Francis, the apostle of poverty, in fact he was the son of the rich, was born in Assisi in early 1182 by Pietro di Bernardone, a well-to-do merchant of cloths and the noble Giovanna called "la Pica", of Provençal origin. According to the Franciscan sources, however, the birth could be dated to the summer or autumn 1181.
In homage to the birth of Jesus, the most religious madonna Pica, wanted to give birth to the child in an improvised stall on the ground floor of the paternal house, later called "the stallion" or "Oratory of s. Francesco piccolino ", located at the main square of the Umbrian city.
The mother in the absence of her husband Peter, engaged in a business trip to Provence, baptized him with the name of John, in honor of the Baptist; but when his father returned, he wanted to add to him the name of Francis which will then prevail over the first.
This name was the medieval equivalent of 'French' and was placed in homage to France, the destination of its frequent travels and market opportunities; said s. Bonaventura his biographer: "to allocate him to continue his trade in franceschi cloths"; but perhaps also in homage to the French wife, this explains the familiarity with this language by Francis, who had learned it from his mother.
He grew up among the comforts of his family, who, like all rich assisians, enjoyed the many imperial privileges granted to them by the governor of the city, the duke of Spoleto Corrado di Lützen.
As an education he had learned the essential notions at the parish school of San Giorgio and his literary knowledge was limited; in any case he knew the Provençal and was skilled at haggling the fabrics behind his father's teachings, which saw him as a valuable collaborator and the heir of family activity.
Not tall, thin, hair and dark beard, Francesco was whimsical and elegant, excelled among the young, he loved the cheerful brigades, spending with a certain prodigality paternal money, so as to be acclaimed "rex iuvenum" (king of convivi) that placed him at the direction of the parties.
With the death of the emperor of Germany Henry IV (1165-1197) and the election of Pope Card. Lotarius of Segni, who took the name of Innocent III (1198-1216), the political scenarios changed; the new pope who supported the universal power of the Church, took under his sovereignty the Duchy of Spoleto including Assisi, taking it from Duke Conrad of Lützen.
This led to a revolt of the people against the nobles of the city, subservient to the emperor and exploiters of their fellow citizens, they were driven from the fortress of Assisi and took refuge in Perugia; then with the help of the Perugians they waged war in Assisi (1202-1203).
Francesco, with the spirit of adventure that had always inflamed him, threw himself into the struggle between the two cities so close and so hostile.
After the defeat suffered by the Assisians at Ponte San Giovanni, he was taken prisoner by the Perugians at the end of 1203 and remained in prison for a long terrible year; after his family had paid a substantial ransom, Francis returned to the family with the health now compromised.
His mother treated him lovingly during his long illness; but once healed he was no longer the same as before, suffering had dug into his soul an indelible furrow, he no longer felt any attraction for carefree life and his old friends could no longer stimulate him.
Like every noble soul of his time, he thought of enlisting in the cavalry of Count Gualtiero di Brenne, who fought in Puglia for the Pope; but when he arrived in Spoleto he fell prey to a strange malaise and the night had a revelatory dream with a mysterious voice that invited him to "serve the master instead of the servant" and then return to Assisi.
Struck by the revelation, he returned to his city, received with concern by his father and with a certain disapproval of most of his fellow citizens.
He finally left the happy brigades to devote himself to a life of intense meditation and piety, sensing in his heart the desire to serve the great King, but not knowing how; he also went on a pilgrimage to St. Peter's in Rome with the hope of finding clarity.
Returning disappointed to Assisi, he continued in the works of charity towards the poor and the lepers, but it was only in the autumn 1205 that God spoke to him; he was absorbed in prayer in the country church of San Damiano and while he was staring at a Byzantine crucifix, he heard this invitation three times: "Francis goes and repairs my church, which as you see, falls into ruin".
Full of amazement, Francesco interpreted the command as referring to the tumbling church of San Damiano, so he began to repair it with the work of his hands, also using paternal money.
At this point the father, considering him by now irrecoverable, even dangerous for himself and for the others, denounced him to the bishop's court as a dilapidator of family property; very well known is the scene in which Francesco, naked from his clothes, returned them to his father while the bishop of Assisi Guido II, covered him with his cloak, signifying his protection.
The young man was entrusted to the Benedictines with the hope that he could find in the monastery the satisfaction of his spiritual needs; relations with the monks were good, but that was not his way and soon he resumed his life as "herald of Jesus king", he wore the penitent's clothes and began to wander the streets of Assisi and neighboring countries, praying , serving the poorest, consoling the lepers and rebuilding beyond San Damiano, the ruined churches of San Pietro alla Spira and the Porziuncola.
In April 1208, during the celebration of the Mass at the Porziuncola, listening to the Gospel reading on the mission of the Apostles, Francis understood that the words of Jesus reported by Matthew (10: 9-10) referred to him: " get gold, neither silver, nor copper coin in your belts, nor travel bag, nor two tunics, or sandals, or stick, because the worker has the right to his nourishment. And in any city or village you enter, let us indicate if there is any worthy person, and stay there until you leave. "
It was the answer to his prayers and questions that he had been waiting for; he understood then that the words of the Crucifix in San Damiano did not refer to the reconstruction of the small temple, but to the renewal of the Church in its members; then put the clothes of the penitent and took the "minority" dress, girdling the sides with a rough rope and covering the head with the hood used by the peasants of the time and walking barefoot.
Thus began life and apostolic mission, marrying "madonna Poverty" so much to be called "the Poverello of Assisi", preaching with the example and the word the Gospel as the first apostles.
Francis appeared in a particularly difficult time for the life of the Church, troubled by constant crises caused by the emergence of heretical reform movements and political struggles, in which the papacy was then one of the main protagonists.
In an environment corrupted by unworthy clergymen and by the violence of feudal society, he took no critical position, nor did he aspire to the role of reformer of the moral customs of the Church, but always addressed him with the heart of a devoted and obedient son.
Making himself the interpreter of widespread feelings in his time, he began to preach peace, equality among men, detachment from riches and the dignity of poverty, love for all creatures of God and above all things, the coming of the kingdom of God.
Very soon attracted by his preaching, they joined Francesco, those who would become his inseparable companions in the new life: Bernardo di Quintavalle a rich merchant, Pietro Cattani doctor in law, Egidio peasant and shortly after also Leone, Rufino, Elia, Ginepro and others up to the number of twelve, just like the Apostles, forming a kind of 'fraternity' of clerics and laity, who lived in the light of a mere purpose of evangelical inspiration.
Theirs was a living the Gospel to the letter, without theological concerns and without reforming ambitions or moral protests, thus indicating a new life for those who wanted to live in love and poverty within the Church; for their obedience to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the bishop of Assisi Guido took to protect them, following them with interest and allowing them to preach.
At the beginning of 1209 the group met in a hut in the town of Rivotorto, in the plain below the city of Assisi, near the Porziuncola, thus beginning the "first school" of formation, where for a whole year Francesco transmitted his charisma to his companions , alternating with prayer, assistance to the lepers, the quest to support and repair damaged churches.
Since they were now out of the jurisdiction of the diocese, and this could give rise to problems, Bishop Guido advised Francesco and his group to go to Rome to Pope Innocent III to approve the first short Proto-Rule of the new Order of Friars Minor.
Rule that was approved orally by the pope, after a suggestive meeting with the small group, dressed in the rough tunic and barefoot, hit among other things by "that young child with fiery eyes"; Thus the Order of Friars Minor was officially born, receiving tonsure and becoming part of the clergy; it seems that on this occasion Francis received the diaconate.
All of Assisi spoke of the 'bizarre' of the young Francis, who lived in poverty with his companions down there on the plain and who often went up to the city to preach the Gospel with the permission of the bishop, wishing everyone "peace and good"; in the spring of 1209 he had preached even in the cathedral of S. Rufino, where the noble family of the Affreduccio lived in the adjoining piazza, and certainly on that occasion, among the faithful who were listening, was the young daughter Chiara.
Struck by his words, he began to fall in love with his ideals of evangelical poverty and began to contact him, accompanied by his friend Bona di Guelfuccio and often sending him a little money.
In the night following Palm Sunday in 1211, he secretly left his palace and ran in the dark through the fields, he reached the Porziuncola where he asked Francesco to give him God, the God he had found and with whom he lived.
Francis, before the altar of the Virgin, cut her blonde and long hair (still preserved today) consecrating her to the Lord.
Then he accompanied her to the Benedictine monastery in Bastia, to save her from the wrath of relatives, who after a conversation with Chiara who showed them their hairless head, convinced themselves to let her go.
Later Chiara and her companions who had reached it, moved after alternate events, in the small convent annexed to the church of San Damiano, where in 1215 to 22 years Chiara was appointed abbess; Francis dictated to the "Poor women prisoners of S. Damiano" (the name 'Clarisse' was taken after the death of St. Clare) a first rule of life, later replaced by that of the same saint.
Clare with her companions, will be the feminine incarnation of the Franciscan ideal, to which many successive Congregations will be associated.
Francis did not want only for himself and his friars, the evangelization of the Christian world deviated from the original evangelical principles, but also to reach the non-believers, especially the Saracens, as Muslims were then called.
If at that time the relations between the Christian and the Muslim world were typically of struggle, Francis wanted to overturn this mentality, seeing first of them brothers to whom to announce the Gospel, not with weapons but offering it with love and if necessary undergo even martyrdom.
For this reason he sent his friars first from the Moors to Spain, where they were sentenced to death and then pardoned by the Sultan and then in Morocco, where the group of friars composed by Berardo, Pietro, Accursio, Adiuto, Ottone, while they were preaching, were arrested, imprisoned, scourged and finally beheaded on January 16, 1220.
The return to Portugal of the bodies of the protomartyrs, aroused the Franciscan vocation in the then regular canon of St. Augustine, the Portuguese learned and future saint, Antonio da Padova.
Francis was not discouraged, in 1219-1220 he wanted to personally try the missionary enterprise directed in Morocco, but a storm pushed the ship on the Dalmatian coast, the second attempt brought him to Spain, occupied by the Muslims, but he fell ill and had to go back finally, a third attempt brought him to Palestine, where he presented himself to the Egyptian sultan Al-Malik al Kamil near the river Nile, who received it with honor, listening to him with interest; the sultan did not convert, but Francis could show that the dialogue of love could be possible between the two great monotheistic religions, from the common origins in Abraham.
Towards the middle of 1220, Francis had to return to Italy to restore order among his friars, who had grown in considerable numbers, so that the original short Rule had become insufficient with its rigidity.
The Poverello had not intended to found monasteries but only "fraternities", small groups of brothers who lived in the midst of the world, showing that happiness was not in possessing things but in living in perfect harmony according to the commandments of God.
But the crowd of friars now scattered throughout Italy, posed problems of organization, formation, study, adaptation to the needs of the apostolate in an ever-changing world; therefore living in poverty could not affect the other aspects of living in the world.
In the crowded "chapter of the mat", held in Assisi in 1221, Francis authorized the learned Antony from Lisbon, to teach the friars the sacred theology in Bologna, especially to those involved in preaching and confessions.
The new Rule was dictated by Francis to Brother Leo, welcomed with satisfaction by the cardinal protector of the Order, Ugolino de 'Conti, future Pope Gregory IX and all the friars; was approved on 29 November 1223 by Pope Honorius III.
In it, poverty, manual labor, preaching, the mission among the unbelievers and the balance between action and contemplation were reaffirmed; the friars were allowed to have formation houses for the novices, the concept of the prohibition of property would be diluted a little.
On the night of December 24, 1223, Francis felt his heart of tenderness and impulse invaded to revive in the forest of Greccio, near Rieti, the humble birth of the Child Jesus with living figures.
Thus was born the beautiful and evocative tradition of the Crib in the Christian world, which will be taken up by art and popular devotion along the following centuries, with the contribution of the work of great artists, such as to constitute a line of art in its own right , including goldsmiths, set designers, painters, sculptors, costume designers, architects; whose apex for magnificence, realism, suggestiveness, can be admired in the Neapolitan eighteenth-century Crib.
Now undermined in the physical for the diseases, for the hardships, the continuous displacements and fasting, Francis was forced to detach himself from the world and the government of the Order, which he had created despite not having the intention.
In the summer of 1224 he retired on the Monte della Verna (Alverna) in the Casentino, together with some of his first companions, to celebrate the "Lent of St. Michael the Archangel" with fasting and intense participation in the Passion of Christ.
On the morning of September 14th, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, while praying on the side of the mountain, he saw a seraph descending from the sky with six wings of flame and light, approaching him in flight remaining suspended in the air.
Among the wings of the seraphim, Francis saw the figure of a man flashing with his hands and feet stretched out and nailed to a cross; when the vision disappeared he left in the heart of Francis an admirable ardor and in the flesh the signs of the crucifixion; for the first time in the history of Catholic holiness, the miracle of the stigmata had occurred.
Descended from La Verna, visibly sore and transformed, he wanted to return to Assisi; he was also prostrated by various diseases, in the stomach, in the spleen and in the liver, with frequent hemoptysis, besides his sight was leaving him, due to a trachoma contracted during his trip to the East.
After the last sermons at the beginning of 1225, Francesco took refuge in San Damiano, in the small convent annexed to the church he restored many years before and where Chiara and her sisters lived.
And in this evocative and spiritual place of prayer, he composed the famous "Canticle of friar Sole" or "Canticle of the Creatures", sublime poetry, where one understands how much Francis had penetrated into the most intimate reality of nature, contemplating under each creature the adorable presence of God.
If faith had made him rediscover the universal brotherhood of men, all sons of the same Father, in the 'Canticle' he seized the bond of love that binds all creatures, animate and inanimate, among themselves and with man, in a planetary embrace of brothers and sisters who have only one purpose, to give glory to God.
During this period, a guest for some time in the bishop's palace, he also dictated his famous 'Testament', the last message of love of the Poverello to his sons, so that they would remain faithful to Madonna Povertà.
Then, due to the interest of Cardinal Ugolino and Friar Elia, Francesco accepted to undergo the care of the doctors of the papal court in Rieti; then again to Fabriano, Siena and Cortona, but in the summer of 1226 not only had it not improved, but the rise of another serious illness, the dropsy, became more and more evident.
After another stop in Bagnara in the mountains near Nocera Umbra, so that he could have some refreshment, the friars saw the worsening of his condition, decided to transport him to Assisi and at his request to his beloved Porziuncola, where late evening of October 3, 1226, Francis died reciting Psalm 141, lying on the bare ground, was about 45 years old.
The larks, lovers of light and fearful of the dark, although it was already evening, came to spin on the roof of the infirmary, to greet with joy the saint, who one day (between Camara and Bevagna), had invited the birds to sing praising the Sir; and on another occasion in a field toward Montefalco he had given them a sermon, which the motionless birds listened to, then exploding into chirps and flights of joy.
On the morning of October 4, his body was translated with a solemn procession from the Porziuncola to the parish church of St. George in Assisi, where he was baptized and where he had begun preaching in 1208.
Along the way the procession stopped at San Damiano, where the box was opened, so that St. Clare and her "poor women" could kiss the stigmata.
In the church of San Giorgio it was buried until 1230, when it was taken to the lower Basilica, built by Friar Elias, who became Minister General of the Order.
Meanwhile, on July 16, 1228, Pope Gregory IX, less than two years after his death, proclaimed the Poverello of Assisi holy, in the presence of his mother madonna Pica, his brother Angelo and other relatives, Bishop Guido di Assisi, numerous cardinals and bishops and a crowd of people never seen, setting the party on October 4.