“Go Francis, and repair my house, which you see is falling into ruin.”–Those were the words St. Francis heard one day while praying in St. Damian’s chapel in Assisi. Words that would inspire him to become the founder of what we know today as the Franciscan Order of friars.
St. Francis was born in Assisi Italy in the late 12th Century (the exact year is unknown, but it is believed to be either 1181 or 1182.) He died there forty-four years later. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Although he would later denounce it, he lived a rather lavish lifestyle off his father’s status.
When he turned twenty, he fought the Perugians and was taken prisoner. This was when he received a dream that inspired him to take a different path, returning home in 1205. He gave away all his money to a leper and said he was taking “Lady Poverty” as his wife. He gave his clothes to a merchant and fasted among the beggars. His father heard of his actions and thought that he had become a madman. He had him dragged home and beaten, bound and locked in a dark closet. His mother freed him and he sought sanctuary with a priest. His father searched and found him. He told his father he had denounced his wealthy origin and was now in service to his Heavenly Father. He stripped his garments and gave them to his father, walking away naked. This was to show that he didn’t want to own anything, not even the clothes on his back!
Francis believed nature to be “the Mirror of God”, and preached to animals, calling them his brothers and sisters. There is even a story that he managed to tame a wolf, that he actually called “brother wolf”. There’s a great prayer he wrote called “Canticle of the Sun” which illustrates this bond he had with nature. This is why he is the Patron of all animals. In fact, on his feast day you can bring your pet to church to have it blessed by the priest.
The Franciscan order was not something Francis deliberately set out to found, but he reluctantly took the position. That is something I really like about Francis, he had humility, but was still willing to become a leader. God was so pleased with his work that Francis received the stigmata, a visual marking on his hands and feet similar to the exact same wounds that Christ himself received on the cross.
It was during the starting years of his order that he met a woman named Clare, who was inspired by his humility. The two of them formed a warm and deep friendship. Like Francis, Clare was also of noble birth and denounced her status. She too would go on to found her own order, known as the Poor Clare Nuns. But that’s a story for another post.
St. Francis’s major shrine is located in his hometown in Italy. Both his and Clare’s orders can be found all over the world, and over 10 thousand of them are priests. They are identified by their brown, simple habits, which are always hand-me-downs, in keeping with the tradition of their beloved founder.