Heroes of the Faith
Concise stories of significant Christian leaders
© Peter J. Blackburn 1999
Heroes of the Faith
Francis of Assisi Francis of Assisi
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there were great contrasts between rich and poor. The Church was seen among the rich, with Pope and bishops as wealthy princes. In contrast to this is the story of Francis of Assisi.
Francis was the son of Pietro de Bernardone, a wealthy Italian cloth merchant. He received the usual education for his time and enjoyed a carefree life as a popular youth of Assisi, an old Roman town on a hilltop overlooking the valley of the Tiber. His father had dreams of knighthood for his son.
One minor military campaign was enough for Francis. Perhaps it was while suffering from severe fever in prison, meditating on the meaning of life, that he determined to turn his back on the world and his father's dreams. Leaving home in a ragged cloak and a rope©belt taken from a scare-crow, he wandered the countryside with a few followers, begging from the rich, giving to the poor, and preaching the joys of "apostolic poverty."
In 1209 a sermon on Matthew 10.7-10 impressed him as a personal admonition to take up a life of apostolic poverty, and he began preaching brotherly love and repentance. That year he composed a simple "Rule" for his little brotherhood, consisting chiefly of Christ's appeal to take up the cross, his advice to the rich young ruler and his directions on sending out the apostles. With this Rule Francis and his companions succeeded in gaining the approval of Innocent III in 1212 for their little preaching band. Since Innocent required them to receive minor orders, they called themselves the Friars Minor. We call them the Franciscans.
Setting out on a course of preaching and caring for the sick and poor, the Friars came together at Pentecost for a meeting at Portiuncula in Assisi. In 1212 the second order was founded when an heiress of Assisi, Clare, was invested by Francis and formed the order for women, the Poor Clares.
Francis' vision was for the world and he began missions to Syria (1212) and Morocco (1213-1214), but was unable to complete them due to illness or other misfortune. Then in 1219 a crusading expedition to Egypt gave him a new opportunity. With eleven companions he accompanied the army to the Middle East where he tried unsuccessfully to convert Sultan Kameel of Egypt. From Egypt he visited holy places in Palestine and it was more than a year before he returned to Italy.
During his absence differences arose among the brothers and Francis realised that he was a model, not a manager. In 1223 he surrendered the administration of the brotherhood to Peter de Cantaneo. Cardinal Ugolino, who later became Pope Gregory IX, admired Francis but wanted the movement to become an agent of advancement of the Roman Church. He would reform the church by giving the Franciscans authority; Francis wanted to reform the world by preaching Christ-like humility.
Francis spent the remaining years of his life in solitude and prayer. He had lived to see his ideal changed. He feared the spread of worldly power; he dreaded the growth of learning, lest the service of the poor be neglected. He died in Assisi on October 3rd 1226.