Saint Francis, or Saint Francis of Assisi (əsē´zē), 1182?–1226, founder of the Franciscans, one of the greatest Christian saints, b. Assisi, Umbria, Italy.
His 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, a successful cloth merchant, was a frequent traveler in France and admired much that he saw there. The name Francis (and its equivalents in other languages) owes its great popularity to St. Francis, for before him it was a name rarely given. Pietro de Bernardone was a wealthy merchant, and his son's early life was 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 rags, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome (1206). A series of events at that time 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, as he was hearing 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. So he set out, still a layman, 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 of friars, an entirely new type of order in the church. They wandered about Umbria and through 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, contempletive 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 Porziuncola near Assisi, with which Francis's career was closely identified. There the saint gave up active leadership of the order, for he felt it had become too unwieldy to command. He continued his preaching and the composition of his rule and sponsored the Franciscan tertiaries (Third Order of St. Francis).
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 (on Sept. 17) in the Roman Catholic Church. Francis died Oct. 3, 1226. Two years later Pope Gregory IX, who had been his patron and friend, canonized him; his feast is Oct. 4.
The sources for the life of St. Francis are two lives by Thomas of Celano and the biography by St. Bonaventure. Later medieval works are the Legenda trium sociorum, the Sacrum commercium, and the Speculum perfectionis. The Italian Fioretti di San Francesco [little flowers of St. Francis], a series of short anecdotes, has always been popular for its picture of St. Francis and his companions. It exemplifies in simplest form his love of nature and of humanity, a love so great that he preached one time to the sparrows at Alviano (he is often depicted in art preaching to the birds). His spirit also breathes in the Cantico del sole [hymn of the sun], which he may have written, and in the rules for his orders. Artistic and literary representations of St. Francis are innumerable; see L. Cunningham, comp., Brother Francis (1972); biographies by G. K. Chesterton (1924), J. H. Smith (1972), A. House (2001), V. Martin (2001), A. Vauchez (2009, tr. 2012), and A. Thompson (2012); study by E. A. Armstrong (1973).