, 1226.
- Pope Gregory IX, Bulla "Mira circa nos" for the canonisation of St. Francis, 19 July 1228.
- Friar Tommaso da Celano: Vita Prima Sancti Francisci, 1228; Vita Secunda Sancti Francisci, 1246–1247; Tractatus de Miraculis Sancti Francisci, 1252–1253.
- Friar Julian of Speyer, Vita Sancti Francisci, 1232–1239.
- St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci, 1260–1263.
- Ugolino da Montegiorgio, Actus Beati Francisci et sociorum eius, 1327–1342.
- Fioretti di San Francesco, the "Little Flowers of St. Francis", end of the 14th century: an anonymous Italian version of the Actus; the most popular of the sources, but very late and therefore not the best authority by any means.
Main writings by St. Francis
- Canticum Fratris Solis, the Canticle to Brother Sun.
- Prayer before the Crucifix, 1205 (extant in the original Umbrian dialect as well as in a contemporary Latin translation).
- Regula non bullata, the Earlier Rule, 1221.
- Regula bullata, the Later Rule, 1223.
- Testament, 1226.
- Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) by Franco Zeffirelli
- Prayer of Saint Francis, Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
- Santa Chiara d'Assisi
- Saint David
Added to VisitsItaly.com on December 22nd, 2005, by Vian Andrews