Life of St. Francis of Assisi
Francis’ baptismal name was Giovanni (John), his father's name was Pietro de Bernardone; from his birth Giovanni di Bernardone was called Francesco (Francis) [Ital., =Frenchman], because his father was a frequent traveler in France and admired much that he saw. Pietro de Bernardone was a wealthy merchant, and his son's early life was quite ordinary. At the age of 20, however, Francis was taken prisoner in a battle between Assisi and Perugia and spent a year in prison in Perugia.
Two years after his return from Perugia, Francis set out for the wars in Apulia, but illness forced him home again. He then underwent a conversion that turned him from the worldly life he had been leading. He became markedly devout and ascetic, began dressing in the poor man’s garb, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome (1206). A series of events at that time, in particular his encounter with the leper, revealed strikingly the characteristics that Francis was always to exemplify: humility, love of absolute poverty, singular devotion to others and to the Roman Church, and joyous religious fervor.
Founding of the Franciscan Order
In 1209 while attending Mass, the words of Jesus in the Gospel (Mat. 10.7–10) bidding his apostles to go forth on their mission struck Francis as a call. He set out to preach; when a small group had gathered about him, they went to Rome to see Pope Innocent III, who gave them oral permission to live in the manner Francis had chosen. Thus began the Franciscan Order, an entirely new type of Order in the church. They wandered about Umbria and throughout Italy preaching the Gospel, working to pay for their very simple needs. The expansion of the friars was very rapid. In 1212 St. Clare began to follow St. Francis and the Poor Clares [Second Order of St. Francis], a cloistered, contemplative order was established. Francis not only sent the brothers abroad but went himself—to Dalmatia, to France, to Spain, and in 1219–20 to the Holy Land. On his way to Palestine he stopped at Damietta and preached to the Sultan.
A growing dissension in his Order recalled him from Palestine, and after his return (1221) a great assembly was held at the small chapel of the Portiuncula near Assisi, with which Francis's calling was closely identified. There the saint gave up active leadership of the Order, for he felt it had become too unwieldy to guide. He continued his preaching and the composition of his Rule and sponsored the Franciscan Tertiaries an Order consisting of devout both men and women, some of whom lived in communities.
The Stigmata and His Death
Two years before his death (1224) the most famous event of his life occurred. He received the stigmata; as he prayed on the Monte della Verna, he had a vision and was afflicted with the wounds of the Crucifixion, from which he suffered for the rest of his life. It is the first known appearance of the stigmata, one of the best attested, and the only one that is celebrated liturgically [17 September] in the Roman Catholic Church. Francis died 03 October 1226. Frances was canonized two years later by Pope Gregory IX, who had been his patron and friend.
Within 50 years of St. Francis's foundation, the Order had a very strong wing of zealots—the Spirituals, who advocated absolute poverty, thus deploring the convents or any settled life. St. Bonaventure tried to reconcile the factions of the Order, but the Spirituals grew stronger and saw one of their heroes made pope as St. Celestine V. His abdication made their agitation one of the major social and religious problems of Italy. So far as the Order was concerned, John XXII settled the matter in 1322 by placing the Franciscans on a level with every other Order with respect to owning property corporately. Within the order there still remained a desire for reform, and in the following years a movement developed toward restoring primitive practice. The friars of this tendency (Observants) gained recognition within the Order and eventually were made independent (1517) by Leo X. Soon afterward a movement among the Observants established the Capuchins (1525) as a still stricter adherence to the rule.
There are now three branches of Franciscan friars: the Friars Minor [O.F.M.] formerly called the Observants; the Friars Minor Capuchin [O.F.M. Cap.]; and the Friars Minor Conventual [O.F.M. Conv.].
The Order was founded (1525–28) in central Italy as a reform within the Observants, led by Mateo di Bascio. It is one of the largest orders. Born, like the Jesuits, at the beginning of the Counter Reformation, the Capuchins became a major force in church activity, especially in preaching and in missions.
There are scores of religious communities of sisters of every sort of charitable mission who are regular Franciscan tertiaries. Of canonized and beatified saints, far more have been Franciscans than members of any other order.