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St. Francis of Assisi

1181-1226

Notes:

1. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that Francis named his order after the "minors" or lower classes, or perhaps in reference to the Gospel (Matthew 25:40-45) as a reminder of their humility.

2. The Order of Poor Ladies or "Poor Clares" was founded by a female admirer of Francis to provide a secondary order for female followers of the Franciscan rule. The Brothers and Sisters of Penance was a tertiary order for those who could not leave their homes, families, or vocations to enter the Friars Minor or the Order of Poor Ladies.

3. Other sources say 1182.

4. Celano, Vita prima (c.83)

5. The Pope initially rebuffed Francis's overtures. Some of his advisors in the College of Cardinals believed the rules Francis proposed were impractical at best and dangerous at worst. At the urging of notables like the cardinal of St. Paul, the pope eventually acquiesced.

6. Joachim of Fiore (c.1132-1202) was an Italian Cistercian monk whose scriptural commentaries prophesied the collapse of the church hierarchy and the uniting of infidels and Christians in a new age.

St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan (Friars Minor, or "Little Brothers"1) mendicant order and directly inspired the foundation of two other religious traditions, the Order of Poor Ladies (Poor Clares) and the Brothers and Sisters of Penance2 (which were said to have been founded when Francis moved an entire village to embrace the Franciscan ideal).

Throughout his life, Francis espoused the virtues of (Christ-like) poverty and humility while promoting a closer and deeper relationship between the Church and the common man. Francis preached the gospel in plain speech and simple parables, owning nothing, living humbly on the charity of others, calling on people to repent, and seeking to instill a heartfelt love of God and a pragmatic approach to Christian morality. While Francis was immensely popular amongst the lower classes, he also managed to cross class boundaries, gaining recruits to his cause amongst the influential and wealthy. Francis's ideals and example exercised a profound influence upon medieval European culture --- especially as it pertained to the church.

Much of the success of Francis's message was due to his natural charisma and personal conduct. Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family in Umbria Italy, in 1181.3 He grew up with many advantages, leading a life filled with feasts, entertainments, and fine clothing. Francis was an attractive figure; contemporaries described him as small, slim, and graceful.4 In contrast with the stereotypical world-weary and dour saints of the Middle Ages, he was a handsome, joyous man with a ready wit, a love of singing, and an infectious delight in the physical world. This love of creation extended to plants, animals, and all natural phenomena, which he believed reflected the divine. He has come to be known as the patron saint of animals. While still a young man, Francis was moved to reject his upper-class inheritance and embrace what he believed was one of the most essential element of the Christian life - poverty. He gave away all that he had and (after being disowned by his family) lived as a beggar (or mendicant). Francis traveled throughout Europe and part of the Middle East espousing a simple approach to Christian belief that emphasized the virtues of poverty, charity, and humility and called upon believers and non-believers alike to repent their sins. Plain speech and simple parables were the hallmarks of his teachings. His message was most successful among the poor -- from whom many of his followers and closest associates were drawn.

As his following increased, Francis petitioned the Vatican for permission to found a mendicant order. He faced a fair amount of resistance before the church gave its sanction to the Friars Minor (Pope Honorius III, in 1223)5. By giving its blessing to the Franciscans and to later, similar orders, the church was able to strengthen the bonds between itself and the general population. Like monastic rules, Francis's are based on the traditional vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Francis's special emphasis on a very strict poverty became the defining characteristic of his order, lending it credibility in the eyes of a public used to clerical excesses and creating a reputation for incorruptibility among their fellow clergy.4 Another distinguishing characteristic of the Franciscan order was its mode of operation. Instead of settling within cloisters as the monastic orders did, the Little Brothers traveled the world, preaching Francis's message and undertaking such manual labor as was required to earn their bread. This was a very important element in the successes of the Franciscans. The Little Brothers were perceived to be "in the world", suffering and striving with the people to whom they preached.

Though his efforts had a profound effect on the church, Francis was neither a revolutionary nor a cult figure outside the official church body. He did not seek to overthrow or reform the church per se, but to form a society in which he and like-minded individuals could practice their way of life, preach, and teach by example. In his lifetime, Francis avoided the pitfalls associated with similar mendicant movements (like the Fraticelli) that fell into heresy or became the nuclei for class-based violence (particularly in the 14th century -- see peasant revolts and heretical movements). However, as the order continued to gain adherents and new chapters were founded, the Franciscans had to adapt and change. Francis's last testament urged the Friars Minor to cleave to the principles that he had established and follow his directions literally and "without gloss," especially regarding poverty and the importance of manual labor. This admonition, more than any other, led to a serious schism within 20 years of the founder's death. A wing of "Spirituals", who advocated absolute poverty and rejected a settled life or the notion of owning property corporately, began to assert themselves -seeking to reverse what they perceived to be an easing of the principles around which the order was founded. The Spirituals allied themselves with the anarchical monks who were advocating the teachings of Joachim of Fiore6 and others. Many of the social and religious problems of Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries may be traced to this conflict. Despite various church and societal upheavals, the Little Brothers continued to thrive and are one of the largest orders within the modern Catholic Church, surpassed in size only by the Jesuits.

Francis was not a prolific writer but some of his works have been preserved, including the "Canticle of the Sun," the "rules of the Friars Minor," and a variety of short sermons and letters offering advice to his followers.

Biographies on the saint that would have been available to someone living in the 14th century include the works of Francis's companions, like Thomas Celano, and the compilations of Leo, Rufinus, and Angelus. Other works like "The Legend of St. Bonaventure" and the "Speculum Perfectionis," attributed to Francis' followers, would also have been available.