Perhaps, after Our Lady, the most beloved Saint of all time is St.
Francis of Assisi, "il Poverello" (the Little Poor Man). His character
twisted into that of an idiotic hippie, St. Francis's image hasn't
fared well, so one must dig to find the truth about this glorious Saint.
He was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182, the son of Pietro Bernardone, a
wealthy cloth merchant, and his wife, Pica. Christened "Giovanni," his
father -- most likely because of his fondness for France -- later
changed his name to "Francesco" while Francis was still an infant.
He grew up to be not only handsome, but fun-loving, even frivolous due
to his parents having spoiled him a bit. He dressed in fine clothes,
loved feats of arms, and was lavish with money though, even then during
his wild days, he had great compassion for the poor.
When he was twenty years old or so, he and his townsmen got involved
with a skirmish with the townsmen of Perugia. The men of Assisi lost
that battle, and Francis was taken prisoner. For a year he languished
in a Perugian prison, becoming ill and, in his adversity, began to turn
his thoughts to greater things. When his health returned and he was
released, however, he put those greater things to the back of his mind
and resolved to have a military career, but it is now that God began to
intervene in interesting ways. He'd arranged to join with a local
knight to take arms against the emperor, but the night before he was to
leave, he had a dream of a long hall lined with armor, all of which was
marked with a cross. A voice said, "These are for you and your
soldiers," and Francis took it to mean he would be a great prince. He
and the knight set off, but when they reached Spoleto, Francis became
ill again and was told in another dream, by the same voice, to return
to Assisi. He did. But he returned a different man, a more spiritual
man who had less interest in the reveleries of his youth, and more
interest in solitude and prayer.
He soon decided to "take a wife of surpassing fairness" -- "Lady
Poverty" -- and began spending his wealth on the poor, the sick, and
the Church. One day he was riding a horse across the plains of Umbria
when he encountered a leper. He was naturally repelled, but the spirit
of Christ overcame his repulsion, and he embraced the man, giving him
all the money he had. He emptied his pockets again during a pilgrimage
to Rome, when he saw the paucity of offerings left at St. Peter's tomb.
After he did so, he exchanged his
fine clothes for the tattered rags of
returning to Assisi, he was praying one day in the Chapel of San
Damiano, before an iconic Crucifix which has become known as the "San Damiano Crucifix."
While deep in prayer, he heard a voice say to him, "Go, Francis, and
repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin." He went to his
father's shop, took expensive cloth, and sold it and his horse for the
money to make literal repairs to the chapel. The chapel's priest
wouldn't accept money gained in that manner, and Francis threw it at
him in disdain. Francis's father was livid, so his son hid himself away
in a nearby cave for a month, emerging squalid and emaciated. His
appearance invited mockery, and he was tormented by locals until his
father retrieved him, beat him, bound him, and imprisoned him in a
closet. His mother freed him in his father's absence, and he returned
to San Damiano where he found a a place to live with the priest's help.
Francis's father, though, went to the city consuls to force his son to
give up his inheritance, something Francis was very happy to do. He
took off his clothes and handed them to his father with the words,
"Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to
say only 'Our Father Who art in Heaven.'" His embrace of Lady Poverty
was almost complete.
He took to the hills of Assisi where he was confronted by a band of
robbers. When asked who he was, he told them, "I am the herald of the
great King!" whereupon they took what little he had and threw him into
a snow bank. He emerged half frozen and crawled to a monastery where he
stayed for a time, working in the kitchen.
From there he went to Gubbio, where a friend gave him the cloak, scrip,
and staff of a pilgrim.
He returned to Assisi and begged people for stones with which he could
restore the chapel of San Damiano that he'd been commanded to repair.
Stone by stone, with his own hands, he did rebuild it, and then went on
to repair the Chapel of San Pietro outside the city, and the tiny
chapel of the tiny town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the
Angels) below the city.
In 1208 he was attending Mass at that third chapel, in Santa Maria
degli Angeli, and heard Our Lord's words as recounted in the tenth
chapter of Matthew: "Do not possess gold, nor silver, nor money in your
purses: Nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a
staff; for the workman is worthy of his meat." He took these words
literally and to heart, and immediately threw away his cloak, wallet,
and staff. Now his embrace of Lady Poverty, the keystone of the
Franciscan charism, was consummated, and he began to wear the coarse
tunic made of wool, with a cincture made of a knotted rope. Instead of
the mockery that had met him earlier, people began to listen and
wonder, attracted by his peace and demeanor.
He acquired two disciples, the first among these being a town magnate,
Bernard of Quintavalle, and the second being the canon of the
cathedral, Peter of Cattaneo. They repaired the church of San Niccolo
where Francis tried to determine God's will for them by three times
randomly opening the Gospel that sat on the altar. Each time he did so,
the passages he found recounted Christ's telling His disciples to leave
all and follow Him. Taking this to be their rule of life, Bernard, and
Peter began to wear habits like that of Francis, and built huts near
his by the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
They were soon joined by a third man, Giles, and so were able to go two
by two into the world and spread the message of Christ. The group grew
from four to eleven, and it was at this point that Francis made his
first written Rule and went to Rome for Pope Innocent III's approval of
it so they could form an official religious
order. Innocent is said to have rejected Francis at first,
but then changed his mind after he had a dream in which he saw Francis
holding up the St. John Lateran Basilica. In any case, Francis and his
men returned to Assisi with the tonsure and known as the "Friars
Minor," the official name for the Franciscan Order.
In 1211, the Benedictines
gave them the tiny chapel at Santa Maria degli Angeli which Francis had
repaired earlier, along with the small tract of land (a "porziuncola")
that surrounded it. This became the center of the Franciscan Order, and
the small chapel came to be known as "the Porziuncola" 1 since
then. There near the Porziuncola they built a few huts of wattle,
straw, and mud which they surrounded by a hedge. From there, they would
go out two by two, finding work where they could, and begging when
there was no work to be found. More men joined up, including Brother
Juniper -- the exasperating "renowned jester of the Lord" whose story
is recounted in "The Little Flowers of St. Francis" -- and "the Three
Companions" who later wrote about Francis's life: Angelus, Leo, and
Rufinus, a cousin of St. Clare who was to meet up with St. Francis
during Lent of 1212.
The eighteen-year old Clare, after hearing Francis preaching, was moved
to beg to be allowed to follow his way of life. On Palm Sunday she
secretly left her father's house and, with two friends, went to join up
with the friars who met them bearing torches in a procession at the
Porziuncola. Francis cut her hair, gave her a habit, and sent her to
live with Benedictine nuns until the friars could build a convent for
her. The Benedictines were kind enough to give him the Chapel of San
Damiano, the first chapel Francis had repaired with his own hands, and
the friars built a convent there to adjoin it. Clare and her Sisters --
who were then known as the "Order of Poor Ladies" but are now known as
the "Poor Clares" -- made this their home.
In Autumn of that same year, Francis's plan to go
to Syria to convert the Saracens was spoiled when he was shipwrecked en
route, off the coast of what is now Eastern Croatia and Western Serbia.
He evangelized in central Italy before making another attempt to
convert the infidels, this time in Morocco. But once again, he ran into
trouble: he became quite ill and never made it out of Spain. Back to
Italy he went, to preach and to convert souls. He became wildly
popular, with crowds gathering where he went and falling under his
spell. Once, while preaching in Camara, Italy, so many people wanted to
join his order after hearing him preach that he decided to fashion a
third order for laypeople.
In 1219, he made his third -- and this time successful -- attempt to
encounter the infidels. He made it to Syria was taken
used the opportunity to meet with the Sultan and attempt to convert
him. Though he was unable to convince him of the Truth of Christ, he
was able to get the Sultan to agree to treat the Christian prisoners of
Back in Italy, he had to spend time reorganizing his Order and
re-writing his Rule, said Rule becoming known as the "Regula Bullata." In
1223, in Greccio, Italy, he was inspired by his love of Christmas to
set up a nativity scene,
a devotion that Catholics still practice to
In 1224, he was given the great honor to bear the stigmata of
Christ. The story is told by Thomas of Celano, in his biography of St.
Francis -- Vita prima
S. Francisci -- written in 1228-1229:
years before Francis gave his soul back to heaven, while he was staying
in a hermitage called "Alverna" after the place w here it was located,
he saw in a vision from God a man with six wings like a seraph,
standing above him with hands extended and feet together, affixed to a
cross. Two wings were raised over his head, two were extended in
flight, and two hid his entire body.
When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with
wonder, but he did not know w hat the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly
in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself
regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was
alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was
suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy,
joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously what this
vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for
understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an
explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great
novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands
and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified
man above him.
His hands and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the
nails appearing in the palms of his hands and on the upper sides of his
feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on
the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces
of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the
nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails
were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh.
Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced
with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were
soaked with his sacred blood.
Alas, how few were worthy of viewing the wound in the side of this
crucified servant of the crucified Lord. How fortunate was Elias, who
was worthy of seeing it while the holy man lived, but no less fortunate
was Rufinus, who touched the wound with his own hands. For once, when
the aforesaid brother Rufinus put his hand on the holy man's chest in
order to rub him, his hand fell to his right side, as often occurs, and
he happened to touch that precious wound. The holy man of God suffered
great anguish from that touch and, pushing the hand away, he cried out
to the Lord to forgive him.
He carefully hid the wound from outsiders and cautiously concealed it
from those near him, so that even his most devoted followers and those
who were constantly at his side knew nothing of it for a long time. And
although the servant and friend of the most high saw himself adorned
with many costly pearls as if with precious gems, and marvelously
decked out beyond the glory and honor of other men, he did not become
vain or seek to please anyone through desire for personal glory, but,
lest human favor should steal away the grace given to him, he attempted
to hide it in every way possible.
At around this time, his body -- which he humorously referred to as
"Brother Ass" -- began to betray him. Tubercolosis, dropsy, eyesight
failing almost to the point of blindness, he knew his time was upon
him. He went to the Chapel of San Damiano to vist St. Clare, and there,
living in a little hut in the garden of the convent, wrote his
"Canticle of the Sun." He then moved on to Assisi, to die in his
beloved Porziuncola, surrounded by his brothers -- including a woman he
deemed a brother, the Lady Jacoba whom he referred to as "Brother
Jacoba." On Ocotber 3, 1226, they read to him the account of Christ's
Passion from the Book of St. John, and then he recited Psalm 141. After
praying the last verse, after having prayed, "Bring my soul out of
prison," he died. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us what happened
body was, on 4 October, borne in triumphant procession to the city, a
halt being made at St. Damian's, that St. Clare and her companions
might venerate the sacred stigmata now visible to all, and it was
placed provisionally in the church of St. George (now within the
enclosure of the monastery of St. Clare), where the saint had learned
to read and had first preached. Many miracles are recorded to have
taken place at his tomb. Francis was canonized at St. George's by
Gregory IX, 16 July, 1228. On that day following the pope laid the
first stone of the great double church of St. Francis, erected in
honour of the new saint, and thither on 25 May, 1230, Francis's remains
were secretly transferred by Brother Elias and buried far down under
the high altar in the lower church. Here, after lying hidden for six
centuries, like that of St. Clare's, Francis's coffin was found, 12
December, 1818, as a result of a toilsome search lasting fifty-two
nights. This discovery of the saint's body is commemorated in the order
by a special office on 12 December, and that of his translation by
another on 25 May. His feast is kept throughout the Church on 4
October, and the impression of the stigmata on his body is celebrated
on 17 September.
stories concerning St. Francis were collected and put together by
Brother Ugolino in the early 14th century, roughly seventy years after
Francis died. The collection is referred to as "The Little Flowers of
Saint Francis" (I
Fioretti). I present them here
Footnotes and Notes:
"Porziuncola" is also sometimes written as "Porzioncula,"
"Porziuncula," "Portiuncola," or "Portiuncula."
There is a prayer commonly, but erroneously, attributed to St. Francis.
Though it's a lovely prayer, it was written not by the Saint, but in
1912 by an
unknown in France. As
explained by the Franciscan Archive (link offsite
and will open in a
first appearance of the Peace Prayer occurred in France in 1912
in a small spiritual magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell). It
was published in Paris by a Catholic association known as La Ligue de
la Sainte-Messe (The Holy Mass League), founded in 1901 by a French
priest, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855-1923). The prayer bore the title
of 'Belle prière à faire pendant la messe' (A Beautiful Prayer to Say
During the Mass), and was published anonymously. The author could
possibly have been Father Bouquerel himself, but the identity of the
author remains a mystery.
The text of the prayer in English and its original French, which,
unlike the English version, also speaks of discord and unity, of error
and Truth, and of finding by losing oneself:
make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant
à être consolé qu'à consoler,
à être compris qu'à comprendre,
à être aimé qu'à aimer,
car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit,
c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve,
c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné,
c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.