1902 Encyclopedia > St Francis of Assisi (Giovanni di Bernardone)

St Francis of Assisi
(Giovanni di Bernardone)
Italian friar and founder of the Franciscan Order
(1181/82 - 1226)

ST FRANCIS, (1182-1226), a well-known saint of the Roman Catholic Church, the founder of the great order of Franciscans, was born at Assisi in the year 1182. His father was a trader in goods which he appears chiefly to have purchased in the south of France, to which he made frequent journeys; and his son was born during one of these journeys, and in consequence received from the grateful father on his return the name of Francesco. His mother had wished to call him, it is said, Giovanni or John. The youth grew up very much like any other boy of his class. He received but little learning from the priest of the parish, and does not seem to have manifested any special love for school instruction. He was by nature a merry-hearted and careless fellow, and developed early an inclination for fine clothes and street amusements with other boys of his class. His parents, indulgent to his gaieties, saw with pride the higher tastes and bright intelligence of their son, and would sometimes say to one another, " He is like the son of a prince." The father formed expectations of a successful courtly career; but the mother, seeing more into the boy's heart, would say to her neighbours, " If he lives like the son of a prince now, he shall hereafter be a child of God."

Soon a great change came to him. At the age of twenty-five Francis was seized with a severe illness. Reflections came to him on his sick-bed, and he rose from it an altered man. Henceforward, says one of his biographers, " he held that in contempt which he had hitherto held in admiration and love." The ardour of his natural character flamed forth first in the idea of military devotion, and then in a consum-ing spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of others. All his love of amusement and worldly display disappeared. He began to speak of poverty as his bride; and the poor and the sick and the leper became the objects of his peculiar care. He would seek out the lepers, hitherto abhorred by him as by the popular feeling, and kiss them and minister to their wants. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, and in his enthusiasm for poverty flung all he had on the altar of St Peter's, joined himself to a troop of beggars, and gave him-self up to a wandering life of almsgiving and charity. His mother guessed something of the feelings that were strugg-ling in her son's heart; but his father, not unnaturally, was greatly concerned at his conduct. At last matters came to an open rupture between them; and the saint's severance of the parental tie for the sake of his divine mission is a significant incident in his career with all his biographers. It happened in this wise. There was an old church or small chapel of the name of St Damian in the neighbour-hood of Assisi which had fallen into ruins. The spot was a favourite one with the youthful enthusiast for meditation and prayer; and one day as he sat in meditation among the ruins he seemed to hear a voice saying to him clearly, " Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins ; go and restore it for me." To hear was to obey. The divine voice, as with some other enthusiasts, seemed to silence every other voice in his heart, even the voice of conscience. He returned home, saddled his horse, took a bale of his father's goods, and repairing to Foligno he sold both horse and goods, and rushed to the priest of St Damian with the money to pay for the restoration of the church. The good priest was startled ; his father heard with indignation of his son's conduct, and at length with blows and curses securely imprisoned him from any further freaks. But his father's harshness overshot the mark. Beleased by the tenderness of his mother, and summoned to restore the goods he had taken away and renounce all his patri-monial rights, the popular feeling, which had previously sided with his father against him, now turned in the youth's favour. The bishop, before whom the case finally came, discovered the youth's vocation to a religious life, and in-duced him to restore the value of the goods to his father. The money had been all the while lying neglected amidst the ruins of the church. This accomplished, Francis re-nounced all dependence upon his father, and gave himself up to the profession of a religious mendicant. " I have but one, a Father in heaven, now," he said. The people were melted to tears by his devotion, and the good bishop took him for a time under his own charge.

Gradually Francis found his full vocation, not only in a life of entire devotion and poverty for himself, but in found-ing an order of mendicants devoted to the service of the church. It was in the old scene of his earlier inspiration that the new idea eame to him. Once more the divine voice was heard sounding in his ears : " Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, nor yet staves," This was about the year 1208 or 1209, when, therefore, the saint was about twenty-six years of age. He was henceforth a preacher as well as an exemplar of poverty. He essayed to reproduce the picture of the divine life on earth, having not where to lay his head, going about doing good, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom. "Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor; then thou shalt have treasure in heaven." Gradually there gathered round his cell, which he had fixed outside the town near a little church, the St Maria degli Angeli, better known as the Portiuncula, a band of disciples as enthusiastic as himself. " Fear not," he said to them, " because you are small and seem foolish. Have confidence in the Lord who has vanquished the world. Some will receive you. Many proud will resist you. Bear all with sweetness and patience. Soon the wise and the noble will be with us. The Lord hath given me to see this. I have in my ears the sounds of the languages of all the people who will come to us,—French, Spaniards, Germans, English. The Lord will make us a great people, even to the end of the earth."

In this insignificant manner was laid the foundation of the great Franciscan order. At first there were only seven, himself the eighth, but all were animated by the same spirit, and all followed the same rule of life. As he sent them forth he said, " Go and preach two and two. Preach peace and patience; tend the wounded; relieve the distressed; reclaim the erring; bless them which persecute you, and pray for them that despitefully use you." The gospel of divine poverty was proclaimed everywhere. The spirit of self-renunciation spread by-and-by like wildfire, and multi-tudeá1 were added to the order day by day. It may seem to our modern imagination a fantastic dream, but the gospel of St Francis met a congenial root in the social and spiritual life of the 13 th century, and rapidly grew into great results. The sanction and blessing of the papacy, however, were necessary to give the order ecclesiastical posi-tion and influence. Francis himself undertook a new journey to Borne, and suddenly appeared before the great Innocent III. as he was walking one day on the terrace of the Lateran. The startled pope dismissed the mean stranger with mingled pity and contempt; but the same night a vision came to him of the marvellous growth of a palm tree from meanness to magnificence; and, as he pondered the meaning of the vision, a divine whisper reached him that thus powerful on behalf of the church was to prove the poor man whose appearance had startled him. The natural con-clusion followed. The poor man was recalled, his projects were submitted to the judgment of the Vatican, and the result was that the papal sanction was formally extended to the order,—a few years before the same sanction was given to the great rival order headed by the learned and noble Dominic. The founders of the two great mendicant orders are said to have met afterwards at Rome, and again at a great meeting of the Franciscans in 1219. St Dominic is credited with the most friendly greetings offered to his brother saint. " Thou art my companion ; thy work and mine is the same." It is said also that he looked with amazement at the second meeting on the remarkable fas-cination which the simple-minded Francis exerted over his followers. But it is difficult to know whether these reputed rapprochements of the great leaders were not an afterthought of their biographers, interested in promoting the idea of the friendliness of the two powers which were destined for a time to divide the influence of the church between them.

Francis founded an order of poor sisters as well as poor brothers, known by the name of Boor Claras or Clarisses. The origin of the sisterhood is encircled in a halo of romance, such as everywhere surrounds the footsteps of St Francis. Clara was a young lady of the neighbourhood, who, either attracted by the saint's preaching, or enamoured of his life of poverty, or both, resolved to devote herself to self-sacrifice as he and his companions had done. He is said to have " poured into her ears the sweetness of Christ." The result was that she forsook her home, fled to the Portiuncula, and, being first a member of the order, was then placed in a female convent. From this questionable beginning sprang the sisterhood nearly as famous in its history as the great brotherhood, and which survives till this day. There was a third order also sprung up in the course of the saint's lifetime. So marvellous were the consequences of his preaching that whole populations, it is said, wished to devote themselves to consecrated poverty. But many, of course, had no real vocation to such a service, and Francis, visionary as he was, saw that the excesses of his system might prove its ruin. So he arranged to receive persons of this class into an order of what was called Tertiaries or Brethren of Penitence, who retained their social position and their customary employments in the world, while coming under general vows to abstain from worldly dissipations, such as the theatre, and otherwise to be scrupulous in all their con-duct. Women were not admitted to this order without the consent of their husbands. Its members did not wear silk or other costly materials, but they had no special costume, and otherwise were at liberty. His conduct in this matter is sufficient to prove that, amidst all the apparently child-like enthusiasm of the saint, he possessed, as indeed cannot be doubted, no inconsiderable vein of shrewd discernment and of practical ability. This order was established in 1221.

Meanwhile Francis was unceasing in his personal labours. It is not easy to trace the chronology of his age or his adven-tures; but the same spirit of self-sacrifice, of burning ardour and spiritual industry, is everywhere conspicuous. He made long missionary journeys to Illyria, to Spain, and even to the East, to preach to the Mahometans. He gained access to the sultan, it is said, and proclaimed to him the gospel of poverty. He was for some time in the Holy Land, and everywhere he gained multitudes of disciples. The atmo-sphere of miracle everywhere accompanied him, and his fame was spread throughout Christendom. Whatever we may think of many events of his life, and impossible as it is now to disentangle the legeudary thread of the supernatural from its more credible texture, there are many traits of the saint's character which are in no sense doubtful, but show with a clear and life-like impress what sort of a man he was. He was passionately fond of all living things, and found his chief happiness in ministering to the needs of his fellow-creatures or the enjoyment of the lower creatures around him. His love for animals of all kinds was one of his most remarkable and winning features. Of the birds in the woods, the sheep in the fields, the ass on which he rode, the bees, the hares, the rabbits, he always spoke as his brothers and sisters. When the birds sang he said, " Our sisters, the birds, are pleasing God." A little rabbit ran to him for protection; it was received into his bosom, as one of his biographers, the famous general of the order Bonaventura, says, "as if it had some hidden sense of the perfection of the father's heart." The very wolves, which all men were afraid to encounter, were tamed by him, and came like lambs and crouched at his feet. So at least it is related in one memorable case in the legends of the " Fioretti di San Francesco " (the " Little Flowers of St Francis,"—a collec-tion of marvellous stories about the saint very popular in Italy to this day). There may be much in these stories that exceeds the limits of credibility; the amount of accurate fact lying beneath them can no longer be traced; but none can hesitate to believe the beautiful depth of love which they reveal in the character of St Francis, and the fascination of personal influence which they show to have been possessed by him.
Connected with his love of nature and all living things was his poetry—for St Francis was not only saint but poet. The stream of Italian song, so soon to swell into the full volume of Dante (1265-1321), began to flow in the rugged but touching verse of the great preacher of Assisi. In him the troubadour inspiration, dying out in its original seat, was transmuted into a spiritual minstrelsy—hardly poetry, so imperfect is its form, but a lyrical cry, as Ozanam says (in his volume Les poetes frauciscains, 1852), the first broken utterance of a new voice which was soon to fill the world. The most characteristic of his songs is a Cantico deile Creature (Song cf the Creation), which has been translated in Mrs Oliphant's interesting life of the saint.

Marvellous as is the life of St Francis, the marvel that followed his death is more astonishing than any that marked his earthly career. It is said that when his naked body was visible after death, there was found upon it legibly impressed the marks of our Lord's passion; and the sacred story is that one day as he prayed in the solitude of Mount Averno, near the sources of the Tiber and the Arno, there appeared to him the vision as of a seraph with the arms extended and the feet as if fixed to a cross ; and as he thought in his heart what the vision might mean, there were revealed on his hands and feet the signs of nails as in the Crucified One. This is well known as the famous miracle of the Stigmata or wounds of our Lord. There seems to be no doubt that some such marks were found on the dead body of the saint, whatever explanation the phenomena may admit of. That there was anything really supernatural in the phenomena will be so readily discredited by the modern reader that it is unnecessary we should attempt any elaborate solution of the marvel. An interesting analysis of all the facts, and such historical explanation as they seem to admit of, will be found in Hase's life of the saint, and an article, founded upon the analysis there given, in Good Words for 1867, p. 38 ("History of a Miracle"). St Francis, worn out by his many labours and consuming zeal, died on 4th October 1226.

"Of all saints," says Milman (Hist, of Latin Christ, vol. iv. 268), "St Francis was the most blameless and gentle. He was emphatically the saint of the people,—of a poetic people like the Italians." And to this day the name, the life, and the longsuffering of the popular saint live in the hearts of the poorer and devout Italians.

Of what may be called more or less original biographies of the saint there are in the well known Acta Sanctorum no fewer than three:—(1) The Life by Thomas of Celano (whose name is also associated with the composition of the famous Dies Irae), written only three years after the saint's death ; (2) the Life of the Tres Socii, three companions of the saint written in 1247; and, lastly, (3) the Life by Bonaventura, Platonic schoolman and general of the order in 1263. The works of the saint have been collected and edited by Joh. de la Haye, S. Francisci Opera, 1739 sq. There is an elaborate biography by Malan, Hist de S. Francois a"Assisi, 1841; and notices are also to be found in Helyot's Hist. des Ordres religieux, t. vii., and Butler's Lives of the Saints. There are two recent lives, both of special interest, by the German divine, Hase, and by Mrs Oliphant in Macmillan's Sunday Library series. See FRANCISCANS. (J. T.)

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