Francis of Assisi was the founder of the Order of St Francis.

Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy. His father was the rich cloth merchant Pietro Bernardone, and his mother was Giovanna Pica. The boy was named Giovanni at baptism, but when his father returned from France, where he had been when the boy was born, he demanded that the name should be changed to Francesco (the little Frenchman), since his mother was from Provence and he had been in France at the time of the birth. He had an easy life as a child and youth, spending money like a drunken sailor. He wanted to become a knight and a trubadour.

At the age of 20, he took part in the 1202 war between Assisi and Perugia, and was captured after the Battle of Collestrada. He spent a year as a prisoner in Perugia, before his father was able to ransom him. His health had suffered from the imprisonment, and he contracted a serious illness that would stay with him until his death. After spending most of the year 1204 in sick-bed, he joined the campaign of Walter de Brienne, who was fighting in Puglia, in 1205. Planning to join the Fourth Crusade, he bought expensive equipment and rode off. While on his way, he met a poor man, and being struck by pity he exhanged his expensive clothes for the man's rags. At Spoleto, he fell ill again. While he was sick, he heard a voice ask "Where are you going, Francis?". He explained where he was going, and was asked "Tell me, who can take you the furthest, the Lord or the servant?". He answered "The Lord", and was told to return to Assisi, where he would be told what to do.

Back in Assisi, he lived more or less as before, but was not as joyful. Rather than spending time with his carefree friends, he started going to a grotto outside Assisi, where he would spend hours in prayer. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he met a leper with horrifying disfigurements. He felt fear and revulsion at first, but overcame it at once, and when the leper stretched out his hand to beg for money, Francis not only gave him money but kissed his hand. Going to St Peter's tomb, he exchanged clothes with a beggar, and spent the rest of that day begging.

He was still unsure about what he was supposed to do, but visited the hospital and started caring for the lepers. In the autumn of 1205, he was back in Assisi, and prayed in the church San Damiano. It was a poor church, where the priest could not even afford oil for the lamp by the icon of Christ. While praying, he heard Christ speak to him, from the crucifix which is now in Santa Chiara in Assisi, three times, telling him to set His house in order. He took this literally, and took several rolls of cloth from his father's store and sold them. He tried to give the money to the priest at San Damiano, who refused to take them. He did however, accept that Francis could live there as an oblate. His father was furious, and came for Francis, who had hidden. After praying and fasting for days, he showed himself, and people said he looked as he had gone insane. His father came, beat him senseless and dragged him home in chains. He was locked in the house, but his mother set him free when the father had left. His father again came for him at San Damiano, and demanded that he either returned home, or renounced his heritage and and paid back the money. Francis gladly renounced his heritage, but claimed that the money belonged to God and the poor.

Being an oblate, he was under the authority of the Bishop of Assisi. His father brought the case to the bishop, Guido, and Francis was told to return the money and trust in God. Again showing that he had a tendency to take things literally, he said that the clothes he wore also belonged to his father, and in front of the bishop and a large crowd he took them off and gave them to his father. The bishop gave him a cloak that belonged to one of his workers, and Francis accepted with gratitude, drawing a cross on it. He left the town to "marry Madam Poverty". He wandered around, working at a monastery and in the leper colony at Gubbio.

In 1206 he returned to Assisi, where everyone thought he was quite mad. He begged for alms to repair San Damiano, and did some of the work on the church himself. After doing the same thing for the church San Pietro, he went to the small chapel Portiuncula, formally called Santa Maria degli Angeli, which belonged to the Benedictine monastery of Monte Subacio. He repaired it himself, and settled down there. On the feast of St Matthew in 1208, he heard the Gospel for that day, Matthew 10, 7-19, in which the disciples are told to go into the world bringing only one tunic, no shoes or staff, no money in their belt and no purse. It's no suprise that he took it literally; he gave away his shoes, belt and staff, put on an undyed woolen cloak held together with a rope, and went into the world as a beggar. This was the origin of the Franciscan habit.

He had by now started attracting attention, and some chose to follow him. Bernardo da Quintavalle and Pietro Cattani were the first, and Francis gave them the habit on 16 April 1208. The third to join was Blessed Egidius, who was given the habit on 23 April 1208. In 1209, he had 11 companions, and he decided to write a brief Rule. He was ordained as deacon around this time. He was never ordained to the priesthood; his humility prevented him from seeking that for himself. In 1210, he went to Rome to seek the Holy Father's approval for the Rule. Pope Innocent III at first thought it was too strict. But the night before the audience, he had a dream in which the Lateran Basilica was collapsing, and a single man came in and held it up. Recognizing Francis in his dream, he approved the Rule. This first Rule, known was Regula Prima, is daly lost to us. Francis and his followers were given the tonsure and formal permission to work as preachers.

Francis gave his Order the name "The Order of the Smallest Brothers", Ordo Fratrum Minorum. The brothers lived in strict poverty, working and begging for alms. Any surplus was given to the poor. By 1212, there was more than 100 Franciscans. In 1212, he founded a female branch, named the Poor Clares after his friend St Clare (Chiara) of Assisi. In 1221, the Third Order of Fransiscans was founded to allow lay people, married and unmarried, to join the Order.

In 1212, he went eastwards to preach to the Saracens in Syria. After shipwrecking, he landed at the coast of Dalmatia, and had to return as a stowaway to Ancona. He preached in Italy for some time, and in 1213 he again tried to reach the Sarascens. This time he tried to reach Morocco through Spain. He fell ill in Spain, and had to return. Others made the trip to Morocco, and the Order had its first five martyrs there on 16 January 1220.

There is a persistent tradition that Francis met St Dominicus in Rome in 1215 or 1217. Modern-day historians do not support this tradition, but it is frequently depicted on icons.

In 1217, what had begun more as a movement than an order, held its first General Chapter. The Order was divided into provinces, and brethren were sent to other countries to preach. The lack of organization was taking its toll, and in 1219, Francis convened the second General Chapter, at which 5000 brethren were present.

In 1219, Francis joined the Fifth Crusade to preach to the Sarascens. He sailed to Damietta in Egypt, which was under siege by the crusaders. His illusions were soon stripped away; the crusaders were not as holy as he had thought. He managed to get through the lines, and was presented to the Sultan Malek al-Kamel. Francis did not manage to convert the sultan, but secured better treatment of Christian prisoners and was given the privilege of being Custodians of the Holy Sepulchre. After a few months in the Holy Land, he returned to Italy.

While had had been away, the Order had started changing. While the Franciscans had so far lived in simple huts, they had now built a monastery of stone. Francis refused to enter, and sought shelter with the Dominicans. He felt that he had been betrayed, and went to Rome. The Holy Father, Pope Honorius III appointed Cardinal Ugolino as Protector of the Order in 1220. The cardinal was a close friend of Francis, and wanted the whole church to take advantage of Francis' ideas. He also wanted some of the brethren to become bishops, to lead the work for reform in the Church. Francis stepped down as General of the Order, and named Pietro Cattani as his Vicar.

In 1221, Francis made a revised Rule, with the support of Cardinal Ugolino. It was more detailed than the first, but similar in its insistence on poverty and humility. At the third General Chapter in May 1221, he presented it to the brethren. Many of them supported the new trends, including the new Vicar, Elias of Cortona, who had governed the Order since the recent death of Cattani. The chapter still accepted the Rule, being reluctant to defy the founder. The new Rule was, however, not approved by the Holy Father, and is therefore known as Regula non bullata. Francis revised the Rule again in 1223. Many of the brethren protested against the ban on communal property, which they felt that it was impossible to live with. Some changes were made to accommodate everyone, and Pope Honorius III approved this Rule - it became the Regula bullata. Francis was not completely happy with it, but could not have his will without breaking up the Order.

At Christmas 1223, Francis was at Grecchio in the Rieti Valley. There, he made the first known Christmas crib, using real persons to play the parts. This was a way for him to emphasize the poverty of Christ. Farmers who came to the Midnight Mass were impressed by him; he served as a deacon during Mass and sang the Gospel with such inspiration that many cried openly.

In 1224, he returned to solitude, this time in the Appennines in Tuscany. He preached to the animals, and the birds are said to have listened quietly to him. By this time, was was weakened by illness and the harsh life he had led. Only one brother, Leo, was allowed to visit him. Francis concentrated all his remaining strength on becoming ever more like Christ, and he especially meditated over Christ's wounds. On, or near, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September 1224, he fell into ecstasy, and received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, from an angel. This is the first recorded case of stigmata. Because of his humble nature, he always tried to cover the wounds. In the winter of 1224/1225, he managed to preach in Umbria and Marche.

He gradually weakened more, in large part because of the stigmata. He was also going blind at this time. In the spring of 1225, Cardinal Ugolino made him see the Pope's physicians in Rieti. On his way there, he visited St Clare for the last time. While there, almost crazed by pain, he wrote the famous Canticum fratris solis, "The Canticle of Brother Sun", which he set music to and tought to the brethren. Incidentally, the well-known prayer "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace", was not written by Francis; it appeared around the time of the First World War.

An operation for his eyes was a failure, and he weakened even more. In the spring of 1226, he was sent to Siena for treatment. But he no longer had any will to live, and longed more and more for death's release. One night, suffering terrible pain and being certain that he was dying, he dictated the document known as the Siena Testament. He was moved to a hermit's hut, and there he dictated his last testament to Brother Elias. In the summer of 1226, he was at Bagnara, and it was decided to carry him back to Assisi on a stretcher. He was given a large escort - people already thought of him as a saint, and there was a real danger that he would be held back to secure relics. In Assisi, he was taken to the bishop's residence. Bishop Guido was away at the time. He asked the doctors to tell him the truth, and was given no more than two weeks to live. Hearing this, he exclaimed: "Welcome, Sister Death!". He asked to be taken to his old home in the chapel at Portiuncula. At a hill outside Assisi, he gave his blessing to the town and to his brethren, and then he was carried to Portiuncula.

Francis asked the brethren to fetch Giacoma di Settesoli, a close friend, who were to bring candles and a cloak for his funeral, and a cake that he loved. She came by herself before the messenger could go. He then dictated a few lines for St Clare and the sisters, and asked the brethren to sing the verse of the Canticle of Brother Sun that praises death. He then asked for a loaf of bread, which he broke and passed out as a sign of love and peace.

He was, according to his own wish, placed in the floor of the small hut, and covered by a cloak lent to him by the guardian. He gave his admonitions to the brethren, and gave instructions for the treatment of his mortal remains. The Passion of Our Lord from the Gospel of John was read aloud, and Psalm 141 was sung. At sunrise on 3 October 1226, at the age of 45, he closed his eyes for the last time.

He had asked to be buried with the criminals at Colle d'Inferno, but on Sunday 4 October, his body was carried to San Giorgio in Assisi and he was buried there. The funeral cortege stopped outside San Damiano, so that St Clare and the sisters could say their farewells.

21 months later, he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX - the former Cardinal Ugolino. His relics were hidden from grave robbers, and they were not rediscovered before 1818, in a subterranean crypt in the church San Francesco in Assisi. A richly decorated monument was erected over his tomb, but in 1932, in recognition of what he would have wanted, it was removed and a simple monument was placed there. The chapel Portiuncula has also been preserved; the church Santa Maria degli Angeli has been built around it.

Churches in Rome connected to St FrancisEdit

His room at San Francesco a Ripa – his main residence when he visited Rome – can be visited.

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