A Short History of St. Francis
The Birth of St Francis
In the year of 1181 or 1182, a boy was born to Pietro and Pica Bernadone. First born son of a wealthy middle class family in the town of Assisi, he was to become the inheritor of the prosperous family business. Pietro used travel to the south of France regularly on business often taking his young son with him and it was here that the young lad fell in love with French language and culture. It did not take long for the locals back home to call him Francesco as he was well known for his love of things French.
Francis the Party-Goer
The young Francesco certainly enjoyed his youth and lifestyle and we might describe him today as hedonistic. An early biographer said, "Francis was the admiration of all his peers and strove to outdo the rest of his group in the pomp of vainglory, in jokes, in strange doings, in idle and useless talk, in songs, in soft and flowing garments, for he was very rich." Yet, there was another side to his character. It was known that he would sometimes give a coin to a beggar and had a compassion for those about him in need.
Francis - the Soldier
Caught up in all the fashions of his day, Francis longed to be a famous knight like his heroes. When war broke out in 1202 between Assisi and neighboring Perugia, Francis was eager to fight for the honor of his town. He was captured in battle, taken in chains and thrown into a dungeon where he spent a year. He was ransomed by his father and was returned to Assisi a sick and broken man but with a subtle change occurring in his heart.
A Spiritual Experience
Francis was confused about the course his life should take and often went to the small chapels that dot the Italian countryside. A favorite was the run down chapel of San Damiano with its beautiful crucifix. One day, Francis was praying before this image when he heard a voice speak, as it were, from the lips of the Crucified Lord. It said: "Francis, go and rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling into ruin." He looked around and saw the crumbling walls, the gaping holes in the roof and knew what he must do. The impetuous Francis rushed back to his father's shop, took a few rolls of cloth, sold them and with the money bought stones and mortar. With these he commenced to repair the old chapel. The wrath of his father still awaited him.
Francis meets a Leper
When Francis was riding his horse one day a leper came into view. His natural aversion made him pull on the reins and make to turn his steed and flee. Yet, something within him "went against grain" and he allowed the leper to draw closer, then, as if he were a puppet on a string, he found himself climbing down from his horse, going up to the leper and embracing him. Many years later as he lay dying, Francis would recall this pivotal moment. "When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. After that, I did not wait long before leaving the world." The moment of conversion had arrived. Francis Bernadone was now on the brink of a new adventure that would change him and the lives of millions of people throughout the world and for centuries to come.
A new life
By now all of Assisi was "abuzz" with the scandal! Pietro was humiliated; it was certain now, that his favorite son was insane and there was no choice but to rid himself and his family of the shame of this blight. In a public hearing before the bishop, Pietro issued a final ultimatum: "Give me back the money you have stolen and get out of my life and my family". Bishop Guido turned to Francis, awaiting his reply. Francis began to disrobe himself, placing each of the refined garments at the feet of his father. He also put down his purse with some money in it. Eyes opened wide as the crowd beheld Francis totally naked. The bishop put his cloak around Francis as Francis said: From now on I can truly say, 'Our Father who art in Heaven' and not 'Father Pietro Bernadone.' Clothed in only a simple hermit's robe, given him by the Bishop, Francis turned his back on his father, his family and upon Assisi and walked out through the gate and beyond the walls of the city that had "imprisoned" him for 25 years.
Chapels, Caves, Lepers and First Followers
Francis it seems became for a time a wandering hermit. He spent time living amongst the lepers and caring for them for he was basically a "leper" himself, even though he did not have the disease. He also spent time repairing some of the ruined chapels in the vicinity and he spent many days in the isolation of caves, which were prolific around that region. Here he prayed for guidance and spiritual sustenance. Though most thought him a madman (a "religious nut" we might say) there were those who secretly admired him and wanted to know more about what "made him tick"? The first to join him was a wealthy young Assisian called Bernard of Quintavalle. Then came others, by 1209 there were eight. Ten years later, there would be well over 3,000!
Three years later in 1212, the first woman came to join Francis, Clare. Daughter of the aristocratic family by the name of Offraduccio, she was to become the Founder of the new movement known today as the Poor Clares.
In 1209, Francis and eleven brother "friars" walked to Rome to meet with the Pope Innocent III. Francis presented to the Pope a simple Rule of Life for himself and his brothers composed of quotes from the Gospel.
Birth of the Franciscan Movement
St Francis died on October 3rd - 1226. He was then aged 44. In that period, from 1209 until his death, a period of 17 years only, the person of Francis of Assisi changed the world forever. There was "something" about his personality and his way of life that attracted not only hundreds, but also thousands of people. People from every walk of life; rich and poor; married and single; educated and peasants. The numbers of his friars grew rapidly and the women who came after Clare spread their simple and austere lifestyle beside them.
Ordinary folk, in the villages and towns around Italy also wanted to follow Francis; but they could not live an itinerant lifestyle, as they had families, spouses and commitments. With a form of life of their own, these were to become known as The Brothers and Sisters of Penance and later the Secular Franciscan Order.