Historical Figures

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) - Biography

Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is an Italian mystic and preacher, founder of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Order of Franciscans. Francis of Assisi insists on the need for suffering, humility and simplicity, so many "springboards" towards a better knowledge - sincere and free - of God and his will. Similarly, work, selflessness and unfailing obedience to the doctrines and principles enacted by the Church allow one to reach fullness in destitution and the absence of personal desires. Canonized in 1228, he was proclaimed patron saint of ecologists by John Paul II in 1980. In 2013, the new pope chooses the name François in explicit reference to the saint.

Francis of Assisi:a bourgeois named Francesco

Born in Assisi, Italy, Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone came from a wealthy merchant family from Umbria (a region in central Italy). His mother, originally from French Provence, gave birth in 1181 or 1182 to a boy whom she had baptized in the absence of her husband under the name of Giovanni. Returning from business, the father gave him the name of Francesco (that is to say François =French) in homage to France where he had carried out good commercial operations.

During his youth Francesco left the image of a spoiled and dissipated son of the Italian merchant class, living the good life and spending his money organizing outings with his fellow students . Bourgeois of his time, he was not only noted for his taste for celebration, but also for his involvement in the major social problems of the moment. Indeed the demands of the bourgeoisie against the nobility gave rise to armed revolts in which Francesco took part, until the defeat of Ponte San Giovanni in November 1202 where he was taken prisoner. Sick during his incarceration, he went to Assisi when he was released.

But once back on his feet, Francesco does not abandon the aspirations he shares with the other rebellious bourgeois:to obtain a title of nobility and to be dubbed a knight! A dream also comforts him in his new expedition, during this dream a man brought him to a palace filled with riches, knightly weapons and shields marked with the Cross hanging on the wall. For Francesco there is no doubt:this dream announces to him that a destiny of a great knight awaits him and that he only has to resume his mount and prove himself to be dubbed and begin his brilliant career. This is how he left to join the army of Gauthier de Brienne!

However, during his trip, he has a new dream in Spoleto which comes to reframe his ardor:a voice would have asked him what he was doing and, after having listened to it, would have asked him "Who can do you more good, the lord or the servant? Francesco having of course answered that it was the lord, the voice would have asked him again “Why do you leave the lord for the servant and the prince for the vassal? ". Dumbfounded, Francesco would then have asked what he should do and the voice would have ordered him:"Return to your country to do what the Lord will reveal to you .

Francesco, the pious man of Assisi

Back in Assisi Francesco changed his behavior and turned more explicitly to the Christian faith, abandoning his fellow revelers for the silence of prayer and chapels. It was then that in 1205, he was only 23 years old, he would have heard a new voice emanating from the crucifix of the chapel of Saint Damien. This voice asking him to “repair his ruined Church », Francesco decides to restore the small chapel. For this he sells his father's goods and spends the gain for the restoration of the chapels. In doing so, he attracts the wrath of his aggrieved father who does not hesitate to sue him. Claiming to be penitent Francesco escapes secular justice, but finds himself summoned by the bishop of Assisi. During the legal confrontation, Francesco returned the money he had left, parted with everything he owned and, naked in front of the crowd, would have declared to his father:"Until now I have called you father on Earth; henceforth I can say:Our Father who art in Heaven, since it is to Him that I have entrusted my treasure and given my faith ". It was then that the bishop would have covered him with his cape.

After a spell in Gubbio, Francesco returned to Assisi where he continued the restoration of the chapels of Saint Damian, Saint Peter and Portiuncula. Inspired by the message of poverty in the Gospels, Francesco earns his living by working and giving alms, he covers himself with a simple tunic tightened at the waist by a rope as a belt.

Founder of the Franciscan order

Gradually Francesco's example is being emulated:his extreme poverty, his closeness to the poorest (lepers, etc.) and his enthusiasm for restoring places of worship attracts him a few and ever more numerous companions. Saint Francis of Assisi soon finds himself forced to write a rule of life to follow so that his small community becomes a recognized religious order. In 1210, four years after his return to Assisi, he took his rule to Pope Innocent III for validation.

At the same time, according to Christian tradition, the Pope had a dream in which he saw a man supporting only the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran, which was falling into ruin… And this man he would have recognized in the person of Francesco. Thus guided by his dream, Pope Innocent III verbally validated the rule proposed to him by this man who preached poverty.

The ranks of brothers following the rule of Francesco are growing rapidly, and this example of piety also attracts women. This is particularly the case of a noble adolescent, Chiara Offreduccio di Favarone (Saint Clare), who runs away to join Francesco after having listened to his sermon during Lent in the year 1212. The brothers then accept Chiara's wishes to withdraw from the world, the 18-year-old girl cuts her hair, takes the homespun and goes to a Benedictine convent. Her example encouraging other women from Assisi to take the plunge, Saint Francis of Assisi had them installed in the church of Saint Damien under the direction of Chiara who, on this occasion, founded a new order, a female branch of the Franciscans.

Saint Francis of Assisi, from the crusade to the stigmata

In 1219 Francesco left for the Holy Land where the Crusaders struggled to regain control of the holy places, leaving the reindeer of the order to Peter of Catania then to Elijah of Assisi. He lands in Egypt where he paradoxically decides to meet the representatives of the Muslim enemy. This is how he met Sultan Al-Kamel, known as "the Perfect", in 1219 in Damietta, who let him return freely after their interview.

Back in Italy Saint Francis of Assisi endeavors to write down the rules of his order that he wants an example of poverty and humility. The rule was written for the first time in 1221. The following year he created a third branch of his order, secular this time at the request of the inhabitants of Bologna. In 1223 he retired to rework his rule which was definitively accepted by Pope Honorius III.

This rule advocates the renunciation of all wealth for those who enter the order ("Let them go and sell all they have and distribute to the poor the product “), the All Saints fast at Christmas and every Friday. She also asks the brothers to go on foot on the roads to evangelize, to always avoid squabbling, not to judge their neighbour, to be constantly "kind, soothing, self-effacing, gentle and humble, deferential and courteous to all ". The brothers are also asked to work to receive something to support themselves, while refusing the money. In other words, a way of life based on unconditional poverty, humility, manual labor and evangelism.

In 1224 he retired with a few brothers to the monastery of Alverne where he would have received the stigmata, c ie the wounds of the Passion of Christ on his own body (traces of the nails on the hands and on the feet…). This phenomenon, then unheard of in Christendom, would subsequently occur many times from the Middle Ages to the present day. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, prudent, recognized by papal decision the authenticity of only the stigmata of two saints:Saint Francis and later Catherine of Siena (saint of the 14th century).

Bearer of the stigmata, Saint Francis of Assisi seems seized with anguish and held back by illness, he retires to a hut not far from the Saint Damien chapel where the Poor Clares. It was there that he wrote the famous "Canticle of Creatures" celebrating God and all his Creation, making him the patron saint of ecology today (since 1979).

Saint Francis of Assisi finally died on October 3, 1226, in the chapel of the Transito, after leaving a will in which he urged the observation of the message of the Gospels, to work , poverty and respect for its rule. In 1228 Pope Gregory IX canonized him. In art, the wolf, the lamb, the fish, the birds and the stigmata are the emblems that represent him. His feast day is October 4.


- Gobry Ivan, Saint Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Spirit, Point, 2001.

- Le Goff Jacques, Saint Francis of Assisi, Editions Gallimard, 1999.

- Father Vorreux Damien, The Writings of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, Les Editions Franciscaines, 1992.