From the Lives of the Saints

Born in Assisi, in 1181, into a merchant family of substantial means, Francesco was trained to take over his father's business. Preferring to have a good time, Francis charmed everyone with his natural qualities and his love of the French courtly poetry. When war broke out, Francis, dreaming of knighthood and glory, marched into battle. Soon he was taken prisoner and fell ill. Once more, he set out again. Seeing an old warrior poorly clad, Francis became ashamed of his fine suit of armor and changed clothes with the poor man. Then Francis was taken ill again and dreamed strange dreams, a heavenly voice telling him to turn back, "to serve the master rather than the servant." A puzzled and changed man, he returned to Assisi. Shortly afterwards, he left on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he exchanged his expensive clothes with a beggar, and returned penniless to Assisi.

One day, resisting his human loathing, Francis pressed alms into a leperŐs outstretched hand, embraced him tenderly and kissed him. Looking back upon the man, he had disappeared, and Francis understood that Christ had appeared to him. Now passionate with the fever of divine love, Francis visited hospitals and ministered to the sick, praying long hours to learn what God willed for him. Then, while praying at Saint Damian's, an old ruined church outside Assisi, he heard a voice from the crucifix say three times: "Francis, go and repair My house, which is falling down." At first he took the words very literally and, selling some of his father's goods to buy materials, set about rebuilding the old church. Only later did Francis come to realize that the "house" falling down was the Catholic Church itself, and that he was being called to help rebuild Christendom.

Meanwhile his furious father savagely beat the twenty-five year old youth, had him jailed, and then disinherited him. The bishop, requiring Francis to return the price of the goods he had taken, covered Francis with a laborer's cloak. Francis thanked him, marked a cross on his garment with a piece of chalk, and went forth singing the divine praises. Francis eventually repaired Saint Damian's with his own hands, and he went around preaching penance to the people. He begged from door to door for a few scraps of food each day. He took his way of life from the Gospel, "Freely you have received, freely give. . . .Do not keep gold . . . nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staff . . . . Behold I am sending you forth like sheep in the midst of wolves."

Followers began to flock to Francis. Soon there were twelve in the little body of itinerant preachers. They slept in barns and worked in the fields for their food. A primitive rule was drawn up, which consisted simply of the counsels of perfection: "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, . . . and come, follow me."

Eventually they settled at the Portiuncula, and became known as the Friars Minor, Innocent III having approved their Rule of life. The first Franciscan convent for women was opened in the spring of 1212.

FrancisŐ apostolic mission took him to many lands, where he made unsuccessful attempts to convert the Moslems. Meanwhile, his order spread rapidly to Spain, Germany, and Hungary. In 1224, on Mount La Verna, where Francis often went to pray, he received the stigmata, as a sign of his love of Our LordŐs passion, about which he said, "Were I to live to the end of the world, I should stand in need of no other book." Francis loved to refer to all creatures as brothers: Brother Sun, Brother Sky, Brother Fish; he called his body Brother Ass and idle members of his community, Brother Fly. Near the end of this life he cried, "Welcome, Sister Death!" On October 3, 1226, at the age of forty-five, he died while the Passion of our Lord was being read aloud to him. His memory is kept vivid in the three branches of Franciscans: Friars Minor, Friars Minor Capuchin, and Friars Minor Conventual, besides numerous branches in the sisterhood.

Adapted from Volume III, The Lives of the Saints for Every Day of the Year, The Catholic Press, 1958