On April 13th, 2013, the newly elected Pope took a name that no Pope in history had ever taken before: Francis. This is a bold name, and it is no small task for the Pope to live up to his namesake. Pope Francis says that he did not think too much about the name when he chose it, it just seemed like the right fit.
The life of St. Francis is an amazing story, and it should be told more often. He was born in either 1181 or 1182, in the town of Assisi. His father was a successful cloth merchant, and he traveled often to France. He must have had an affection for the country, given that he named his son after it.
Their family belonged to the emerging European middle class that was educated, successful, and proud. Francis received a practical education, enough to function as a merchant, and it seems that he was quite popular on the party scene of 12th Century Assisi. His conversion did not happen overnight, according to Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan and one of his earliest biographers, but it was a long and humiliating road.
It all began with an illness which confined Francis to bed for some time. When his strength returned, he disovered that the world was not as enticing as it used to be. This did not stop him from wanting what every young man wants: glory in battle. Francis planned to join a nobleman in his campaign against another city – petty battles between cities were a plague on Italy at the time. As he was preparing for this, Francis had a dream in which his house was filled with the trappings of war: saddles, lances, and shields, and he was told that all that these arms were for him and his soldiers. He was about 25 years old, and he awoke with great optimism, but soon found that he had lost any interest in going on the campaign.
Francis was drawn to prayer and began to seek out isolated places in order to pray. In prayer, his zeal for serving God grew stronger and stronger, until it broke out into action. He packed up some expensive fabrics and went to the nearby town of Foligno. There he sold the fabric – he could have done well as a merchant – and then sold his horse. Walking back towards Assisi on foot, he came to the church of San Damiano. The church was old and falling down, and Francis told the priest that he wanted to serve God and donate the money to feed the poor and to repair the church. The priest accepted Francis but refused to accept the money.
For obvious reasons, Francis’ father was furious and came looking for his son, but Francis hid in a pit. After some time living this way he gathered his courage and walked into Assisi. The people mocked him and thought he had gone insane; his father dragged him home, beat him a few times to knock some sense into him, and locked him up.
When his father was gone on business, his mother took pity on him and set him free, and Francis made his way back to the church of San Damiano. His father was furious, but he was also a practical man who realized that he was not winning this battle, He decided to cut his losses and demanded that Francis give up the money that he had gotten from the cloth. The coins were still sitting on a window sill where Francis and the priest and left them. His father then brought him in front of the Bishop of Assis so that Francis could legally renounce his inheritance and his possessions. In response, the young man took off all the clothes he was wearing and gave them to his father.
Francis began to live as a beggar and a hermit. He repaired the church of San Damiano, and then began to build up the Church of Christ by preaching. His simplicity and humility were powerful, as was his constant theme of peace, penance, and conversion of heart. Men were inspired to leave their comfortable lives and join him, and joining meant living outdoors like homeless beggars and travling around on foot. This was the beginning of the Franciscan Order, which St. Francis named the “Little Brothers”, in Latin the Fratres Minores.
St. Francis had a great love for the poor, he had a deep compassion for animals. There are a number of stories of his compassion and his gentle ways with animals.
He also had a great desire for martyrdom, and he wanted to preach repentance and Christian faith to the Muslims in the hope of winning martyrdom. He tried to sail to Syria but the voyage was a disaster and he ended up back in Italy. Then he set out walking towards Morocco, but came down with a serious illness in Spain and had to stop. Later on, he did go to Syria where Christians and Saracens were fighting. He crossed the battle lines and was captured and beaten by the soldiers of the Sultan, but they eventually granted him an audience. As far as we know, the adventure did not convert anyone to Christianity, and St. Francis did not win martyrdom, but he impressed the Sultan enough that he was allowed to go free.
Although a religious Order was forming around Francis, he had little desire to be a leader. St. Francis obviously preferred the uncomplicated life when there had only been a handful of brothers.
In 1224, while praying in La Verna, St. Francis received the stigmata: a wound in his side and marks like nails in his hands and feet. These remained until his death. His health gradually declined, and St. Francis was taken back to Assisi where he died on October 3rd, 1226.
When he died, Francis was no more than 46 years old. Since his death, there has been a constant stream of pilgrims to his tomb, and his story continues to inspire us. Most of all, the life of St. Francis is an example of what God can do with one little life – if only we say yes to Him +