Saint Francis of Assisi was the founder of the Order of Friars Minor and a leading figure in the 13th century. Canonized in 1228, he was proclaimed patron saint of environmentalists by John Paul II in 1980. In 2013, the Pope Francoischose him as an explicit reference after his election to begin his pontificate. But who was this saint who was making the headlines? What was his life like? What was his vision for the mission of the Church?
Saint Francis of Assisi: a bourgeois named Francesco
Born in Assisi, Italy, Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone comes from a wealthy merchant family in Umbria (a region of central Italy). His mother, originally from French Provence, gave birth in 1181 or 1182 to a boy whom she had baptized in her husband's absence under the name Giovanni. On his return from business the father gave him the name of Francesco (that is to say François = French) in homage to France where he had carried out good commercial operations.
During his youth Francesco left the image of a spoiled and dissipated son of the Italian merchant class, leading the good life and spending his money organizing outings with his classmates. Bourgeois of his time, he was not only noticed for his taste for celebration, but also for his involvement in the major social problems of the moment. Indeed the demands of the bourgeoisie against the nobility gave rise to armed revolts in which Francesco participated, until the defeat of Ponte San Giovanni in November 1202 when he was taken prisoner. Sick during his imprisonment, he joined Assisi on his release.
But once he got back on his feet, Francesco did not give up the aspirations he shared with the other rebellious bourgeois: to obtain a title of nobility and to be knighted! A dream also comforts him in his new expedition, during this dream a man brought him to a palace filled with riches, chivalrous weapons and shields marked with the Cross which hung on the wall. For Francesco there is no doubt: this dream announces to him that the fate of a grand knight awaits him and that he only has to get back to his mount and prove himself to be dubbed and start his brilliant career. This is how he leaves to join the army of Gauthier de Brienne! However, during his trip, he had a new dream in Spoleto which reframes his ardor: a voice would have asked him what he was doing and, after listening to him, would have asked him " Who can do you more good, the Lord or the servant? "Francesco having of course answered that it was the Lord, the voice would have asked him again" Why then do you forsake the lord for the servant and the prince for the vassal? ". Stunned, Francesco would then have asked what he should do and the voice ordered him: " Return to your country to do what the Lord will reveal to you ».
Francesco, the pious man of Assisi
Back in Assisi Francesco changed his behavior and turned more explicitly to the Christian faith, abandoning his fellow revelers for the silence of prayer and chapels. It was then that in 1205, when he was only 23 years old, he heard a new voice emanating from the crucifix in Saint Damien's chapel. This voice asking him to " repair his ruined church », Francesco decides to restore the small chapel. For this he sells his father's goods and spends the profit for the restoration of the chapels. In doing so, he attracted the wrath of his injured father, who did not hesitate to take him to court. Claiming to be a penitent Francesco escapes secular justice, but finds himself summoned by the Bishop of Assisi. In the court clash Francesco returns his remaining money, part with everything he owns and, naked in front of the crowd, reportedly told his father: " So far I have called you father on earth; from now on I can say: Our Father who art in Heaven, since it is to Him that I have entrusted my treasure and given my faith ". It was then that the Bishop would have covered him with his cloak.
After a visit to Gubbio, Francesco returned to Assisi where he continued the restoration of the chapels of Saint Damien, Saint Peter and La Portiuncula. Inspired by the message of poverty in the Gospels, Francesco earns his living by working and giving alms, he covers himself with a simple tunic tightened at the waist by a rope as a belt.
Saint Francis of Assisi - Founder of the Franciscans
Little by little, Francesco’s example was emulated: his extreme poverty, his closeness to the most underprivileged (lepers, etc.) and his eagerness to restore places of worship attracted an ever-increasing number of companions to him. Saint Francis of Assisi soon found himself obliged to write a rule of life to be followed so that his small community would become a recognized religious order. In 1210, four years after his return to Assisi, he brought his rule to Pope Innocent III for validation. At the same time, according to Christian tradition, the Pope would have had a dream where he would have seen a man supporting alone the basilica of Saint John in the Lateran which was falling into ruins ... And this man he would have recognized in the person of Francesco. Thus guided by his dream, Pope Innocent III verbally validated the rule proposed to him by this man who preached poverty.
The ranks of the brothers under Francesco’s rule grew rapidly, and this example of piety also attracted women. This is particularly the case of a noble adolescent, Chiara Offreduccio di Favarone (Saint Clare), who runs away to join Francesco after having listened to his sermon during Lent in the year 1212. The brothers then accept Chiara's wishes to meet. withdrawing from the world, the 18-year-old girl cuts her hair, takes the bure and goes to a Benedictine convent. Her example prompting other women of Assisi to take the plunge, Saint Francis of Assisi had them installed in the Church of Saint Damien under the direction of Chiara, who on this occasion founded a new order, the feminine branch of the Franciscans.
Saint Francis of Assisi, from the crusade to the stigmata
In 1219 Francesco left for the Holy Land where the Crusaders were fighting to regain control of the holy places, leaving the reins of the order to Peter of Catania and then to Elijah of Assisi. He arrives in Egypt where he paradoxically decides to meet the representatives of the Muslim enemy. This is how he met in 1219 in Damietta Sultan Al-Kamel, known as "the Perfect", who let him return freely after their interview.
Back in Italy Saint Francis of Assisi endeavors to put down in writing the rules of his order that he wants an example of poverty and humility. The rule was first written in 1221. The following year he created a third branch of his order, secular this time at the request of the inhabitants of Bologna. In 1223 he retired to rework his rule which was definitively accepted by Pope Honorius III.
This rule advocates the renunciation of all wealth for those who come into order (" Let them go and sell everything they own and distribute the proceeds to the poor »), The All Saints fast at Christmas and every Friday. She also asks the brothers to go on foot on the roads to evangelize, always to avoid quarrels, not to judge one's neighbor, to be unceasingly " kind, soothing, self-effacing, meek and humble, deferential and courteous to all ". The brothers are also asked to work to receive enough money, while refusing the money. In other words, a way of life based on unconditional poverty, humility, manual labor and evangelization.
In 1224 he retired with some brothers to the monastery of Alverne where he would have received the stigmata, that is to say the wounds of the Passion of Christ on his own body (traces of the nails on his hands and feet …). This phenomenon, then unheard of in Christendom, will subsequently recur on multiple occasions from the Middle Ages to the present day. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, prudent, recognized by pontifical decision the authenticity only of the stigmata of two saints: Saint Francis and later Catherine of Siena (14th century saint). Bearer of the stigmata, Saint Francis of Assisi seems seized with anguish and held back by illness, he retires to a hut not far from the Saint Damien chapel where the Poor Clares were. It was there that he wrote the famous "Canticle of the Creatures" celebrating God and all of His Creation, making today the patron saint of ecology (since 1979).
Saint Francis of Assisi finally died on October 3, 1226, in the chapel of the Transito, after leaving a will in which he urged the observance of the message of the Gospels, work, poverty and respect for his rule. In 1228 Pope Gregory IX canonized him.
To go further on the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi
- Gobry Ivan, Saint Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Spirit, Point, 2001.
- Le Goff Jacques, Saint François d'Assise, Editions Gallimard, 1999.
- Père Vorreux Damien, The writings of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, Les Editions Franciscaines, 1992.