Saint Francis of Assisi was born to wealthy parents in Assisi, Umbria, in 1181. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a successful cloth merchant who was infatuated with France, where he spent much of his time. In fact, he had married a French noblewoman, Pica de Bourlemont. It was during one of his frequent businesss trips to France that the child was born. His mother christened him Giovanni. On his return, his father renamed him 'Francesco' or 'the Frenchman' in the hope that he would grow up with the same passion as his father.
Francis had a comfortable childhood and grew up to live the life of a normal young noble of the time, which mainly consisted of partying and emjoying himself. His father was not disappointed as the young Francis grew to love France and develop a head for business. In 1201, Assisi went to war against nearby Perugia and Francis excitedly joined the army. The battle was a disaster with most of the army killed. Francis was among the wealthier soldiers who were taken prisoner to be ransomed later. After a year, Francis was freed and he returned to his partying lifestyle. Soon after, he answered a call for knights to join the fourth crusade. Having purchased a horse and an expensive suit of armour, Francis set out to go to war. After a single day's journey, Francis had a dream in which Godtold him that he was making a mistake and should return home. His less than glorious homecoming was greeted with ridicule from the townspeople and anger from his father.
Francis was increasingly drawn towards a different life. One day, he went to pray in the crumbling church at San Damiano. While he was there, Christ spoke to him from the cross, telling him: "Francis, repair my church". Francis took the instruction literally and sold some of his father's cloth to buy stones. For his father it was the last straw. He dragged his son in front of the bishop to demand the return of his money and to officially disinherit him. Francis paid back the money and in front of the gathered crowd he also returned the clothes that his father had provided. He disowned his father and walked off into the freezing woods wearing only a hair shirt. Francis lived in the area around Assisi as a beggar and a penitent for two years, during which time he repaired a number of churches, including Porziuncola, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels just outside the town, which later became his favorite. At around this time, Francis was inspired by a sermon he heard based on Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Francis decided that he devote himself to a life of poverty and preach.
Within a year, Francis had eleven followers and they travelled to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious Order. Initially the Pope had doubts about granting the petition. However, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran, he decided to endorse Francis' Order. So, on April 16, 1210, the Franciscan Order was officialy founded. Soon afterwards he founded the 'Order of Poor Clares', which became an enclosed religious order for women, as well as the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance (commonly called the Third Order). The friars of the Francisan Order preached on the streets and had no possessions. They were based in the Porziuncola and started their preaching in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy and around the world.
Around 1220, Francis created the first 'Presepio' at Greccio near Assisi. He used a collection of real animals, set around a real manger to recreate the birth of Christ. 'Presepi' have since become a tradition in Italy at Christmas.
Francis has always been associated with animals. He believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and even apparently preached to a flock of birds that were so mesmerised by his voice that they stayed and listened to him instead of flying away. He also apparently persuaded a wolf to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to keep it fed.
Francis tried several times to take his message outside Italy. In 1212, he set out for Jerusalem, but was shipwrecked by a storm on the Dalmatian coast, and forced to return to Italy. In the same year, he sailed for Morocco, but this time ws forced back by an illness. Later, in 1219, Francis went to Egypt where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta. The Saracen army was encamped upstream of Damietta hoping to relieve the city. Francis and a companion crossed the Saracen lines and were brought before the Sultan. They remained for several days preaching to the Saracens before returning unharmed to the Crusader camp. Legend has it that the Sultan gave Francis permission to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land and even to preach there. Also that he secretly converted or accepted a death-bed baptism as a result of the encounter with Francis. Whatever the truth of these stories, the Franciscan Order has been present in the Holy Land almost uninterruptedly since 1217 when Brother Elias arrived at Acre. After the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as "Custodians of the Holy Land" on behalf of the Catholic Church.
In 1224, Francis had a vision while fasting on mount Penna (Alverna). A seraph appeared on a cross in front of him and gave him a gift of the five wounds of Christ. This was the first recorded example of the phenomenon of stigmata. Although he tried to receive treatment for these wounds, it was to no avail and he returned to the Porziuncola where he spent the last days of his life dictating his spiritual testament. He died on October 3rd, 1226 while singing Psalm 142.
Though he was never ordained as a Catholic priest, Francis was made a saint on July 16, 1228. The next day, the Pope laid the foundation stone for the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. He is known as the patron saint of animals and the environment and, along with Catherine of Siena, is one of the two patron saints of Italy. His feast day is celebrated on 4th October when it has become a tradition for both Catholic and Anglican churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals. Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.
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