St. Francis of Assisi
In a small village on the above the Umbrian Valley in northern Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in either 1181/1182.
Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man. He dreamed of knighthood and loved the songs of the minstrels and bards he encountered when traveling with his father through France. As a young man he became a soldier for Assisi. While going off to war in 1204, Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi, where he seemed to have lost his taste for the things of worldly life. Francis prayed in caves and wandered the hillside, searching for something that he could not grasp.
Once a pilgrimage to Rome, he begged with the beggars at St. Peter's. The experience touched his heart. In Assisi he watched the poor and often attempted to give them alms. As he wandered outside the walls of Assisi one day, he encountered a leper. Though he was disgusted with the all that indicated leprosy, something caused him to dismount his horse and embrace the leper, whom it is said vanished at that moment. This and many other stirrings in his heart caused Francis to choose to live in simplicity and poverty.
Sometime in the days of his wandering, Francis found himself in the rundown church of San Damiano before a magnificent Byzantine cross. As he prayed he heard in his heart the voice of Christ saying, “Francis, repair my church, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Looking around, young Francis believed he had found his vocation and began to physically rebuild that chapel and a number of others around Assisi.
Realizing that the voice of Christ was inviting more than a physical building project, Francis soon began to preach on the streets. Before he knew it others joined him. Unsure of what God was asking, he and his first followers went to Rome. There his new order was endorsed by Pope Innocent III in 1210.
When Clare, a young woman also from Assisi, began to come to him for counsel, with the blessing of the Bishop of Assisi, he founded the Order of Poor Clares, which was an enclosed order for women. Later he began what has become known as the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance.
Desiring to convert all to the joy of his new-found faith, in 1219, he journeyed to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Sultan. By this point, the Franciscan Order had grown to such an extent that its primitive organizational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to Italy to organize the order. Once his organization was approved by the Pope, Francis withdrew increasingly for prayer.
Francis had a deep love for Jesus, God become man. It was in 1223 that with the help of the local people of Greccio Francis arranged for the first Christmas manger scene on the hills outside the town located near Assisi.
Devotion to the cross and Christ, the poor crucified One, led Francis to ever deeper prayer until in 1224, he received the stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ. He was the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ's Passion.
As awareness of the depth of love that caused Christ to remain with the Church in the Eucharist also characterized the spirituality of Francis.
He died welcoming “Sister Death” on October 3, 1226 while singing Psalm 141.
On July 16, 1228, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Gregory IX. He is known as the patron saint of animals, the environment and one of the two patrons of Italy (with Catherine of Siena), His feast day is celebrated on October 4 each year.