St Francis was born into the family of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy, in 1181. He died, owning nothing – not even the shirt on his back – in 1226. For a concise, readable account of his life story in between those two dates, click the links on the left.
This brief life of St Francis of Assisi is told in three sections:
From soldier to beggar
Called to a life of poverty
Inspired by the life of Jesus
If you’ve ever seen any depiction at all of Francis of Assisi, you quite possibly have a picture in your head of a serene, brown-habited monk, maybe surrounded by birds and animals. And actually, that’s pretty accurate. But at the start of his life, Francis was very different.
The story goes that as a young man, Francis, the son of a well-off merchant named Pietro Bernardone, was highly popular in his home town and threw himself first into Assisi’s social life, and then into his city’s military projects.
In 1202, aged 20, Francis went to fight for Assisi against the Perugians. He was captured and spent a year in prison. While no one is sure exactly when Francis decided to follow Jesus more closely, something – we’re not sure what – happened to him in prison, and when he was released, he took the first steps towards changing his life.
Passing through Rome, Francis found himself approached by a beggar on the steps of St Peters’ Church. Rather than simply give him money, Francis swapped clothes with the beggar and spent some time sitting on the steps of the church, himself begging for alms.
When he got home, he met up with his old friends again and joined in with the party scene. But his heart wasn’t in it. Gradually, his friends caught on that something had changed in Francis.
One day, while he was out walking, Francis came across the abandoned church building of St Damian. Feeling compelled to go in and pray, Francis knelt in the ruins in front of an old painting of Jesus on the cross. According to the story, as he prayed, Francis felt something change inside him. He also saw the face of the painting of Jesus talking to him, saying, “Francis, can’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go and repair it for me.”
This experience transformed Francis’ life for good.
After his experience in the ruined church of St Damian, we are told that Francis felt moved to rebuild it. Dressed in simple clothes, he started the rebuilding work single-handedly.
Pietro Bernardone wasn’t particularly happy about his son’s behaviour, having always had his heart set on Francis following him into the family business. So one day, he took him to the Bishop of Assisi, who he thought would knock some sense into Francis.
It would be easy for us to take Pietro’s side in this. After all, Francis’ actions were quite possibly those of a lunatic. But then, many of Jesus’ actions were equally incomprehensible to the people of his time. Francis saw following Jesus as being so radical that it made him look like a madman.
Pietro’s plan backfired. As soon as he brought his son before the bishop, Francis renounced his father and his possession, tore off all his clothes and stood in front of everyone completely naked.
The Bishop wrapped his cloak around Francis, preserving his modesty and taking him under his wing.
Now, with the protection and support of the Bishop, Francis was free to carry on with the rebuilding of St Damian’s, and when he had finished there, he decided to work on another church, Sancta Maria de Portiuncula. Once he had completed that work, he joined with the people worshipping there, and it was in one of the services that he heard a reading from Matthew’s Gospel which spoke directly to him. In the reading, Jesus sends his disciples out, and says:
Francis took this to heart. Dressing in nothing but a coarse tunic and a cord around his waist, he began to travel around the countryside, telling people about Jesus wherever he went. And as Francis touched the lives of the people he met, he began to gather followers.
By the time Francis had eleven disciples, he had decided to get the church’s approval for what he was doing. This done, he wrote down some simple rules, and the Franciscan Order was born. The members of the order, who were called friars, followed a rule of chastity, poverty and obedience. Even today, the Franciscan Order follows these rules of Francis.
Francis of Assisi’s life was highly eventful, and there’s no shortage of stories about the things he said and did, including his confrontation with the Pope, his mission of peace in the Holy Land, and his work as a preacher. Many of the stories about St Francis are a mixture of fact and legend.
His relationship with animals is legendary. One account tells of how, early in his career, Francis and his followers passed a grove of trees where many thousands of birds were nesting. Francis sent his companions on ahead and preached to the birds, telling that they should praise God for all that he had given them.
According to the story, as he spoke, the birds came down to the ground around Francis and bowed down reverently. Francis closed by making the sign of the cross, and telling the birds that they could go, at which they flew away, singing beautifully as they went.
On another occasion, Francis heard of a savage wolf which terrorised the citizens of the city of Gubbio. Francis found the wolf and commanded it not to do any more harm. The beast, tamed, listened to Francis preach to it, and allowed him to lead it back to the city, where it lived out the rest of its life as a beloved pet of the people of Gubbio.
Francis and his friends embraced poverty. Inspired by the suffering of Christ on the cross, they often went through extreme hardships cheerfully and willingly. There’s a story about how Francis was travelling one day with a friar called Leo. On the way, Leo asked Francis what he considered perfect joy to be. Francis put to Leo a worst-case scenario for their journey: what if they were caught in the rain, ice cold, caked in mud, and found themselves faced at their destination by a gatekeeper who not only failed to recognise them, but beat them off with a big stick?
“If we bear all these things patiently and with cheerfulness,” Francis said, “thinking on the sufferings of Christ the blessed, which we ought to bear patiently for his love, Friar Leo, write that here and in this is perfect joy.”
Francis himself bore a great deal. Later in his life, it is said that he bore the “stigmata”, wounds which appeared without any explanation on his hands and head, echoing the wounds of Jesus on the cross. Some of his friars, including a brother called Elias, whom Francis counted among his best friends, couldn’t cope with the hardships Francis’ way of life demanded, and left the order.
But Francis never gave in. Even as he lay dying, he gave a brother friar his shirt, wanting to have no possessions at the end of his life. The friar gave Francis back the shirt on loan, knowing that Francis would take no gift.
Francis’ life and death have inspired generations of people, many of whom took on Francis’ vows and chose to follow Jesus in the pure, simple way that Francis did.
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Francis of Assisi is one of the best-loved of all Christian saints, who renounced possessions in his quest to be a follower of Jesus Christ. His ideals of poverty and peacemaking still inspire people today.
These pages were written by Howard Ingham.
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