Born around the year 1181 in the town of Assisi, Italy, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone was the son of a successful silk merchant. The boy’s father, who was on a business trip to France at the time of the boy’s birth, began calling the boy Francesco, “the Frenchman”, because of his affinity for the country. Never in want thanks to his father’s success as a merchant, Francis grew up living a raucous life of luxury and was known for his drinking and partying and general mischief. His youthful vigor led Francis to dream of becoming a knight, a profession much more interesting, he thought, than that of the cloth merchant he was destined to become. The opportunity to fulfill this dream came in 1202 when Assisi and neighboring Perugia entered into a state of war. Having never faced battle in his life, Francis was quickly captured and held for ransom for nearly a year until being returned to Assisi in 1203.
The experience of war made a lasting impact on Francis’ demeanor, and the swaggering young lad of yesterday became a quiet and reflective man, spending much of his time in the nearby mountains and praying at local churches. During this time, while praying before the cross at the dilapidated church of San Damiano, Francis heard the voice of Christ from the crucifix saying, “Francis, don't you see my house is crumbling apart? Go, then, and restore it!” Taking this divine ordinance literally, Francis began to make repairs to the church. In order to finance these repairs, Francis sold his horse and some cloth from his father’s shop. Furious, Francis’ father called him before the local bishop to seek to reclaim the money. When the bishop told Francis to return the money, he shocked all who were there by stripping off the clothes he had received from his father, returning them along with the money, and, renouncing his father, claiming that God was the only father he recognized.
For approximately the next quarter century, Francis devoted himself to a life of poverty and preaching which would make a lasting impact on the world. Francis and his followers became officially recognized as a new religious order, the Lesser Brothers (Order of Friars Minor) by Pope Innocent III on April 16, 1210. Francis and his followers, taking a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience, attracted many to follow religious and lay vocations, from which were established the Second Order (Order of St. Clare) as well as the Third Order of St. Francis.
While praying on a mountain in 1224, Francis had a vision in which an angel gave him the five wounds of Christ. He carried these wounds, known as stigmata, until his death in 1226. Though there have been several other female stigmatics, the only male stigmatic aside from St. Francis was the 20th century Franciscan priest St. Padre Pio, whose feast day we celebrated last month.
Known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, St. Francis supposedly stopped while traveling in order to preach to the birds gathered in the trees. The birds are said to have surrounded him and listened attentively to his sermon on how they should be thankful to God, and flew away only when he dismissed them.
Canonized on July 16, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX, Saint Francis’ feast day is October 4. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!