was born in Assisi in 1182 into the emerging Italian middle class, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. As a youth he received a basic education, was lively and popular, and liked to throw parties. He was always, however, courteous and generous - especially to the poor. Twice he went off to war seeking fame and nobility, assured by a dream of a castle filled with armor emblazoned with the Cross that was to be "for him and his knights." The first time, in the war against Perugia, Assisi´s rival city, he was captured and held prisoner for a year. He was very ill by the time he was finally ransomed by his father, and the experience caused Francis to begin to reflect with seriousness upon the meaning of life. The second time, intending to join a regiment heading to the Crusades, he was counseled by a mysterious voice to return to Assisi if he wanted to serve a Divine Master and not just a human servant, and there he would discover what he was to do.
Francis returned subdued and began to seek out isolated places to pray. On one such occasion, in the valley below the city, he encountered a leper who begged him for assistance. People with this illness had always repulsed him and caused him great fear; he avoided contact with them at all cost. Francis realized, however, that this was a moment of grace. Overcoming his fear and repulsion, he embraced the leper and gave him some money. After starting back to the city Francis turned around to take one last look, but saw no one in the plain. It was Christ he had embraced in the leper. This experience would leave a lasting mark on the life of Francis and became the beginning of a profound transformation in his life. As he writes in his Testament: “The Lord granted to me, Br. Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was still in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers. But the Lord Himself led me among them, and I had mercy on them. And when I left them what had before seemed bitter to me was transformed into sweetness of soul and body; afterward I delayed a little and then left the world.”
On another occasion Francis was praying in the run-down church of San Damiano, just outside the Assisi city walls. He was captivated by the unusual icon crucifix enshrined there that portrayed the suffering Jesus with open, penetrating eyes. Suddenly, the crucified Christ upon whom he was gazing spoke: "Francis, repair my house, which is falling into ruin." After getting over his initial shock, the young man set out to do quite literally just that: repair the dilapidated church of San Damiano, and -- after that -- two other nearby chapels that were also in bad shape. This rebuilding project, and the begging and "borrowing" it involved (Francis sold some cloth from the family business to help buy materials), inevitably brought the youth into conflict with his hot-tempered father. Abuse and imprisonment by his father and an escape aided by his mother were followed by the dramatic moment in which Francis solemnly renounced his family inheritance in the presence of the Bishop of Assisi, preferring -- as he said -- to call God his Father rather than Peter Bernadone. The process of Francis´ conversion was brought to conclusion when one day shortly thereafter at Mass in the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels of the Little Portion in the plain below Assisi (one of the churches he had repaired), he heard the Gospel in which Jesus instructed his discples: "Take nothing for the journey - no staff no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic... Do not take a purse or bag or sandals" (Lk 9:3, 10:4). "This is what I want! This is what I desire! This is what I long for with all my heart!" was the exclamation that burst from Francis´ heart and mouth. He had discovered his Rule of Life: the Gospel.
With renewed vigor and a clear sense of purpose, Francis gave himself over completely to this new life which included long hours of prayer, Gospel poverty and penance, manual labor, service of lepers and other poor people, cleaning churches and other menial tasks -- with the added dimension now of exhorting others to conversion of heart and life. It wasn’t long before other young men came to join him, and when they were twelve in number they journeyed to Rome to obtain the approval of the Pope, which was granted with the help of God’s intervention in the form of a dream had by the powerful Pope Innocent III. From there the "Lesser Brothers" (as they were called) began to grow exponentially and spread throughout Italy, and eventually the rest of Europe. Francis, in his own simple way, endeavored to guide this expanding community by word and example, while continuing to live his own unique and radical evangelical existence. He assisted St. Clare in founding a cloistered, female version of this Gospel way of life, and also inspired many lay people to do the same within the limits of their circumstances. He preached all over Italy and undertook missionary journeys with the desire of bringing the Gospel to those who had not yet accepted it in the Middle East.
One Christmas Francis received permission to celebrate Midnight Mass in a cave with animals and straw in order to vividly depict the extreme poverty of Christ’s birth. He eventually became known for extraordinary sanctity and the ability to work miracles, as well as to bring peace to troubled communities. Francis´ life was finally crowned by a mystical vision of Christ crucified that left the imprint of the Savior´s wounds in his own body. When he died in 1226 his Brotherhood had grown to more than 5000 members.
Franciscan Friars of the Renewal