Francis of Assisi was born to the wealthy merchant family of Pietro and Pica Bernardone in 1181 or 1182 at Assisi in Umbria. Though trained by priests and also trained in the skill of his father, he spent his youth in pleasure and hedonistic pursuits. He became enamored with the idea of being a knight and enjoying military glory. Beginning at the age of twenty though, because of alternations between lengthy bouts with sickness and being led by dreams, Francis’ way and attitude began to be sobered. It was the beginnings of the life of poverty and monasticism for which he is now heralded.
On one occasion, Francis was preparing to go off into battle and so achieve his dream of knightly greatness when he had two dreams. The first showed him a palace full of arms and soldiers and in one room of the palace stood a beautiful bride waiting for her bridegroom. A voice revealed to Francis that these were all awaiting him. He interpreted this dream to be affirmation of the glory he expected to attain as a knight. He was wrong. He traveled all of that day toward his destination for battle and that night had another dream. In this one the voice spoke to him again.
“Francis, where are you going like this?”
He replied, “I am going to Apulia.”
“Tell me,” the voice continued, “from whom can you expect most, the master or the servant?”
“From the master, of course!” he replied.
“Then why follow the servant instead of the master on whom he depends?”
“Lord, what would you have me do?”
“Return to your own country. There it shall be revealed to you what you are to do and you will come to know the meaning of this vision.”
The next day, a humbled, changed Francis returned home. He was twenty-five. His friends wondered why he would not join them in their revelries anymore; was he planning on marrying? He answered them that yes, in fact he did intend on marrying. Who she was Francis did not know, but he remained faithful to the bride in his heart. Over a short course of time as he wrestled in prayer with God, Francis surrendered himself to His Lord. His joy was so great that people couldn’t help but notice. Francis came to understand the “peerless princess” to which he would be wed. She was “Lady Poverty.”
Thus began Francis’ course of renouncing material comforts until he reached the point of surrendering every possession, every privilege. This commitment reached its fullness in 1208 when Francis attended Mass and the subject of the day was the command of Christ to His disciples to “take nothing for [their] journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece.” “And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:2-3) Francis left Mass and got rid of his shoes, his cloak, his staff, and found a course woolen tunic, what the poorest of peasants wore, to clothe himself with and he went forth to preach the kingdom. Francis acquired a few followers who were willing to follow his lead of giving all to the poor and pursuing a life of poverty. The small band erected huts of straw and mud, the central settlement of what would soon formally become the Franciscan Order, and would wander two by two to surrounding areas exhorting and evangelizing. His influence grew and soon the Second Franciscan Order of Poor Ladies was established for women who desired to devote their lives to poverty and penance.
From the beginning, the Franciscans were devoted to missionary work. The propagation of the gospel and repentance of the lost was always a burden on their hearts. Francis himself attempted to travel to Central Italy, Morocco and France on missionary endeavors but was kept from each of these by either sickness, shipwreck or the council of his authorities. But he organized the Order in such a way that Tuscany, Lombardy, Provence, Spain and Germany were delegated to five of his closest followers. While for a time, he devoted much of his energy toward missionary activity around Italy, he was never relieved of the burden of reaching the heathen in further lands. He enjoyed great success and acceptance with the crowds of people that would gather each time he entered a new town; such great success in fact that he formed a Third Order for those who could not leave home to commit to the strict, rigorous lifestyle of the friars, but who desired to be set apart from the world.
One of the outstanding qualities of the ministry Francis and his followers was their treatment of the poor and afflicted. It was Francis’ conviction that if a poor man was to ever join in a meal with them, he ought not feel out of place, unequal, or blush at his impoverished state. In fact, Francis was willing to eat with lepers, and even to share their dish. It was this sympathy and simplicity that won many people to the love of this man. He once said “Should there be a brother anywhere in the world who has sinned, no matter how great soever his fault may be, let him not go away after he has once seen thy face without showing pity towards him; and if he seek not mercy, ask him if he does not desire it. And by this I will know if you love God and me.”
Francis spent the end of his years writing a “Second Rule” which he meant to instruct and guide the Order, which had by this time grown to considerable size. The three vows, which serve as the foundation of the rule, are vows to: poverty, obedience and chastity. Francis of Assisi revolutionized his day with his radical teachings about repentance and he validated his message with the radical lifestyle that he gladly accepted. He attempted in every area of his life to imitate the life of His Lord and this man of God died on October 4, 1226, in the forty-fifth year of his life.
“The Love of Christ and Him crucified permeated the whole life and character of Francis, and he placed the chief hope of redemption and redress for suffering humanity in the literal imitation of his Divine Master.”