Lives of the Saints
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St. Francis of Assisi

Deus Meus et Omnia (My God and My All)


St. Francis of AssisiSt. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was born at Assisi in Umbria, Italy in a makeshift manger, in deliberate imitation of the birth of Christ. He was baptized Giovanni (John) in honor of John the Baptist, but his father, who was not home at the time of his birth, returned from his trip to France, and renamed him Francesco to mark his own love for the country (France). His father, Peter Bernardone was a wealthy cloth merchant and St. Francis’ early life was marked by high living and a concern for social status. He devoted his youth to ideas of romantic chivalry that was propagated by the troubadours (a wandering band of musical poets whose songs dealt mainly with chivalry and courtly love). He had plenty of money and spent it lavishly. He was uninterested in his father’s business and in formal learning.

In 1198, when St. Francis was sixteen, civil war broke out pitting Assisi’s nobility against the newly powerful members of the rising merchant class. Ironically, the two sides represented not only St. Francis, son of the ambitious merchant, Peter Bernardone, but also Clare di Favarone (St. Clare of Assisi), the young daughter of an aristocratic family. While there is no direct evidence that St. Francis participated in this civil war, the war touched every family in Assisi. Then in 1202, a battle broke out between two ancient rivals: the members of the cities of Perugia and Assisi. St. Francis was known to be a part of this battle. Unfortunately, the Perugians overpowered Assisi’s army and Assisi’s army was literally beaten into the ground or dragged off to prison. St. Francis was taken prisoner in 1202 and remained there for a year. He was released and became seriously ill. During his recovery, he experienced a profound change in his values. He first thought about serving in the papal army in Southern Italy, but he is said to have had a dream that urged him to “follow the Master rather than the man.” He returned to Assisi, where he was drawn increasingly to the life of prayer, penance, pilgrimages and almsgiving. One day, as he was riding on the plain of Assisi, he met a leper, whose sores were so gruesome that, at the sight of them, St. Francis was struck with horror. But he dismounted, and as the leper stretched out his hand to receive the alms, St. Francis kissed the leper’s hand. This had a profound impact on St. Francis’s life, and he began to spend time working among social outcasts and the poor.

St. Francis of AssisiPeter Bernardone was unhappy with the new direction his son’s life had taken, and there were increasingly tense conflicts between the two. Everything came to a climax in 1206. One day, as St. Francis was praying in the ruined chapel of San Damiano (outside the walls of Assisi), he seemed to hear a voice coming from the crucifix, which said to him three times, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you see is falling down.” St. Francis, seeing the church was old and ready to fall, thought the Lord commanded him to physically repair that church. He returned home, and in the simplicity of his heart took a horse-load of cloth out of his father’s warehouse and sold it (along with the horse). St. Francis then brought the money to the poor priest of San Damiano, asking to be allowed to stay with him. The priest consented, but refused to take the money. St. Francis left it on the window-sill. When his father discovered what St. Francis had done, he searched for St. Francis at San Damiano but St. Francis was hidden from view. A few days later, after spending a few days in prayer and fasting, St. Francis appeared on the streets of Assisi disfigured and ill-clad. People accused him of being “mad.” St. Francis’ father, more annoyed than ever, carried St. Francis home, beat him unmercifully and locked him up. His mother released him while his father was out and St. Francis returned to San Damiano. His father, sought him out again, hit him over the head and insisted that he should either return home or renounce his share in his inheritance and return the purchase-price of the goods he had taken. St. Francis had no objection to being disinherited, but said that the other money now belonged to God and the poor. Peter took St. Francis to the Bishop of Assisi (to the ecclesiastical court), who ordered St. Francis to return the money and trust in God. St. Francis did what he was told, and with his usual literalness added The clothes I wear are also his. I’ll give them back.” St. Francis stripped himself of his clothes and gave them to his father. Quickly a dress of a church worker was found and St. Francis received his first alms with many thanks, made a cross on the garment with chalk and put it on. St. Francis spent the next several years living as a penitent hermit. He dressed in a long rough tunic provided by some friends, and he begged in the streets for food and for alms to rebuild San Damiano. He also spent time caring for lepers and helping repair three ruined churches in the town.

In 1208, his religious life received direction. St. Francis heard Mass at the little church of St. Mary of the Angels (now known as the Portiuncula). The Gospel reading of the day (Matthew 10:7-19) instructed the disciples of Christ to own neither gold nor silver, nor a wallet for their journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff and they were to exhort sinners to repentance and announce the Kingdom of God. On this day, this message pierced his heart and the Franciscan movement began. He gave away his shoes, tunic and staff and donned a simple tunic and hood of a shepherd, with a cord tied around the waist. He began to preach publically and to attract followers. By the next year, there were twelve in his company and they became known as the Penitentiaries of Assisi, although St. Francis preferred the name frati minors (from the Latin to mean “lesser brothers”), which eventually became their official ecclesiastical name (Friars Minor). St. Francis wrote a brief statement on their way of life, based on the Gospels, and took this primitive Rule to Rome to secure the approval of Pope Innocent III in 1210. (St. Bonaventure heard from the nephew of Pope Innocent III that in a dream the pope saw a palm tree growing up at his feet and in another he saw St. Francis propping up the Lateran church, which seemed ready to fall. He therefore sent for St. Francis and approved his rule, but only by word of mouth, tonsuring him and his companions and giving them a general commission to preach repentance.) St. Francis also became a deacon around this time, but out of humility and high regard for the priesthood, did not proceed to the next step of ordination.

When St. Francis returned to Assisi, his friars took up residence together at the rural chapel of the Portiuncula. This became the base from which they would spread out in small groups throughout central Italy, doing manual labor and preaching. Wherever the Franciscans settled, they lived in simple wood huts without tables or chairs, their churches were modest and small, they slept on the ground and they had few books. (Only later did the order encourage its members to purse studies at the university level.)

In 1212, St. Clare di Favarone, a young aristocratic woman in Assisi, joined the movement and founded her own community, known as the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano” (today known as the Poor Clares). At the same time, St. Francis began to form groups of devout lay people that became the basis of the third order of St. Francis.

St. Francis of AssisiAt the first general chapter of the order in 1217, St. Francis sent his friars beyond the Alps and even to the Near East with the hopes to convert the Muslims. In 1219, St. Francis went to Egypt with a dozen friars, where the Crusaders were mounting an attack on the local Sultan. Appalled by the behavior of the Crusaders themselves, he somehow managed to pass through the lines and met with the Sultan and tried to convert him. The Sultan was deeply impressed with St. Francis as a person, but remained unconverted. St. Francis left with his mission considering it a failure. After a brief visit to the Holy Land, St. Francis returned to Italy upon receiving word of growing tensions among his friars, who now numbered three thousand, as well as, a growing number of criticisms from some bishops. Some of those he had left in charge, Matthew of Narni and Gregory of Naples, were trying to bring some innovations into the order so they might be in line with other religious orders and bring a framework of monastic observance and prescribed asceticism (imposing the Rules of St. Augustine, St. Bernard and St. Benedict on the order). Concluding that he was not up to the task of dealing with these pressing crises, he resigned as minister general of the order and obtained a cardinal-protector, Hugolino da Segni (later Pope Gregory IX) for the movement. Still considered the spiritual driving factor of the order, St. Francis revised the Rule and secured papal approval for it in 1223. This revision reflected the spirit and manner of life for which St. Francis stood for at the moment he cast off his fine clothes at the Bishop’s court at Assisi.

St. Francis spent the Christmas of 1223 at Grecchio, Italy, in the valley of Rieti. He has been known to have said I would make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.” Accordingly the crèche was set up at the hermitage and the peasants crowded into the midnight Mass, at which St. Francis served as a deacon and preached on the Christmas mystery. The custom of making the Nativity crèche was probably not unknown before this time, but this use of it by St. Francis is said to have begun its popularity.


By 1224, his health began to fail and he withdrew from normal activities for long periods of rest and prayer. While on retreat at Mount La Verna in the fall of 1224, he is said to have had a profound mystical experience that left the wounds of Christ’s Passion on his hands, feet, and side – the first recorded case of the stigmata. He became ill and blind. He paid a final visit to St. Clare at San Damiano and while there composed his famous Canticle of the Sun.


St. Francis died at the age of forty-five at the Portiuncula on October 3, 1226 and was canonized two years later by his friend Pope Gregory IX. (Later, Pope Gregory would canonize St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans). Unlike the older orders of monks whose primary concern was the spiritual advancement of the members through liturgy, prayer and monastic observance, these new orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans were directly involved in the life of the world and the church and dedicated their work to renewal and reform. St. Francis is buried in a crypt of St. Francis in the lower church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (although he asked to be buried in the criminals’ cemetery). He is the patron saint of Italy, of Catholic Action and also of the environment. In 1926, Pope Pius XI described him as the alter Christus (Latin for “another Christ”). St. Francis’ motto is noted as “Deus Meus et Omnia.” In English it means: My God and My All.

Resources on St. Francis of Assisi

Armstrong, Regis J., O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M., trans.   Francis and Clare: The Complete Works.   Ramsey, NJ:   Paulist Press, 1982.

Armstrong, Regis J., O.F.M. Cap., and Ingrid J. Peterson.   The Franciscan Tradition.   Series edited by Phyllis Zagano.   Spirituality in History Series.   Collegeville, MN:   Liturgical Press, 2010.

Craughwell, Thomas J.   Saints for Every Occasion:  101 of Heaven's Most Powerful Patrons.  Charlotte, NC:   C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001.

Delaney, John J.  Dictionary of Saints.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.

Derkse, Wil.  The Rule of Benedict for Beginners:  Spirituality for Daily Life.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2003.

McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Saints:  from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa.  San Francisco, CA:  HarperSanFrancisco (Division of HarperCollins Publishers), 2001.

Walsh, Michael, ed.  Butler's Lives of the Saints.  Concise Edition.  New York, NY:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.