ENSHRINEMENT 2003: Francis of Assisi

FRANCESCO DI PIETRO DI BERNARDONE (born 1181/1182, Assisi – died October 3, 1226, Assisi, Italy) , known as Francis of Assisi, is the principal patron saint of Italy and considered to be the founder of all Franciscan Orders and the leader of the church reform movements of the early 13th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant; his mother, a noble woman from Provence. He was born and grew into adolescence in warring times, when it was customary for nobles of neighboring towns to engage in military skirmishes and while the popes of Christendom called up the Third and Fourth Crusades against the Islamic forces in Palestine. In youth Francis was handsome, gallant, courteous, and witty, a humorous imp and king of frolic who would as soon empty his pockets for a beggar as for himself, popular with everyone in town and the romantic ringleader of the young nobles. He fancied himself a disciple of the “joyous science” of Provence —a troubadour— and early resolved on a military career. He attempted to join the papal forces against Frederick II in late 1205; his biographers tells us that a series of dreams or visions urged him back to Assisi where, after a period of uncertainty, he began to seek an answer to his calling in solitary prayer. Not long after, as Dante sings, Francis solemnized his nuptials with Lady Poverty. In 1208 (while Pope Innocent III proclaimed against the “Albigenses” a crusade which eradicated the language and culture of Provence), Francis exchanged the remnant of his fashionable clothes for a single tunic in the style of the poorest Umbrian peasant and wandered into the hills behind Assisi, improvising hymns of praise and identifying himself as “herald of the Great King” and “God’s troubadour.” He did what he did with the same appearance of great import and seriousness, and with the same light humor and grace, he had used in younger days, in a mischievous and merrily sly way, to undermine the tyrannies that complicate human life.
        He grew into a profound mystic and teacher. He made his life into a drama, at times as an example, at times as a lesson to be watched and not imitated, to awaken and return a half-dead Christendom to God. Thoroughly in touch with his age, he used his life to reflect and evoke what was in the heart of the people; and from him they learned to live in the hope of immortality. He blended the natural and the supernatural so closely in his life that he clothed his asceticism in romantic charm and impregnated his language with the chivalry and poetry of the chanson de geste.In his concept, Courtesy was the younger sister of Charity and one of the qualities of God himself; the Divine was reflected in all things; there were sermons in stones; and all things were his brothers and sisters. The life he wished to communicate was the life of Christ, “The Mirror of Perfection,” and so he took on the persona of Christ as a role which he played.
        He never intended to found an Order (he was ordained a deacon later in life under protest) but a brotherhood that expressed God’s brotherhood, of which all created things were a part. He did not intend to be a reformer: He tried to correct abuses by holding up Images of God. To those who sought “better gifts” he held out his arms; the others he left alone. His mission was to rekindle the love of God in the world and to reanimate the life of the spirit in the hearts of men.
        His example began to attract followers in 1209. When the number of his companions numbered eleven, Francis drew up a Rule for them to follow, styled this group the “Penitents of Assisi,” and set out for Rome to seek the approval of the Holy See. Accounts of their reception differs; but it seems this first Rule was verbally approved by Innocent III and all received the ecclesiastical tonsure. (This “first Rule,” as it is now called, has not come down to us in its original form.) After their return to Assisi, the brethren, now called by Francis the “Friars Minor,” obtained a permanent foothold near Assisi about 1211 through the generosity of the Benedictines of Monte Subasio, who gave them the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels (the now famous Porziuncola). Adjoining this humble sanctuary, a few small huts of straw and mud enclosed by a hedge became their first convent and the central spot in the life of Francis. From here, Francis sent forth the Friars Minor two by two, like children “careless of the day,” singing in their joy and calling themselves the Lord’s minstrels. During the Lent of 1212, Clare, a noble eighteen-year-old heiress of Assisi, sought out Francis to become his spiritual student. In her, Francis found the embodiment of the Lady Poverty whom he had served from afar. Francis gave her a religious habit similar to his own and eventually lodged her in the church of St. Damian, with her sister Agnes and a few other lady companions who followed her. Thus was founded the sisterhood of “Poor Ladies.”
        Francis called the first general chapter of the Friars Minor at Porziuncola in May 1217. At this gathering, Francis apportioned the provinces of the Christian world into so many missions. Francis reserved France for himself; but he was dissuaded from going there by Cardinal Ugolino (soon after made protector of the Friars Minor by Pope Honorius III), who sent Francis to Rome to preach before the pope and cardinals in the Lateran in order to allay the prejudices of the Roman Curia at the methods Francis used. At the second general chapter of the Order in May 1219, Francis assigned a separate mission to each of his foremost disciples. For himself, he selected the seat of the newly pronounced Fifth Crusade against the Saracens. In June he set sail for Egypt with eleven of his companions. Francis was present at the siege and the taking of the city of Damietta by the Christian crusaders. In the midst of the battle, Francis preached to the crusaders, then passed over to the enemy camp where he was arrested and led to the sultan. It is reported that the sultan received Francis with courtesy and gave him permission to visit the holy places in Palestine. It is also reported that the sultan, charmed by Francis, said: “I would convert to your religion, which is a beautiful one – but both you and I would be murdered.”
        News of disturbances among the friars in Italy reached Francis in the East and compelled him to return: The two vicars-general whom Francis had left in charge of the Friars Minor had summoned a chapter in his absence to impose innovations more severe than the rule required; the papal protector, Cardinal Ugolino, had conferred on the Poor Ladies a written rule practically identical to that of the Benedictine nuns, which the Brother charged with their interests had accepted; and, to make matters worse, one of the first companions of Francis was attempting to form a new brotherhood of lepers and rumors were circulating that Francis was dead. Five thousand Friars and five hundred novitiates were present at the famous Chapter of the Mats held at Porziuncola at Whitsuntide 1220-1221. The simple and unceremonious ways that had characterized the movement were now disappearing. Cardinal Ugolino had already undertaken the task of “reconciling inspirations so unstudied and so free with an order of things they had outgrown.” (It is not difficult to recognize Cardinal Ugolino’s hand in the important changes made in the organization of the Order. And it is clear that the rule of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, in the form which has come down to us and was confirmed by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289, does not represent the original rule. The customary date to assign for the foundation of this new Order – which was later used by the Roman Church to re-Christianize medieval society and whose members came to include Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Giotto, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus, and Galileo— is 1221.) It was on this occasion that Francis resigned direction of the Order.
        In the last years of his life, while his fraternity was passing through its transition under papal influence, Francis grew increasingly ill. In the summer of 1224 he retired with some brothers to the rugged mountain retreat of La Verna (Alvernia), not far from Assisi, where it is said he beheld a marvelous seraphic vision. (After the death of Francis, Brother Elias announced to the Order by circular letter that as a sequel to the vision Francis had received the five wounds of the stigmata; and after the canonization of Francis, Brother Leo, the saint’s confessor and intimate companion, left a written testimony of the event.) Francis lived two years longer. At times his eyesight failed him and, during an excess of anguish, Francis paid visit to Clare at St. Damian’s. There, in a little hut of reed made for him in a garden, he composed the “Canticle of the Sun.” Not long afterwards, the pope ordered that Francis undergo an operation on his eyes which entailed cauterizing his face with a hot iron. Although the operation was unsuccessful, at the urging of others, Francis underwent further medical treatment until 1226 when alarming dropsical symptoms developed. He grew increasingly ill and was carried to his beloved Porziuncola, where he passed his last days in a tiny hut near the chapel that served as infirmary. On his last day, Francis removed his poor habit and lay down on the bare ground facing the sun in the form of a cross and made his transition asking that his soul be released from its prison.
        On July 16, 1228, Francis was canonized by the newly elected Pope, Gregory IX (once Cardinal Ugolino, the papal protector of the Friars Minor) at St. George’s in Assisi. From that moment and for the next two hundred years, the influence of Francis and his name was the greatest power at work in the growing civilization of Europe. The Franciscan movement advanced with astonishing rapidity and, in the course of a few years, established over all of central Italy a network of religious houses in his name. The new pope saw in the mendicant Order a means for counteracting the love of luxury, a weapon for suppressing heresy, an army of soldiers ready to preach the Gospel at the risk of their lives; and in the Tertiary Order, unlike anything attempted before, he saw a way to draw lay persons from the entire continent into a magic circle supposed to secure the hereditary inheritance of Franciscan principles. Sporadic attempts to revive the authentic concepts of Francis, such as that of the spiritual Franciscans, met powerful resistance; and by the end of the fourteenth century, the movement had more or less spent its strength.
        On the day following the canonization of Francis, Gregory IX had lain the first stone of the church in Assisi erected to honor the new saint. That church grew into the Basilica of St. Francis, which became the birthplace of a new age in painting and European art. Frescoes were begun in the lower basilica around 1250. Within a few decades, the walls of the upper and lower basilica were covered with religious scenes illustrating the stories of the Bible and the lives of the saints. The life of Francis became a passionate tradition painted everywhere full of color and dramatic possibilities, inspiring more iconographic cycles and more allegorical scenes than any other saint. (The portrait selected for today’s enshrinement is a detail of one of these frescoes, “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds,” from the west side of the nave of the lower basilica.) And as the life of Francis brought about the birth of Italian art, his love of song called forth the beginning of Italian vernacular poetry. “The Canticle of the Sun” is one of the earliest poems written in the Italian language. Italian poets of the 13th- and 14th-century dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”), which reached its greatest brilliance in the lyric poems of Dante, have as their precursors Francis and the troubadours of Provence.

...back to the ANNUAL CELEBRATIONS page