Updated: Oct 2, 2020
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life"
This is part one of a multiple part series - in this article we'll describe and outline his life and in a future article explore his writings in depth.
Saint Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 to an extremely wealthy silk merchant and Italian father and a French mother of nobility from Provence. His father was conducting business in France when Saint Francis was born and his mother had him baptized with the name Giovanni. Upon his return, his father hoping for a son to continue in the business, renamed in Francesco.
As he grew older, he completely embraced the rich surroundings he found himself in, becoming a devotee of troubadours, spending money lavishly, engaging in wild parties and wearing fine clothes. He was extremely popular during this time and was frequently a guest at other noble's and merchant's parties. Thomas of Celano, a friend of Saint Francis and biographer wrote describing this time:
"In other respects an exquisite youth, he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice."
For all the fine dining and fun he was having, Saint Francis even at this early age began to feel unfulfilled, that something was missing. He would later recount a story that happened during this time foreshadowing his future - the so called "Story of a beggar". He described selling velvet in the marketplace when a beggar came asking for alms. As soon as he finished the current transaction, Saint Francis left his stall unattended, tracked down the beggar and gave him all he had in his pockets. His father and friends mocked him for the charity and his father scolded him for leaving the cart unattended.
He soon chased glory and joined the military expedition against Perugia in 1202. The troops from Assisi were terribly defeated and many killed, with a few of the wealthier soldiers captured to be ransomed back. For nearly a year, he was held captive in a small cell and suffered from various illnesses. After being ransomed, Saint Francis returned to his life of partying with friends and extravagant shows of wealth. in 1205, a call went out for soldiers to join in the fourth crusade and Saint Francis enlisted in the Army of Walter III, Count of Brienne. Saint Francis boasted that he would return to Assisi a prince. He made it only a day's ride from the town before having a vision from God telling him to return home.
Saint Francis listened to the dream and returned home the following day, only to be met with a crowd laughing at him and calling him a coward. His father was reportedly furious about all the of the money spent on armor and horses just for him to return home without battle. It was during this time he began spending more time in prayer and less time partying. One account states that when his friends mocked him asking if he would be marrying someone soon he answered:
"Yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen"
One day while riding in the country side, Saint Francis passed by a leper. Initially repelled by the appearance and smell of the Leper, he nonetheless jumped off his horse and kissed his hand. The leper returned the kiss of peace and the action filled Saint Francis with joy. As he rode off, he turned once more to the leper, finding that he had vanished. Later in his life, he would see this event as a test from God that he had passed.
Soon afterwards he took upon a pilgrimage to Rome. At the county chapel of San Damiano, he had a vision of Jesus Christ in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him:
"Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."
Initially, he believed that to meant the exact church he had the vision in so he took cloth and silk from his father's shop and sold it without telling his father. Reportedly, he also sold his father's horse. The Priest refused to accept the coins (as it had been done without Francis's father knowing). For a month, Saint Francis hid in a small cave for about a month before returning home. Enraged by his son's actions, he brought Saint Francis before the Bishop of Assisi in a court proceeding. The Franciscans described this event as:
In response, his father, boiling with rage, dragged Francis before the bishop of Assisi and demanded the return of his property and goods. Francis readily agreed to this. In the hearing of all present, Francis said, “From now on I will no longer say, My Father Peter Bernadone, but Our Father who art in heaven.” Francis gave back to his father not only his property and goods, but the money and all his clothes as well. Francis carefully placed his clothing on the ground.
The Bishop recognized Saint Francis' actions as being inspired by God and embraced him. Saint Francis left the church and wandered through the woods singing. At some point after this, he was robbed and beaten but stood afterwards singing praises to God. He spent the next few months in Assissi traversing the city and begging for stones to complete the restoration of Saint Damiano's. One stone at a time, he placed them at the chapel and eventually had the entire chapel rebuilt. For the next two years he embraced the life of a penitent and restored several more chapels in this manner.
Continued in Part 2