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10. Francis of Assisi |
The man from Assisi who taught the world the realities of Christ

Francis of Assisi is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 258, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

After a young life of wealth, women, and war, Francis suddenly went a little ‘crazy,’ obeyed Jesus literally, lived as a beggar, healed the sick, and drew thousands to the cause of compassion

Francis of Assisi - The man from Assisi who taught the world the realities of Christ

Francis of Assisi - The man from Assisi who taught the world the realities of Christ
St. Francis of Assisi, shown here contemplating death in a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran (c. 1635). He created a quiet revolution in all western Christendom simply by listening to and following the words of Christ.

He must have cut a curious figure, that slight young man with the beatific smile who spent most of his time dredging stones from crumbled building sites and hauling them out of town in a sack over his back, almost always singing. When kids threw things at him, he would just duck and smile at them. They also called him names, though we don’t know what–“Crazy Frank” or something like that.

Everybody knew about him, of course. He was the playboy son of crusty old Peter Bernardone, who had made a lot of money in textiles, and he used to work for his father. But then Crazy Frank got religion and went sort of berserk. He had a terrible row with the old man, started dressing in rags, and began to rebuild the derelict church in the woods just outside town.

Some things about Crazy Frank everybody did not know, however–in fact, nobody knew, including, at this point, Crazy Frank himself. They did not know that the man they were jeering at was about to trigger one of the greatest reforms the Christian church would ever experience, helping to produce what would one day become the most compassionate society in history–namely the western world at the close of the twentieth century. For his name was not Frank, it was Francis, and the name of his town was Assisi.1

To be strictly accurate, his name was not exactly Francis either. When he was born, around 1181, his father was in France on a business trip and his mother had him baptized John. But Peter Bernardone so loved the French language and people, it was said, that he nicknamed his son Francesco–“Little Frenchman”–and it stuck. The boy grew up to be a charming youth and a great salesman in the family business because his customers loved him.

But he was also a lavish spender, a leader in the bawdy youthful revelries of Assisi, and a connoisseur of fine wines, troubadour songs, and loose women. “He lives like a prince,” his father complained. One of his early biographers went further, describing Francis as “a slave of sin . . . sated with carnal pleasures,” who “did not scruple to go beyond his masters in immorality.”

Since he kept company with Assisi’s young gentry and cherished ambitions for fame as either poet or soldier, Francis eagerly answered the call to arms when Assisi’s ancient enemy, neighboring Perugia, declared war in 1201.2 He fought bravely in the fierce Battle of Ponte San Giovanni, say the chroniclers, but he and his companions were taken prisoner and spent the next year in a Perugian prison. There, while the others bitterly mourned their fate and continually berated one of their company, whom they held responsible for their capture, Francis kept singing the whole time about how lucky they were to be alive and comforting this man.

Upon release he returned to Assisi and a year later spent inordinate sums to reequip himself fully as a knight. This was something that many even among the nobly born could not afford, but Francis acquired the finest accoutrements available–horse, weapons, and armor, with a finely embroidered robe over all. As he left for battle, however, an odd thing happened. Encountering another knight who was miserably equipped and shivering in the cold, Francis spontaneously removed his splendid cloak and handed it to the man. His comrades were astounded.

As the army moved toward the front, they got another shock. At Spoleto, about twenty miles south of Assisi, Francis suddenly quit and turned for home. Was he afraid? Was this cowardice? Not likely: he had always seemed heedless of death. He mentioned something about a dream, a vision of Jesus Christ that told him to return.

A little later, it came his turn to play the traditional role of host-fool at one of the Assisi party crowd’s regular bashes. He obliged but was unusually silent through the evening and lagged behind when everybody spilled out drunkenly into the town. “What’s the matter, Francis?” somebody jeered. “Are you in love?” Yes, he replied, he had found a wonderful bride, noble, rich, unmatchable. “Her name,” he said, “is Lady Poverty.”

That did it. From then on, his conduct became really strange. He began handing out money to beggars. Where he had always shown a particular horror and revulsion for lepers, he now began befriending them, even actually embracing them.3 And he kept reciting certain Gospel passages. “Sell all and give to the poor . . . Take no thought for the morrow, what you shall eat and what you shall wear . . . Insofar as you did it to the least of these my brethren . . .” You cannot ever really help the poor, Francis would later write, without becoming one of them.

The humiliation all this caused his father is hard to exaggerate, but the grand climacteric came after Francis visited old St. Damian’s Church, overgrown by weeds and falling apart, at Portiuncula, about three miles west of town. As he would later describe his experience there, he was praying before the altar of the tumbledown church when he had a clear vision of Jesus, who said to him, “Francis, as you can see, my church is falling to pieces. Go and rebuild it.” Realizing that this would require money, he went to his father’s store, seized a great bolt of cloth, sold it, and took the money to the old priest who lived by the crumbling church. The priest, suspecting where it came from, refused to take it, so Francis threw it on the ground.

His father, enraged beyond measure, soon tracked him down, sprang wolflike upon him, and began beating him mercilessly. Francis fled, hid for a month in a cave, then was arrested. Though his father had reclaimed the money, the young man was arraigned before the civil magistrates. But all he did, he protested to the court, was what Jesus said everybody ought to do. Ah, said the magistrates, so this was not a civil case but an ecclesiastical one, and, doubtless with some relief, they referred the matter to the bishop of Assisi.

Bishop Guido, a saintly man, listened to Francis’s Gospel-based argument at what appears to have been a public hearing. Though he clearly admired the impetuous youth, he explained that the Gospel did not empower him to take his father’s property. Dramatically, Francis thereupon removed his clothes and handed them to his father. Now, he declared, he had only one Father, “Our Father who art in heaven . . .” and he recited the rest of the Lord’s Prayer.

The bishop gave him some clothes as he left, but outside town, going he knew not where, Francis was pounced upon by robbers, who all but stripped him, beat him up, and left him for dead in the snow. Struggling to his feet, he stumbled on to a nearby monastery, where he worked for several days as a scullery hand. Then, it is said, even the monks rejected him. Only one possibility remained: the leper colony. Welcomed warmly, he remained there, dressing their sores and caring for them.

But this, he soon realized, was not rebuilding the church, so Crazy Frank returned to St. Damian’s and, stone by stone, began its reconstruction. Though the records are unspecific, it appears that he completed the job and worked on two other churches in the Assisi vicinity as well.

Then one day he asked Christ in prayer whether this was how he was to spend his life. The answer came in the Gospel for that day: “As ye go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils. Freely ye have received. Freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass for your purses, nor scrip for your journey. Neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves, for the workman is worthy of his meat [i.e., pay]’” (Matthew 10:7—10).

Hearing this, Francis leapt to his feet, shouting, “This is what I have been waiting for! This is what I have been seeking! This is what I long with all my heart to do!” This time he returned to Assisi to seek souls, not stones. He begged for his food and he preached on the street, and the crowds who came to hear him grew larger and larger. Finally, with the bishop’s permission, he preached at the church of his childhood in Assisi, reducing the congregation to joyous tears. From that point on, notes his twentieth-century biographer Omer Englebert (Francis of Assisi: A Biography), the scorn and ridicule of Crazy Frank stopped. Whatever his idiosyncrasies, he moved the people of Assisi as nobody ever had before.

Talk about him reached the ears of a wealthy local magistrate, known as a wise and good man, whose house was palatial and whose responsibilities wide. Bernard of Quintavalle, curious whether this preacher was crazy or holy, asked Francis to spend an evening with him. The consequences were astounding. Bernard decided to join him and queried what he must do. He must take everything he possessed, replied Francis, and give it to the poor. So Bernard did just that in the most literal way possible. Standing at the door of his mansion, he handed out money to anyone who wanted it while the poor (along with a great many who decidedly were not) came and stripped the place. Assisi, to put it mildly, was flabbergasted. A third man named Peter, about whom little is known, joined them, and the trio lived together in Francis’s reed hovel at Portiuncula.

There, what became the Franciscan order was born. A week later, a farm boy from the area came to Francis, fell to his knees, and begged to follow him. He had not come there on his own, Francis assured him, raising him to his feet; he had been called by a king greater than any emperor, and thus Brother Giles joined the Franciscans. The four lived by begging and working not for money but for food. Often when they traveled in pairs to nearby communities to preach, they were mocked, beaten, and stripped of most of their ragged apparel, and women were terrified of them. But they took comfort from this, remembering that Jesus had said, “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake” (Matthew 5:11).

Nevertheless, individuals sometimes responded unreservedly to them, and soon their number grew to twelve. Francis named them “the Friars Minor,” meaning “the little brothers,” the name they would carry through history. They must never hold high office, he stressed (a rule they were not long destined to observe, for many would become bishops and distinguished academics, and four would be elected pope), but their work, he serenely assured them, would soon attract thousands of men.

So confident was he about this that he decided such a massive movement must have the approval of the pope. This was something a new religious order did not officially require; a bishop’s approval would have sufficed. The twentieth-century Christian essayist G. K. Chesterton, in his delightful biography of Francis, calls this idea an instance of his “brilliant blindness.” In any event, in about 1209 Francis led the twelve to Rome, where Pope Innocent III, taking the ragged figure to be a swineherd, told him go away and tend his pigs. When further informed about Francis’s little group and their insistence on literally penniless poverty, he still dismissed them as crazy.

Two things changed the papal mind. One was the case advanced by Cardinal Giovanni of San Paolo, who knew of Francis and admired him. How could the church reject a man, the cardinal argued, for obeying Jesus’ specific instructions? Would this not imply that the Son of God was wrong? Moreover, in view of the fact that one of the papacy’s greatest current problems was the unbecomingly affluent life now being led by so many of its clergy, this was surely no time to dismiss Christians of the opposite inclination.

Even more decisive, however, was a dream Innocent was said to have had that very night, in which he saw Rome’s great Lateran Palace about to collapse and being held up by a solitary man who appeared to be a beggar. So he approved the Friars Minor and their seemingly impossible rule of life. The decision, as things turned out, would felicitously exempt the Franciscans, who were viewed with increasing horror by many senior clergy, from a general ban on new orders passed by the Fourth Lateran Council some six years later. Innocent, once committed, remained resolute in his support.

The events of the following eight years, although they strain credulity, yet stand as unarguable fact. As the Friars Minor spread their preaching to other cities in Italy and beyond, their way of life began to capture the imagination of hundreds and then thousands of men, young and old, rich and poor, learned and ignorant. Many came from or even headed noble or wealthy families, many were brilliant teachers, many were members of the “secular” or diocesan clergy.

Some joined and quit. Some broke the rules, refusing to beg, for example, or secretly retaining “possessions,” such as a priest’s breviary, the volume containing the Psalms and other readings of the Divine Office for each day. For monks and canons the office had always been sung in community, but for the friars, often on the move, it became an individual obligation involving a need to have a book at hand, and therefore they were tempted to own one. Francis worried about the differences this could introduce among the brothers. He pictured one saying to another, “Bring me my breviary.” Thus, any ownership involved temptations. Some gave in to them and were expelled. But nearly all remained loyal, meeting or striving hard to meet the stern demands of Lady Poverty.

Whatever the explanation for this explosion (mass hysteria, a subconscious yearning to escape life’s more onerous responsibilities, or the grace of God, all of which were suggested at the time), the one integral factor unquestionably was Francis himself. In the earliest days, of course, his friars knew him personally and hung on whatever he said, did, or required them to do. As the movement spread, many would never meet him but would thrive on all the stories about him, many of which no doubt were true and many no doubt legendary.

There was his preaching, for instance. He spoke without notes, without “sermon aids,” without dialectical argument, without even notable eloquence, yet he somehow enthralled. Once when preaching before the pope, he broke into a dance, joyous in the presence of God. No one laughed; many began to cry and sing. Bells were often rung as he approached a town. After one of his sermons, thirty men came forward and asked to join his order.

Even more compelling was his unbounded love of the natural world around him and the stories–legendary, factual, or a combination of both–about his relation to furred and feathered creatures. He releases a hare from a trap, for example, and it comes and nestles in his arms. He speaks to birds and they clearly comprehend him. Most celebrated of all is the tale of the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, a beast so large and ravenous that it would come right into town, would attack and devour fully armed men, and was terrorizing the entire countryside. Francis walks unarmed from the city while onlookers watch nervously from their rooftops. The snarling wolf launches his attack. Francis stops him with the sign of the cross, reasons with him, and persuades him that if he will cease to harm the people, they will feed him. He then leads the animal tranquilly through the streets, their treaty is ratified, and the wolf henceforth drops in daily for a prepared dinner. He becomes a civic pet, and when he dies some years later of old age is deeply mourned by all Gubbio.

Truth or pure fiction? Does it matter? asks the American nature writer Edward Allworthy Armstrong (Saint Francis: Nature Mystic); the point is that Francis was radically altering the whole medieval concept of nature. Instead of nature being something alien, threatening to man, or even (as the old Manichaeans had said) diabolical, Francis saw it as a further manifestation of God himself. It has fallen along with humanity, but like human beings and like the wolf of Gubbio, it is to be redeemed.

Nor was his appeal confined to animals and male humans. Women, too, soon came under his spell. One swayed by his sermons was the beautiful eldest daughter of the Offreduccios, a wealthy and well-connected Assisi family that had great expectations that she would contract a fruitful marriage within the local nobility. She had been baptized Clare (meaning “bright”) because, it was said, her mother had had a vision just before Clare’s birth that her child would shine a clear light on many souls.

As she grew up, Clare Offreduccio had evidenced an extraordinary generosity and desire to care for poor and helpless people. She had expressed a strong inclination to become a nun, wearing a rough hair shirt under her fine clothing, but her family, most unsympathetic, insisted that she marry. Thus, Clare, along with a cousin who was similarly inclined, left home by night, sought out Francis at Portiuncula, and asked him what they should do. As they talked, says the Franciscan tradition, such brilliant light shone about them that the people of Assisi rushed to the scene, fearing that the woods were on fire. They found only the two women and Francis talking quietly together.

They should place the leading of God before obedience to their parents, Francis told them, then took them to a nearby Benedictine convent, cut their hair, and clothed them in a coarse robe like his own. Next day family members begged Clare to come home, but when she clung to the altar and showed them her shorn hair, they realized that their objections were futile. However, after she was joined by her younger sister, Agnes, aged fifteen, Francis knew there would be trouble. He moved all three women to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Angelo on a nearby mountainside.

Some twelve armed horsemen followed them there the next day and dragged off the shrieking Agnes until, so the story goes, the prayers of her elder sister miraculously saved her. Agnes’s body suddenly became too heavy for them to carry, says the chronicle, and when one of her abductors sought to subdue her with his fist, a sharp pain in his hand briefly rendered it useless. Clare, catching up to them, berated the men so severely that they sheepishly abandoned the whole idea and quietly left. A third Offreduccio sister later joined them as well, and the bishop of Assisi gave them the Church of St. Damian as a refuge.

They all agreed that when they inherited their family’s fortune, they would give it all away. However credible all the details of this history, one thing is unarguable. The second order of St. Francis, known as the “Poor Clares,” thereupon came into being.

The Poor Clares took up the Franciscan cause as Francis himself had done, begging for their food and caring for the sick, but much of their subsequent story centers on Clare and the strict austerity she imposed upon herself. For example, she communed with God every day from noon to Nones (a monastic service usually said in the late afternoon), often weeping as she meditated on the suffering of Christ. After one such meditation had gone on for more than twenty-four hours, a sister had to startle her into reality and remind her that Francis had forbidden her to remain more than a day without food. On another occasion she spent an entire day sprinkling her sisters with holy water. She slept on a bed of boards and rose first in the morning to help with the menial chores assigned to the younger women who joined the order.

Otherworldly though Clare might be, however, she could rise swiftly to purely mundane necessities. She was eminently practical and level headed in a crisis, she rarely lost an argument, even with popes, and her prayers often brought decisive results. When Muslim troops in the pay of Emperor Frederick II were burning, looting, and raping their way through the anti-imperial cities of Italy, for example, people insisted that it was her petitions to God that caused them to bypass Assisi (see chapter 6).

Her personally imposed austerities soon weakened her physically and rendered her frequently ill. She was not proud of this, however. She often required her Poor Clares to ease their fasting rules and forbade them to follow her example. She would die just short of sixty (her birth date is uncertain), reportedly while discussing the beauty of God and his works with Francis, who had died twenty-seven years earlier.

In 1212 after Francis preached in Camara, practically the whole town wanted to join him. This, by one account anyway, gave rise to a third order consisting of laymen and laywomen whose responsibilities prevent them from becoming friars or joining the Poor Clares but who share the commitment of those who do. The early rule of the tertiaries, as they are called, was patterned on that of the Friars Minor, with allowances for the different circumstances in which they lived. Though the locations and identities of their first communities are obscure, historians agree that many people joined. Some tertiary recruits were especially notable, like wealthy Luchesio of Poggibonsi and his wife, who went about with a donkey laden with gifts for the poor, or the Roman widow Giacomina, who was with Francis at his death, or Count Orlando of Chiusi-in-Consentino, who bestowed upon Francis one material gift that he did not refuse.

This was a property atop Mount La Verna, near Arezzo, about forty miles northwest of Assisi and forty southeast of Florence. It was ideal, said Orlando, for the contemplation of God, and it so enchanted Francis that he sought the advice of Clare. Should he now leave his work to others and take up a contemplative life instead? He should not, she swiftly replied. He should go on with the work God gave him. So he did, but thereafter La Verna became a permanent place of retreat and meditation for the Franciscans.

Another diversionary challenge haunted Francis. He lived in the era of the Crusades, when thousands of men were losing their lives in the service of Christ. But it would be better, he reasoned, to create Christians than to kill Muslims. Therefore, when he heard of the Christian victory in Spain at Las Navas, he took this as a sign to act. Three times he tried to reach Muslim leaders, but only on the third try did he actually get to confront one of them. In the first instance he set sail from an Italian port for the Christian posts along the Palestine coast, but his ship was driven up on the Adriatic shore. With no money to get home, he had to stow away on an Italy-bound vessel (thus qualifying as the patron saint of stowaways). Next he sought to reach the Muslims in Spain but was dissuaded and instead recruited a whole host of Spanish newcomers to the Franciscan order.

At last, however, in the summer of 1219 he landed at Damietta, in the Nile Delta, just as a Christian army was about to attack the city in what its commander felt certain would be a successful assault. Francis, warned in a dream, predicted a disaster, which the assault did indeed become. Four thousand Christians were killed, and the town still held. Suddenly Francis found himself revered as a prophet–a number of crusader knights joined the Friars Minor–but Francis persisted in his original purpose. Early that fall, with one Franciscan brother, he approached the Muslim lines.

He was seized immediately and marched before Sultan al-Kamil, who had had tiny crosses strewn across the carpet before him. “If this man walks on the crosses,” he reasoned, “he will insult his God. If he refuses to walk on them, he will insult me.” Francis boldly strode over the crosses, explaining that there was more than one cross on Calvary and one of the others belonged to a thief. The sultan burst out laughing and, in the Franciscan account, began the first of several conversations between them. Francis urged him to take up the real cross and become Christian; al-Kamil protested that his people would destroy him if he did such a thing. At length he sent Francis back to the Christian lines as a distinguished state visitor. “Remember in your prayers your friend the sultan,” he besought him, “and ask God to show him how best to please him.” Soon afterward the Christians launched another assault on Damietta and conquered the city. Informed of their subsequent massacre of the Muslim defenders, Francis wept bitterly and returned, defeated, to Italy.

Another and very different kind of defeat awaited him there. In his absence the order had been rapidly descending into chaos. It now consisted of several thousand zealously committed members, many of whom had given up everything to join it, and three major issues were dividing the brothers. Did the rule of poverty actually require them to provide no place whatsoever to live? Did it really mean that priests among them must not own a breviary or that none of them should own a Bible? Second, could they actively seek the approval of bishops to preach in any diocese, or would such a request be considered “seeking privilege”? Finally, should they be permitted to study? Francis felt that any learning exposed a man to pride, the greatest of all the sins.

Early on he had taken to calling annual meetings of the entire membership, which were called “chapters,” always held at Portiuncula, and at the chapter of 1217 some radical changes had been made. The order had been divided into provinces: six in Italy, two in France, and one each in Spain, Germany, and the Holy Land. Each was to be headed by a “minister,” and some were to be subdivided into custodies, headed by a “custodian.” Two brothers were designated ministers general, their precise authority undefined. Revision of the rule, which would be needed to resolve any questions, had been set aside until Francis’s return from Egypt, an eventuality some doubted because they thought him dead. Meanwhile, for the chapter of 1220 about five thousand brothers somehow crowded into Portiuncula.

Francis came home ill from his trials at Damietta, and what he saw drove him into a frenzy. Some of the brothers had begun building a sizeable refuge at Portiuncula. Francis scrambled to the roof and began throwing the tiles down to the ground. Meager buildings today would soon become palaces, he warned. Many brothers were clinging to their breviaries, and many more owned Bibles. Learned brothers–and they were numerous–were hiding their books and continuing to study.

But Francis had also insisted on the “independence” of the friars, telling them that each should primarily seek the guidance of God for his conduct, and this had resulted in abuses. Some had involved themselves with women. Not a few were acquiring housing. One enterprising soul had led a whole leper colony into Rome to visit the pope. Francis now saw his entire work falling to pieces, writes Omer Englebert, and he was about to endure “a unique trial, a torture particularly long and cruel, a distress of conscience, serious and profound.” He would have to “walk in darkness, a prey to indecision and doubt.”

What saved him from despair and his movement from disintegration was Rome. From Pope Innocent III onward, papal authorities had been carefully observing the Franciscans because they represented both in principle and in practice what was being commonly referred to as “reform.” Few disagreed that reform was desperately needed, particularly reform of the clergy, and cries for reformation were heard everywhere. These usually were accompanied by denunciatory rhetoric that sought to destroy the existing fabric of the church while offering nothing very credible to replace it, but the Franciscans were different. They were a positive, not a negative, force, and people loved them for it. The difficulty was that as a formula for such a massive human endeavor as this one, Francis’s teachings were, frankly, impossible. Human nature being what it is, they just would not work, Sermon on the Mount or no Sermon on the Mount. Some few men could live by begging; some thousands of men could not.

But who could ever persuade Francis of this? As it so often had done, Rome came up with the right man at the right time. A cousin of Innocent III, Cardinal Ugolino of Conti (called in some English translations Hugolin), who loved and admired the Franciscans, had been designated to act as their link with the rest of the church. At a chapter held while Francis was in Egypt he had instituted a novitiate. A man could no longer simply join; there must be an initiation process. He solved the building problem by getting the chapter to agree that title to every property the Franciscans acquired should pass immediately to Rome. Thus, both collectively and individually they would still own nothing. Finally, Francis’s skepticism about a role in learning for his followers was simply rejected. The Franciscan schools at Paris and Oxford would play a definitive role in scholarly development in the High Middle Ages, though this last departure was never universally favored within the order. “Ah, Paris, Paris!” lamented Brother Giles. “It is you who are ruining the Order of St. Francis.”4

Although Francis conceded that Ugolino’s changes were undoubtedly necessary, he resigned brokenhearted as head of the order. He had had a dream that men could live as Jesus had directed, but it seemed they could not, not, anyway, in the numbers who had answered his challenge. For some years he brooded on this, at one instant penitently accepting it, in the next raging against it and condemning those calling for change. “Let them be denounced by you, O Lord, those men whose evil example shames the good friars,” he cried. Or, again, “I will go to the chapter and show them who I am!”

Meanwhile, under Ugolino’s guidance he worked to revise the rule. He and a brother came up with one revision, which was “lost” by Brother Elias, the minister general, meaning destroyed as hopelessly too strict. A second revision, submitted in 1223, was accepted and is still the rule of the Franciscans.5 But after Francis’s death, Brother Elias with his efficiencies would come as close to wrecking the movement as Francis himself had done with his inefficiencies.

Years of despair, numbering perhaps seven and known as the “Temptations of St. Francis,” came to an end much as the years of his great achievements had begun: with a vision of Christ. “Poor Little Man,” Jesus said to him, “why are you so sad? Is your order not also my order? Is it not I who am the Chief Shepherd? Then stop being so conflicted, and take care of your own salvation.” Francis heard and obeyed, and the agony finally ended.

By now his order, whatever its organizational woes, had spread even more widely. In Portugal the Franciscans were treated as “undesirables” until a royal princess befriended them. In Germany their first missionaries spoke no German but elicited a remarkably amiable reaction by answering every question with the word “Jah,” until suddenly amiability turned to fury and they were chased out of town. Later they learned the explanation. Someone had asked them if they were Cathars, that is, heretics. In Hungary the initial reaction was angry rejection, but people later came round. In England, where they centered themselves in London, Cambridge, and Oxford, they went barefoot all winter, sometimes wading knee-deep through icy swamps, and became especially noteworthy for their poverty. So appalling did conditions there become that on one occasion as they contemplated the absurdity of their plight (several having once been rich men), they were reduced to uncontrollable laughter.

With all this, the stories and legends grew, like those about a certain Brother Juniper, who by giving his clothes away, repeatedly came home in his underwear and at least once stark naked. On another occasion he was arrested as a spy and, feeling it wrong to defend himself, was very nearly executed. There is also the story of three robbers who came to a Franciscan house to steal food and were confronted by a gigantic brother, a former knight, who chased them off the property as vicious miscreants who preyed upon defenseless people. But Francis himself, who was there at the time, ordered this brother to follow the robbers with a good dinner. He did so. Next day they returned carrying armloads of firewood for the brothers, and in time all became Franciscans.

Francis’s own role in the movement after 1221 rapidly declined. He did not attend the chapter of 1224 but instead retired, very ill, to Mount La Verna with a few of his original followers.6 There, on a frightening night when the whole forest seemed to come alive with light, as on the night when Clare had fled to him, the wounds of the Lord’s stigmata appeared in his hands and his feet.7

Soon after this it was time for Francis to return to Assisi, suffering by now from the pain of the wounds in his hands and his feet, from a gastric disease, and from increasing blindness. Plainly, he was dying, and he knew it. His farewell blessing, written to his old friend Brother Leo, was taken from Aaron’s blessing to the Israelite people (Numbers 6:24—26) and would be repeated for generations to come by Christians of all denominations: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee: the Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.” This he inscribed on a piece of parchment that Leo would carry until his death. It is at St. Francis Church at Assisi, still creased where Leo folded it to put it in his pocket.

At St. Damian’s Church, where he had first answered Christ’s call, now the center for the Poor Clares, Clare herself had prepared a little reed hutch where Francis could now lie on the ground, as he preferred to do. It was far from comfortable in other respects as well, being infested by mice that shared his meals with him and ran over his body all night.

Such were the circumstances in which Francis wrote the verses known as the Canticle of the Sun, and many believe them the greatest tribute to the God of nature ever produced. Based on the 148th Psalm, they portray all the creatures of the Earth united in chorus under the leadership of “Sir Brother Sun”–including “Sister Moon” and “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water” and “Brother Fire,” and, finally, “Sister Mother Earth” herself–all singing together the praises of the God who brought them into being. Francis sang it first to Clare, say the traditions, and her sisters preserved it for four hundred years before it was published to the world in the seventeenth century. Probably the best-known English translation is a version written by the cleric and hymn writer William Henry Draper for a children’s Whitsuntide festival in Leeds, England, in 1919 (see text, page 279).

Not long before his death, Francis was prevailed upon to try treating his blindness, now total, by having the area above his eyes cauterized with a red-hot iron. “Brother Fire,” said he as the instrument approached, “God made you beautiful and strong and useful. I pray you be courteous with me.” Whether courteous or not, Brother Fire was no help to him. Now in very deep pain, he was carried from St. Damian’s down to Portiuncula, stopping at the point where the whole town of Assisi came into view. He could not see it but remembered it well and prayed for the city he had loved and made known to the world.

Taken to the bishop’s residence in Assisi, he felt the end rapidly approaching, and he joyfully wrote the final verse of the canticle: “Welcome, Sister Death.” He died reciting the 41st Psalm: “Blessed is he who considereth the poor and needy; the Lord shall deliver him in the time of trouble . . .” As he drew his last breath, say the chronicles, a flock of larks gathered in a nearby tree and sang their own canticle to the setting sun. The date was October 3, 1226.

Neither the expansion nor the fundamental problems of the Franciscan movement ceased with the founder’s death. For the next thirteen years attention centered on the figure of Brother Elias, believed to have been a mattress maker by trade and who had been a teacher in a boys’ school before joining Francis in 1210. Recognizing his decisive administrative ability and lacking all such skills himself, Francis bestowed considerable authority on him. Of those in the order who thought the begging-bowl era best buried along with Francis, Elias immediately became the champion.

At the chapter following Francis’s death, their numbers were not yet large enough to elect Elias minister general, but his word became law at Assisi. There he began building a magnificent church to contain the tomb of the man some were already hailing as the greatest Christian since the apostles, Francis in the meantime having been buried at Assisi’s little Church of San Giorgio. The project was strongly supported by Cardinal Ugolino, who became Pope Gregory IX five months after Francis died. The fact that such an opulent memorial was wholly at odds with some of Francis’s most cherished principles was dismissed as no longer relevant. His remains were translated to the new building in 1230.8 Pope Gregory supervised a revision of the rule to allow the friars to make use of buildings, Bibles, and books, although they must not own them, and to provision themselves with food and other necessities. Though pragmatism argued for the change, it represented a root compromise in what Francis had required, dismaying many Franciscans who had given up so much to abide by it.

They were in part vindicated by Elias’s subsequent conduct. Gaining the office of minister general in 1232, he spurred rapid development of Franciscan centers and new missions but at the same time imposed a harsh discipline on those friars who opposed the new liberties, particularly on Bernard of Quintavalle, Francis’s first recruit, who was forced into hiding to escape Elias’s strictures. Meanwhile Elias, according to his critics anyway, began living luxuriously, visiting society’s notables on a fine horse accompanied by servants in full livery and dining sumptuously on food prepared by his private chef.9 It is significant, however, that throughout this controversy Clare supported Elias, not his critics.

Then came the chapter of 1239, ordered by Gregory and held in Rome, which saw Gregory first pay tribute to Elias for the work he had done in the past, then fire him as minister general. Elias subsequently quit the order altogether, took service with the emperor Frederick II, and as an associate of the excommunicated Frederick was himself excommunicated. He would die reconciled to the church, however, although not to the Franciscan order. In succeeding years the order was more fortunate in its ministers general, though one of them–John of Parma, champion of the “Spirituals,” those Franciscans who fervently hewed to the Franciscan tradition of poverty–wound up accused of the heresy known as Joachimism and was pressured to resign as minister general.10

But it was Bonaventure of Bagnorea, minister general from 1257 to 1274, who undoubtedly did most to hold the order together. His sympathies lay with the Spirituals, but he set forth in his “constitutions” a regimen that sought both to preserve Francis’s principles and yet to meet practical exigencies. Franciscan churches must be of simple design, without bell towers; vestments must be plain and not of silk or gold cloth; bowls must not be put out for money, nor friars paid for preaching; they must not beg from strangers; they must not try to persuade rich people to be buried in their churches. At the same time, however, scholarly work must be regarded as labor, not leisure. Bonaventure was later canonized, and Ventura city and county in California commemorate his name, as does a town in Quebec, Canada, which, in turn, provided the name for Canada’s last commissioned aircraft carrier.

His constitutions did not satisfy the Spirituals, though, and the Franciscan order would remain divided on the issue well into the fifteenth century. So, too, would perennial inveighing against allegedly luxurious living continue to bring rebuke upon the clergy during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the French Revolution of the eighteenth and upon wealthy capitalist Christians in the Marxist revolution of the twentieth and the social revolution of the 1960s. Wealth, in short, would continue to have its critics and Lady Poverty her admirers, though none quite so fervent and so consistent as Francis of Assisi.

This is the end of the Francis of Assisi category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 258, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Francis of Assisi from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at