St. Francis - Our Seraphic Father & Founder
St. Francis was born in the town of Assisi, Italy around the year 1182, the son of Pietro Bernardone and Madonna Pica. He acquired the nickname "Francis" at an early age, because of his father's business dealings in France. Pietro Bernardone was a successful cloth merchant, and a member of the rising business class in medieval Italy, providing his family a quite comfortable life. He had dreams of Francis continuing the family business and rising to prominence in the town. As such, he was only too happy to outfit Francis with the equipment needed to serve in the army and go off to war.
Francis' military experience was short-lived as he was soon captured, spending almost a year as a prisoner of war. He returned to Assisi a weak but changed man. His forced solitude led him to ask questions about his future, and he continued to ponder these questions as he recuperated at home. One day in 1205 he stopped to reflect and pray in the crumbling chapel of St. Damian, down the hill from Assisi. There, in a mystical experience, he heard Christ speak from the cross and give the direction, "Francis, repair my church, which as you see is falling into ruins." He took this charge literally, and began to rebuild the very structure in which he had prayed. Such behavior brought his father's disapproval and then anger when Francis sold his father's cloth to raise funds for the needed repairs. Dragged before the bishop by his father, Francis declared that God alone was his Father, and he entrusted himself to the bishop.
The strange behavior of this favored son of Assisi brought more than a few laughs and much ridicule. But it also attracted others from the town and the surrounding area who appreciated what this gallant young man was trying to accomplish. They joined him in repairing churches, and slowly came to realize that their service should extend to others who had special needs, like the lepers who were abandoned to fend for themselves.
As the group grew in numbers, Francis was wise enough to know that many had fallen away from the Church and become heretical in their teachings. So, in 1210, he and his followers set out for Rome, to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III, for the simple way of life they proposed to live. The Pope also had misgivings, but tradition says a dream helped him to realize that this way of life was a literal following of the Gospel, and that Francis would be a "support" for the whole Church.
Thus the way of life Francis proposed received verbal approval from the Pope in the year 1210. In the immediate years that followed there was phenomenal growth. Literally thousands of men and women joined this movement while Francis was still alive.
Francis and his brothers would go out in small groups preaching penance, wishing those they met, "Peace and all good," while proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. After a period of time they would return together at a designated spot to pray, share their experiences, and renew themselves in their way of life. A missionary effort was an early thrust and Francis himself was able to preach before a Sultan of the East. This period also brought the first martyrs to the Order, as St. Berard and his companions died in Morocco, the inspiration that led Anthony of Padua to the Friars.
Early on, Clare, a rich young woman from Assisi, also sought to live this way of life and was welcomed by Francis. Clare and her sisters were given the restored Chapel of St. Damian, a place to pursue contemplative life, becoming the Second Order of St. Francis, also known as the Poor Clares.
Accepting that many women and men had responsibilities
Many aspects of Francis' life are well known. Francis wanted everyone to experience God's love in sending His Son into the world, so in the town of Greccio in 1223, he created what is said to be the first Christmas crib, allowing that community to better picture the miracle of Bethlehem. In 1224, while praying on Mount La Verna, Francis received the marks of our Lord's Passion in his hands, feet and side, a miracle known as the Stigmata.
Capturing his love for all of creation, in 1225 Francis completed the "Canticle of the Creatures" wherein he recognized God's goodness in "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon" and all of nature:
The Canticle of the Creatures
Francis' earthly life came to an end on the evening of October 3, 1226. After much suffering, he asked to be laid on the bare earth outside the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, below the hill of Assisi. There he would commend his soul to his Heavenly Father.
Francis was declared a saint only two years later, in 1228, and in that same year work was begun on his permanent burial place in Assisi. In 1230, St. Francis' mortal remains were moved to the church that the world knows today as the Basilica of St. Francis. It remains one of the most popular places of pilgrimages in the world, visited by many popes, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
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