Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or 1182 as the son of wealthy merchants. With his baptism he was given the name of Giovanni (John). But since his father Pietro Bernadone, a cloth merchant, entertained close trade links with France and otherwise loved the French culture and way of life, he called his son “Francesco”.
Initially he should follow in the footsteps of his father and take over the family business. So Francis of Assisi visited the cathedral school, learned French and Latin and was a perfectly normal young man who enjoyed the life of a privileged son of a wealthy family. He hung out with like-minded people in the streets of Assisi and dreamed of becoming a knight.
This plan failed miserably. Together with the other young men of his hometown, he was drawn into the war against the neighboring town of Perugia. Instead of the hoped-for glory and honor, he fell ill and was taken prisoner. After returning to his hometown of Assisi, Francis did not know what to do with his life. He was going through a life crisis. He neglected his duties in the family business more and more. Several times he gave away expensive materials to the poor and needy. This is called out the anger of his father. In 1206 it finally came to the final break: Under the eyes of the bishop and the people of Assisi, he took off his clothes and returned them to his father.
Now a new life began for him: He dressed with a simple hair shirt of brown wool and withdrew to lonely and isolated caves ruined chapels. One day he heard the voice of Jesus as he was praying before a cross: “Francis, go and repair my house” Francis then began to renovate run down chapels, because he first interpreted the calling literally.
In 1209 he listened to the Gospel of the mission of the disciples in the little chapel of Portiuncula. This inspired him to go among the people and preach. Soon, the first companions gathered around him. The “lesser brothers” as they called themselves traveled as preachers and worked for the people. They were poor and happy. They proclaimed the peace of God and the good news – rather through their lives than only by their words.
In 1212 Clara, a daughter of a noble house joins and becomes the first female in the group around Francis. Together with other women, she lives reclusive life in poverty and prayer in a small monastery outside Assisi called San Damiano. From this community later develops the Order of Poor Clares.
Within a few years, the fraternity grew from a small group of 12 friends to a widespread community. Around Pentecost 1217, the brothers met in Assisi and decided to set up small offices in France, Spain and Germany. In the midst of the Crusades in 1219, Francis himself went to the Saracens (Muslims) to promote (in vain) a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the competing religions.
On November 29th 1223, Pope Honorius III finally approved of the rules of life lesser brothers that St. Francis wrote up with some friends in solitude.
Despite of many internal and external sufferings from illness and fatigue Francis remained the brother “Always happy”. Tormented by pain and imminent death in mind, he wrote the Canticle of the Sun, an invitation to the creation to the praise God.
The life of the “Poverello”, the poor of Assisi was an imitation of the crucified Christ, which he tried to follow. Like no one else he became the “second Christ”. In fact, he was so much like his suffering Lord that he is the first human in history to receive the wounds of Jesus Christ.
1226, on the evening of 3rd of October Francis dies at the birthplace of his fraternity. He wanted to die naked as God had created him. So his brothers gathered and but him on the ground next to the Chapel of Portiuncula. He comforted his brothers, prayed to God and ate for the last time his beloved almond cookies that a patroness had given him, before he died.
Barely two years after his death, Francis was canonized. Soon his body was brought to the magnificent double Basilica “San Francesco”, which had been erected in his honor on the western outskirts of Assisi. To this day, Francis of Assisi enjoys and undivided popularity beyond the boundaries of denominations and even across the barriers of religion. He is the patron saint of Italy. From Pope John Paul II he was appointed patron of the environment. Since the success of the great prayer for peace with representatives of all world religions in 1986 in Assisi, he is also regarded as the “saint of the peace”. In 1998 an U.S. magazine reader survey conducted by the Times Francis of Assisi won first place at the question: “Who is the greatest man of the millennium?” (St Francis Catholic School)