St. Francis of Assisi lived over eight hundred years ago. He was born in the city of Assisi, Italy, the son of Pica and Pietro di Bernardone Moriconi, a Frenchwoman and a wealthy Italian textile merchant. Francis was originally named Giovanni, but later his father changed his name to Francesco, a reference to France.
Imprisonment and conversion
Francis seemed to have enjoyed a carefree life. He received a good education, learned a little Latin and was very popular. When he was twenty years old, Francis was imprisoned for a year for taking part in a feud with the nearby city. Because of illness following this time, he came to give his life to Jesus. He would spend hours meditating on the Lord and felt God was drawing near to him there. His was not an overnight conversion, but he gradually came to Christ.
He started to minister to the people who needed it the most, such as lepers, even though their disease made them repulsive to be around. He was 23 when God told him in a vision to rebuild an Assisi church where he sat to meditate. To raise money for the project, he sold his horse and some of his father’s merchandise, giving it to the priest.
Rejected by family
His father was furious that money from his textiles was given to charity, and brought charges against his son. He took Francis before the Bishop and demanded full reimbursement for the goods. Francis agreed and gave the very clothes off his back.
When he walked away naked, no one could doubt his commitment to Christ. But his father disowned him, and Francis began begging to raise money to provide for the reconstruction of more churches.
At the age of 27, Francis was deeply impressed by a sermon on the Feast of St. Matthias, where Jesus told his disciples to lead a life of apostolic poverty. Francis began preaching brotherly love and repentance. He and his followers would go out two-by-two, preaching the gospel and helping the poor in the fields.
Francis stressed the adoration of God, repentance, generosity and the forgiveness of wrongs done by others. He also emphasized loving one’s neighbors and enemies, humility and living lives of Christian purity.
St Francis and his followers were objects of scorn and attack; people said he was insane to give everything away with a life of poverty.
But he was also a man of deep emotion who wanted to know Jesus intimately. After helping the poor and preaching Jesus’ message, he and his followers went to Rome to first gain the Pope’ blessing for his movement. A few years later, he sought the Pope’ permission to organize a monastic order, which was granted in 1212. The group was to be dedicated to a life of simplicity: It called itself “Friars Minor”, or the “Little Brothers.”
This was the beginning of the Franciscan Order. Members were not shut up in monastery walls, but out ministering to all sorts of people, preaching the gospel and helping the poor and needy. Another passion was bringing reconciliation between feuding parties. He wanted to renounce the world without leaving it.
So Franciscans pursued their great objectives of preaching the gospel, caring for the sick and the poor. Francis’ general concern for the basic needs of people won many people to Christ.
Francis was famous for his love of all creation, and many images depict him preaching to the animals. He loved nature and all forms of life.
The last years of Francis’ life were not pleasant. Pope Honorius appointed a cardinal as protector of the order; this boss made changes that Francis did not like. Francis resigned as Minister General of the Order. It no longer had the simple devotion to Jesus that he cared so passionately about.
Francis spent the remainder of his life in solitude and prayer and did a little writing. He died in 1226, only 44 years old.
The story goes that when his body was examined for burial, people noticed curious red scars on his hands, feet and side. They are traditionally referred to as the “stigmata,” mystic replicas of Christ’s wounds.