Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi founder of the order of Franciscans, was born in 1182 at Assisi, in Umbria, where his father, Peter Bernadone, was a rich merchant. The son was intended also for business; but, having a taste for military life, he took part in a contest between Assisi and Perugia, and was taken prisoner. After a year's captivity he was released. Soon after, an illness brought him near the gates of death. He determined to renounce the world. But, on recovering his health, he abandoned his religious life and plunged into gayety.

Suddenly conscience stricken, he vowed to live a life of poverty. The following incident illustrates the character of his religion at this time. "Worshipping in a country church consecrated to St. Damian, he seemed to hear a voice saying, 'Francis, go and prepare my house, which thou seest falling into ruins.' What was the man pledged to poverty to do? He quietly went home, stole a horse from his father's stable, then went to his father's warehouse, and stole from thence silks and embroideries, with which he laded the purloined horse, and sold both horse and goods at the neighboring town of Folingo. Romish casuists say that this action was justifiable by the simplicity of his heart. It is clear that his religious training had not instructed him in the ten commandments. He offered the money to the officiating priest at St. Damian, who cautiously refused to take it. Francis cast the money into the mire, but vowed that the building should be his home until the divine behest had been fulfilled. His father found him out, and, though Francis was twenty-five years old, gave him a sound whipping, and put him into prison in his own house. Francis was set at liberty by his mother during his father's absence from home. He returned to St. Damian's, and his father followed him thither, insisted that he should either return home, or renounce before the bishop all his share in his inheritance, and all manner of expectations from his family. The son accepted the latter condition with joy, gave his father whatever he had in his pockets, told him he was ready to undergo blows and chains for the love of Jesus Christ, and went with his father before the bishop of Assisito make a legal renunciation of his inheritance in form." By the world, and, it would seem, by his father himself, he was regarded as a madman, but the bishop viewed the enthusiasm of the youth with allowance, and treated him with kindness. He soon after renewed his vow of poverty, imagining himself warned from heaven to do so. He begged for and labored at the restoration of several churches. At this time he pretended to the gifts of prophecy and miracles. He soon attracted followers, and, associating with himself Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter of Catania, on the 16th of August, 1209, laid the first foundation of the Franciscan order. The number of his adherents increased rapidly, and he drew up, in twenty chapters, a rule for his order. He carried his rule to Rome, there to obtain for it the sanction of pope Innocent III, who regarded Francis as a madman, but saw how well fitted for his purposes such a man and such an order might be. He ordained Francis a deacon in 1210, and gave his verbal approbation to the rule he had drawn up. Among his triumphs we must record his conversion of Clara, or St. Clare. SEE CLARE, ST. Born to rank and fortune, St. Clare had recourse from her early years to ascetic practices. She heard of Francis, was captivated by the lustre of his piety, and, assisted by him, she eloped from her friends. "Although a saint, Francis was obviously deficient in the moral sense. They fled to the Portiuncula, a church which the Benedictines had now given to the Franciscans. He was in his thirtieth, she in her nineteenth year. She was welcomed by the monks and attended by her spiritual guide, and took sanctuary in the neighboring church, of St. Paul until arrangements could be made for her reception in a convent. Francis, regardless of filial duty and parental authority, induced her two sisters Agnes and Beatrice, notwithstanding the agony of her father, to follow her in her flight, and to partake of her seclusion. The church of St. Damian became the convent of the Order of Poor Sisters thus established. It was at first the design of Francis and his associates to study how they might die to the world, living in poverty and solitude. But, now that he had reached a summit of renown and influence he imagined that he had a further commission. He consulted Silvester and Clara, who declared that it was revealed to them that the founder of their order should go forth to preach. And the Franciscans became a preaching order, though the founder was an illiterate man. He persevered in his devotion to poverty, though many of his followers soon showed an inclination to appropriate to themselves some of the comforts of life. He would not permit even his churches to be richly decorated: they were to be low and unadorned. He was continually devising new methods of afflicting and mortifying his body. If any part of his rough habit seemed too soft, he sewed it with packthread. Unless he was sick he rarely ate anything that was dressed with fire, and when he did he usually put water or ashes upon it. He fasted rigorously eight Lents in the year" (Hook, s.v.).

It is unnecessary to record the miracles he was said to have performed. In Roman Catholic phrase, he had a singular devotion to the Virgin Mary, whom he chose for the patroness of his order, and in whose honor he fasted from the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul to that of the Assumption. Roman writers tell us that he was endowed with an extraordinary gift of weeping; his eyes seemed two fountains of tears, which were almost continually falling from them, insomuch that at length he almost lost his sight. "When the physician prescribed that, in order to drain off the humors by an issue, he should be burnt with a hot iron, Francis was very well pleased, because it was a painful operation and a wholesome remedy; when the surgeon was about to apply the searing iron, Francis spoke to the fire, saying, 'Brother fire, I beseech thee, burn me gently, that I may be able to endure thee:' he was seared very deep from the ear to the eyebrow, but showed no sign of pain!" At length, finding Europe insufficient for his zeal, he resolved to preach to the Mohammedans. With this view he embarked, in the sixth year after his conversion, for Syria, but a tempest drove him upon the coast of Dalmatia, and he was forced to return to Ancona. In 1214 he set out for Morocco, to preach to the famous Mohammedan king Miramolin, and went on his way; but in Spain he was detained by a fit of sickness, and by various accidents, so that he could not go into Mauritania. But he wrought several pretended miracles in Spain, and founded there some convents, after which he returned through Languedoc into Italy. Ten years after the first institution of the order in 1219, Francis held near the Portiuncula the famous general chapter called the Matts, because it was assembled in booths in the fields. Five thousand friars met on the occasion. The growing ambition of the order showed itself in their praying Francis to obtain from the pope a license to preach everywhere, without the leave of the bishops of each diocese. Francis rebuked them, but employed the more ambitious spirits on foreign missions,. He reserved for himself the mission to Syria and Egypt. but the affairs of his order obliged him to defer his departure. Innocent III had approved of his order by word of mouth. Honorius III, who succeeded Innocent in 1219, had appointed cardinal Ugolino to the post of protector of the Minorite brethren, and approved of their missions. Francis met sail with Illuminastus of Reate and other companions from Ancona, and landed at Acre or Ptolemais in Palestine. The Christian army in the sixth crusade lay at that time before Damiaetta. Francis was taken by the infidel scouts, and brought before the sultan, who taeated him as a madman, and sent him back to the Christian camp. He returned by Palestine into Italy, where le had the affliction to find that Elias, whonm he had left vicar-general of his order, had introduced several novelties and mitigations, and wore himself a habit of finer stuff than the rest, with a longer capuche or hood, and longer sleeves.. Francis called such innovators bastard children of his order, and deposed Elias from his office. Resigning the generalship that year (1220), he caused Peter of Cortona to be chosen minister general, and after his death, in 1221, Elias to be restored. Francis continued always to dir ect the government of his order personally while he lived. Having revised his rule and presented it to Hosorius III, it was confirmed by a bull dated the 29th of November, 1223. In 1215, Count Orlando of Cortona had bestowed on Francis a secluded and agreeable residence in Mount Alberno, a part of the Apesise, snd built a church there for the friars. To this solitude Francis was accustomed to retire. Shortly before his death, according to his monkish chroniclers, behead a vision of Christ under the form of a seraph. "The vision disappearing, left in his soul a seraphic ardor, and marked his body with a figure conformed to that of the crucified, as if his body, like wax, had received the impression of a seal; for soon the marks of thenails began to appear in his hands and feet, such as he had seen in the image of the God-man crucified. SEE STIGMATA. His hands and feet were pierced with nails in the middle: the heads of the nails, round and black, were on the palms of the hands and fore part of the feet. The points of the nails, which were a little long, and which appeared on the other side, were bent backwards on the wound which they made. He also had on his right side a red wound, as if he had been pierced with a lance, which often shed sacred blood on his tunic." Francis is said to have concealed this singular favor of heaven ever after by covering his hands with his habit, and by wearing shoes and stockings modesty which prevented others from seeing, and therefore from bearing emitness to the marks, for whose existence we have no evidence. The bishop of Olmutz denounced the miracle as irrational. A papal bull in 1255 vindicated the, claims of the miracle. "The Dominicans represented the whole affair as an imposture, the invention of the new order of Franciscans to raise their credit, but it is now generally believed in the Romish Church." Worn out at last, Francis retired to Assisi. In a year he began to act as an itinerant preacher throughout Umbria, and it was "during this time that a woman of Bagnarea brought an infant to him that it might be healed. Francis laid his hands on the child and it recovered: that child grew to be a man, and that man Bonaventura (q.v.) who proved his gratitude by becoming the biographer of Francis, carefully recording all the wonderful circumstances of his life and working them up into a beautiful fiction." In the latter part of his life he "attributed no value to self- mortification, in itself considered, but regarded it solely as a means for overcoming sensual desires and for promoting purity of heart. Love appeared to him to be the soul of all. Once, when one of the monks, who had carried his fasting to excess, was deprived by it of his sleep, and Francis perceived it, he brought him bread with his own hands, and exhorted him to eat; and as the monk still shrunk from touching it, he set him the example, and ate first. On the next morning, when he assembled his monks, he told them what he had done, and added, 'Take not the eating, but the love, my brethren, for your example.' Later in life he did not shrink from preaching before the pope and the cardinals. 'His words,' says Bonaventura, 'penetrated, like glowing fire, to time inmost depths of the heart.' Once, when he was to preach before the Roman court, for which occasion he had committed to memory a carefully written discourse, he felt all of a sudden as if he had forgotten the whole, so that he had not a word to say. But after he had openly avowed what had occurred to him and invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit, he found utterance for words full of power, which produced a wonderful effect on all present. Again, as the ascetic bent admits of being easily converted into a contempt of nature, so we cannot but regard as the more remarkable that love, pushed even to enthusiasm, with which Francis embraced all nature as the creation of God that symphthy and feeling of relationship with all nature, by virtue of its common derivation from God as Creator, which seems to bear more early the impress of the Hindoo than of the Christian religion, leading him to address not only the brutes, but even inanimate creaturess as brothers and sisters. He had a compassion for brute animals, especially such as are employed in the sacred Scriptures as symbols of Christ. This bent of fanatical symepathy with nature furnished perhaps a point of entrance for the pantheistic element which in later times found admission with a party among the Franciscans" (Neander, Church History, Torrey's transl. 4:273 sq.). Francis died October 4, 1226, and was canonized by Gregory IX in 1230. His order soon rose to great power and splendor. SEE FRANCISCANS. His writings (epistles, sermons, ascetic. treatises, discourses, poems, etc), with his life by Bonaventura, were published by La Haye, general of the Misorites (Par. 1641, fol.). His life will also be found is Wadding, Annales Minorum, volume 1 (Rome, 1731); Voigt, Leben von Franz von Assisi (Tubing. 1840); Chavin de Malan, Vie de St. Francois (Par. 1841, 8vo); and in Bohlringer, Kirche Christi in Biographien, volume 2, part 2, page 489; Hase, Franz von Assisi ein Heiligenbild (Lips. 1856). — Hase, Ch. History, page 265; Mosheim, Ch. Hist. cent. 13, part 2, chapter 2, n. 49; Jortin, Remarks on Eccles. History, volume 5; Hook, Eccles. Biography, 5:206.

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