St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi was an Italian friar (1182-1226). He secured the safety of pilgrims to Jerusalem, which was dangerous at the time, and stimulated its pilgrimages. He himself was known for his poverty and good conduct. He founded the Franciscan Order.

Life of St. Francis

 Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, to a wealthy merchant family. While studying French language and literature, he helped his father in his business.

 In the early 13th century, Francis participated as a soldier in the Battle of Assisi. But he was captured and imprisoned for a year. During that time, he became ill. After his release, he did not return to his former life. After his imprisonment and illness, he began to have doubts about his previous lifestyle.

 Furthermore, it is said that his encounter with a leper was a major turning point for his life. Encountering someone who had been completely abandoned in the town where he had grown up, Francis developed a sense of sin and contrition. Just as Christ showed love and mercy to the lepers, who were God’s creatures, Francis began to think that he would do the same. Therefore, he began to engage in charitable activities. He also began to preach the teachings of God. He began to gather support for his puritanical way of life.

 The Foundation of the Franciscans

 Francis decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome. At that time, pilgrimage was an established part of Christian culture in Europe. Many people went on pilgrimages. Rome was a major pilgrimage destination in Europe.

 Francis arrived in Rome and offered all his possessions at the cemetery of St. Peter. He did not immediately return to his hometown, but continued to rely on charity. Francis formed a new group with his supporters. With them, he imitated the way of life of Christ and the apostles and practiced poverty. As the apostle said, food and clothing were enough for those who practiced Christ’s way of life, and nothing more. They worked in sanatoriums and other institutions, but they began to forbid the receipt of money. They wanted to be with the poor, the weak, the lepers, and others who were marginalized in society, and to be brothers with them. Francis wanted to be “minor” with them. In this way, he tried to live the Christian life.

 In 1209, the Franciscan order was approved by Pope Innocent III. This was to become an emerging force that would breathe new life into Western Christianity at the time. The Franciscans began their activities in earnest with the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi as their home base. They expanded their missionary activities in various regions. For example, they persuaded aristocrats and other powerful people to use their wealth in ways more compatible with Christianity.
 In 1212, Clara, a woman from the nobility of Assisi, was impressed by Francis’ practice. He founded the Order of Poor Ladies for Clara. In the same year, Francis, together with his disciples, conceived the idea of missionary work against the Muslims in Jerusalem. This was inspired by the Reconquista, which was making a certain amount of progress in Spain at that time. However, due to shipwreck and illness, this did not come to fruition.

 In 1215, he met in Rome with St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order.

 Its Development and Problems

 The Franciscans gradually expanded their activities and began to experiment with missions beyond Italy to France, Germany, Spain, and the Holy Land. With the increase of friars and expansions in distant lands, the Franciscans began to establish rules for their organizational structure. For example, in order to divide the scope of missionary activity in the mission field, the province was introduced as the basic unit.

 In 1219, Francis tried to go on a mission to Egypt and the Holy Land. This was because a pilgrimage to Jerusalem had become a serious concern of his. During the same period, Franciscans also attempted missionary work in southern Spain and Tunisia.

 Jerusalem came under the control of European powers during the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century. However, Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty took it back in 1187. As a result, Christians could no longer make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as freely and safely as before. So Francis went to Egypt. He attempted to convert the Sultan of Egypt, but failed. Nevertheless, he was able to get permission for Christians to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem via Egypt.

 Thus, the next pilgrimage route to Jerusalem would become popular. This route involved crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Italy by ship to Egypt, and from there reaching Jerusalem by donkey or other means. The Franciscans would lead this route. In other words, they were to serve as a guide on the pilgrimage tour.

 When Francis was away from Italy, there were internal conflicts in the Franciscan order. There was a movement to bring the Franciscans closer to the old style of friars. There was also growing criticism from outside. Therefore, Francis returned to Italy.

Late Years

 Francis became seriously ill and resigned as head of the congregation. Or, it is said, because he became disillusioned with the internal conflicts mentioned above, he resigned. He then compiled and promulgated the precepts of the Order in 1223. According to the rules of the time, a formal monastic order had to have official precepts. Otherwise, they would not be recognized as a religious order, or at least their legitimacy would be questioned. However, the Franciscans only had their unofficial precepts recognized by the Pope in 1209. And since then, as the Franciscans expanded their organization, the number of various rules had actually increased. Therefore, Francis compiled a formal compilation of precepts. This was officially approved by the papacy.

 In 1224, Francis practiced on Mount Alvernia. According to tradition, while there, Francis experienced a vision and received the stigmata from Christ on his hands, feet, and side. This scene became popular as a subject for paintings and other works. Francis died in 1226.

St. Francis

Francis experiences a vision of IHS (Christ) in the upper left. Francis was canonized shortly after his death, so there is a circle floating above his head.

 Incidentally, there is an anecdote that Francis considered all living creatures as his brothers and even tried to preach to small birds and fish.

Persons associated with St. Francis

Pope Innocent III: Pope who sanctioned the Franciscans. Known as one of the representative popes of papal absolutism in the Middle Ages, he was extremely active.

St. Dominic: A friar who founded the Dominican Order at about the same time as St. Francis. He actively participated in the crusade against heresy.

Recommended or Selected references

Masaru Kawashita, Francesco of Assisi, Shimizu Shoin, 2016

André Vauchez, Francis of Assisi : the life and afterlife of a medieval saint, Yale University Press, 2012

Michael J.P. Robson (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Francis of Assisi, Cambridge University Press, 2012