The Joyce Hill Column
St Francis of Assisi
October 4th is the feast-day of St Francis of Assisi, famed for his deep humility, his generosity, his love of nature, and his simple and unaffected faith, from which he drew the inspiration for the founding of the first-ever Order of Friars. He was born in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi to a well-to-do merchant family, and his early life was very much that of a lad about town. But then came a series of events which gradually changed his outlook. In 1202 he was taken prisoner in a regional dispute between Perugia and Assisi and remained in captivity for some months; then, when he returned to Assisi he fell seriously ill and, after much inner turmoil, determined to devote himself to prayer and the service of the poor. Subsequently, when on a pilgrimage to Rome, he decided that he should actually embrace poverty himself, and so, as a way of starting out on this path, he exchanged clothes with one of the beggars outside St Peter’s and spent the rest of the day as a mendicant. Finally, around 1208, while worshipping in a church near Assisi, he was inspired by the day’s gospel reading, which told of how the disciples of Christ were sent out to preach the Kingdom of God without the benefit of any possessions (Matthew 10 vv. 7-19). Francis accordingly began to live a very simple life as an itinerant preacher. But this inspired many others to follow him, and so in 1209-10 he drew up a simple Rule of Life, which was duly authorised by the Pope. This new Order was strikingly different from anything that had gone before since the friars (from Latin fratres, ‘brothers’) operated outside the normal ecclesiastical structures, had no possessions, and preached — especially at first — even in the fields and the streets.
The Order quickly spread, with new Rules of Life being developed and authorised by the Pope in 1221 and 1223, though by this time others were taking the lead since Francis recognised that he did not have the qualities for supervising and administering what had very quickly become a huge international organisation. He had, however, in the early years, already established the Poor Clares, an Order for women, and a Third Order, for lay people who wished to commit themselves to living their daily lives according to Franciscan principles. Francis’s other famous ‘firsts’ were that he devised the first Christmas crib (though in his case it was a live tableau of the Nativity), and that he was the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s passion (the Stigmata), which he received in a religious ecstasy in 1224, two years before his death. He was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on 16 July 1228. The saint’s life is magnificently represented in the frescoes of the thirteenth century Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, built immediately after his death to serve as his shrine.
‘Francis’ is actually a nickname, given to him by his father, who was on business in France when he was born. In his father’s absence he was baptised Giovanni (John). But his father took to calling him ‘Francesco’ (meaning ‘the Frenchman’), and the name stuck. The present Pope’s choice of Francis as his papal name reflects his desire for a papacy not of pomp, but of humility and concern for the poor. This is another ‘first’ associated with Francis: no other Pope has borne this name.