Within a few weeks, three men asked if they could join him, and he agreed. But first they had to sell everything they had and give their money to the poor. One of them, Bernard, was very wealthy indeed. But there were no exceptions. They all had to wear the same simple clothes as Francis. They had to work with their hands to earn any food or clothes they needed; otherwise they had to beg. At night they slept in huts made of woven branches, in caves, or under the sky. They spent many hours praying, and two by two they visited other towns and villages nearby and told people about God’s love and forgiveness.
After a year, Francis had eleven or twelve companions. Together these seekers of God wrote down a few rules describing how they should live. Then they walked to Rome, where they saw the Pope, and he gave his approval of their way of life. The year 1209 saw the birth of the Franciscan order. Francis called the group Friars Minor, which means lesser brothers. He did not want them to have a grand, important-sounding name. Humility was of the essence. The number of companions, or brothers, grew rapidly. Francis’s unique personality became a powerful instrument of change.
Men and women of all classes were attracted to his life of radical poverty. Soon they were traveling farther and farther — to Spain, Germany, and North Africa. On one occasion, Francis himself traveled to Egypt, where some Crusaders were fighting. He was horrified by the killing and suffering of war (Englebert 156). This was what he had dreamt to be a part of, the war, the glory and the heroism. Instead, he ended up being the total opposite. He became one of the world’s foremost messengers of peace and love.
By 1217, Franciscan friars, with their evangelical mission, numbered more than five thousand and traveled far beyond Europe. Eventually, Francis was so well loved that when he came to a town or village the church bells were run, children clapped and waved branches in the air, and people ran toward him and tried to touch him. His greeting was always: God give you peace. And then he spoke simply and clearly, using word s that everyone would understand. Even when he was famous, and there were hundreds of brothers, he was still the same Francis in his rough patched tunic.
The man who loved peace spent many hours in prayer and called himself the champion of lady poverty. Yet he was still a man who liked to joke and sing and tease his friends. However, Francis had no great aptitude as an administrator. By 1220, he resigned as head of the order. He continued to alternate between periods of solitude and contemplation and intense preaching missions. In the following years, he used to experience the rare phenomenon of stigmata, where the saint would so much identify himself with the crucified Christ that the wounds of crucifixion would spontaneously appear on his body.
This was sometimes called the “divine affliction” (Egan 123). His health was rapidly deteriorating and he grew blind too. He died on October 3, 1226, at the Portiuncola, the little church outside Assisi where he first came to realize his vocation of evangelical poverty twenty two years before, and was buried in San Giorgio. Two year later, he was canonized, and two years after that his body was transported to a basilica built to commemorate his extraordinary spiritual journey.
Francis’s spiritual journey carried him through the turbulence of the thirteenth century into the darkness and illumination of his own soul. He became a messenger of peace for the entire Western world for centuries to come. Today, he is commonly regarded as the most renowned and beloved Catholic saint of all time. His love for nature and animals carries a special for our modern world, ravaged as it is with environmental depredation and species extinction. St. Francis inspires us all to move towards truth, beauty and goodness.
Bonaventure; Cousins, Ewert H (Tr). The Life of St. Francis. In, The Soul’s Journey Into God; The Tree of Life ; The Life of St. Francis. pp. 177-328. Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1978 Egan, Maurice Francis. The Life of St. Francis and the Soul of Modern Man. Albuquerque, NM: American Classical College Press, 1979. Englebert, Omer. St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography. Ann Arbor, Michigan : Servant Books, 1979 Robson, Michael. St Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life. London : Geoffrey Chapman, 2000 Sabatier, Paul; Houghton, Louise Seymour (Tr. ). Life of St. Francis of Assisi. Gutenberg.org.