Preaching, prayer and penitence
Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica. He was baptized Giovanni (John) but soon gained the nickname Francesco, because of his father’s close trading links with France.
Francis’ early years were not especially religious. He was a leader among the young men of Assisi, enjoying a good social life, singing and partying. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, describes him as quite short, with black eyes, hair and beard; he had a long face, with a straight nose and small, upright ears. His arms were short, but his hands and fingers slender and long. He had a strong, clear, sweet voice. Francis didn’t want to follow his father into the cloth trade; he wanted to be a knight. So at the age of twenty he joined the forces of Assisi in a minor skirmish with the neighbouring city of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in a Perugian jail, until his father ransomed him. This became the first of a series of experiences through which God called Francis to the life which he finally embraced. Click here to learn more about these experiences.
One of these experiences, at San Damiano, led to a rift with his father. Francis, in response to a voice from the crucifx in this tiny ruined church, began to rebuild churches; when he ran out of money he took cloth from his father’s shop and sold it. His father disowned him before the bishop of Assisi, and Francis in his turn stripped off his clothes, returning to his father everything he had received from him, and promising that in future he would call only God his Father.
Francis first wrote a very brief Rule for his brothers in 1209, and this was approved by the Church. It was superseded in 1223 by a fuller Rule, which has continued to shape the lives of Franciscan brothers over the centuries. Francis spent most of his life on the move, though he interspersed his preaching with periods of withdrawal for prayer. It was during one of these times of retreat that he received the Stigmata – the marks of the crucified Christ in his own body. For the final two years of his life he suffered constant pain. He died in 1226, and as he died blessed his beloved city of Assisi. He was buried in what became the great Basilica of St Francis, and declared a saint by the church in 1228.