St. Francis of Assisi

The Beginnings and Early Life

     Francis was born in Assisi, in the region of Umbria in 1182, of a rich merchant family – that of Pietro di Bernadone and his wife, Lady Pica. Francis grew up during a time of political uncertainty as well as during a time of dramatic cultural change. The feudal system with lords and fiefdoms was the society that was diminishing and a mercantile society was emerging.webpage 8 Francis was not of noble birth, but his father, a cloth merchant, was rich. So Francis did associate with the sons of nobles and, it is said, partied with them.It was also a time of chivalry, and Francis had heard stories of knights rescuing ladies fair. This environment influenced Francis to don the armor of a knight and go off to battle, which made his father proud.

     At that time in history, there were city states overseen by nobles who had allegiance to the emperor or to the Holy See. In 1160, “Frederick Barbarossa declared Assisi a free city under the protection of the empire…However, the presence of a handful of imperial soldiers did not impede the local political situation’s evolution towards autonomy…From 1162 to 1184 there was continuous growth and uprising of autonomous city-states, referred to as communes, throughout …which the imperial authority was too weak and too far away to prevent.webpage 1 “…The main reason, however that Assisi was ‘imperial’ was that its traditional rival, Perugia, was ‘papal.’” “The period from 1174 to 1210 marks the last and definitive collapse of the feudal structure in Assisi. In 1174 the city was destroyed by imperial forces. In 1198, when Francis was sixteen years old, Assisi was freed once and for all from imperial domination…” “In the period immediately preceding the birth of Francis, and even more during the years of his youth, a deep change took place in the social classes, even in Assisi…There were now two powers struggling, two groups whose pride was hurt. The vassals envied the wealth of the ‘nouveaux-riches,’ while the latter wanted to imitate their neighbors in high positions of honor, arms, and even knighthood. “Another element played an important part in the psychological development and orientation of the young Francis, the knightly element or ‘chivalry’ remained within the saint. “It was November of 1202, and Francis was twenty years old.The Assisians, convinced they were able to win [the war against Perugia] prepared with all the means at their disposal and with great enthusiasm.

Cell where Francis’ father incarcerated Francis in an attempt to “control” him.

Francis, young, rather rich, and a great belief in the cause of the weak against the mighty, was among the most enthusiastic of all. The skirmish took place at Collestrada, where from dawn to dusk the battle raged, waned, and gained momentum. The Perugians, stronger in the long run, won. Francis, wounded, found himself among the prisoners.”

“In those days a prison was really a prison –for the most part caves dug in the basement of a large municipal palace. They were dark and damp, the prisoners had little more than bread and water. “For Francis this was his first encounter with a reality far different from his youthful dreams of pleasure and glory, and the beginning of a long and profound crisis. If it had not been for the defeat at Collestrada, perhaps we would never have had a Francis of Assisi. “Francis could keenly feel that something had betrayed him. Money, more and more money. Yet, what advantages had it given him? Beautiful clothes, the latest styles, friendship, affirmation in leading the youth of Assisi, organizing dinners and entertainment. Yet, what had he gained? Where were his friends now?”

Francis’ Conversion Process

The steps of Francis’ conversion leading up to the official approval by Pope Innocent III of his request to live, with his brothers, the life of a penitent, are listed here. The topics are addressed briefly in following paragraphs.
     • Francis’ “Servant or Master Dream” in Spoleto – 1205
     • Pilgrimage to Rome –Changing Clothes with a Beggar– Spring 1206
     • Embracing the Leper – Early 1206
     • San Damiano – Giving Money to Priest – 1206
     • Scene Before Mayor and Bishop Rejecting Money and Clothing – 1206
     • Francis is Called to Rebuild San Damiano – 1206
     • Francis left for Rome for Pope’s Approval of His Way of Life –      1209
     • Francis Preached the Kingdom of God

Francis’ “Master or Servant” Dream in Spoleto

Francis dreaming bAfter Francis’ return home from prison in Perugia, he still embraced his visions of winning glory by returning to the battlefield. Count Walter of Brienne, a “folk” hero in his time, was recruiting soldiers for a campaign in Sicily. On the way, Francis fell ill at the town of Spoleto. There he had a vision: a voice demanded of Francis where he intended to go: “’Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?’ Francis answered: ‘The Master.’ The voice questioned further, ‘Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?’ Francis replied in the same words of St. Paul on the road to Damascus: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ He received the same answer that Saul did: ‘Return to your own place, and you will be told what to do.’ (Acts 9:6-7).”

webpage 2

Pilgrimage to Rome –

Changing Clothes with a Beggar

“In the Spring of 1206, Francis joined a group of pilgrims for a visit to the basilica of the
apostles. In front of St. Peter’s there was a multitude of poor people, clinging to the gates
where the pilgrims passed. They implored, cried out, and held out their hands. The pilgrim from Assisi asked himself, ‘What is it like to be really poor?’ He traded clothes with the beggar and joined the others in front of the basilica, begging in the Provincial language…It left him with a vivid emotional impression and experience of fraternity, he took that impression with him back to Assisi.” 

Embracing the Leper  webpage 15

“One day, as Francis rode along the plains of Assisi, caught up in his own thoughts, his horse suddenly reared. Francis looked up and was struck with terror. A leper stood before him, staring at him. Francis’ first impulse was to throw him a coin and flee, but this was impossible – what he now was, or was becoming, stopped him from doing this. He slowly dismounted; went toward the leper, and let some coins fall into that disfigured, out stretched hand. He felt in some mysterious way that he himself was alone transformed into that suffering mortal; and in that transformation he understood the essence of Christianity: God is in every person. Alms could never be enough. “Francis reverently kissed the leper as one kisses a sacred object. Even on his deathbed he recalled the transforming effect of that encounter: ‘that which seemed bitter to me was changed to sweetness of the soul and body.’”

San Damiano – Giving Money to Priest

“The decision [to become a penitent] was actually put into practice on the way home from a business trip to Foligno where as usual he sold everything he had with him and, successful as a merchant, he left behind even the horse he was riding. He stopped at San Damiano and told the ‘poor priest’ of his decision. He offered him money he had with him, telling him what he proposed to do. The priest was astonished and, wondering over a conversion so incredibly sudden, refused to believe what he heard. And because he thought he was being deceived, he refused to keep the money offered him. For he had seen him just the day before, so to say, living in a riotous way among his relatives and acquaintances and showing greater foolishness than the rest. But Francis persisted obstinately and tried to gain credence for what he said asking earnestly and begging the priest to suffer him to remain with him for the sake of the Lord. In the end the priest acquiesced to his remaining there. Francis asked and obtained permission to be accepted at San Damiano as a conversus, thus becoming an oblatus or donatus or conversus, an official form of penitent…”

Scene Before Mayor and Bishop – Rejecting Money and Clothing

“[Francis’ father, Pietro de Bernardone], exhausting all his efforts to convince his son to
return home, turned to the civil authority [making use of his political position] accused his son of rebellion and dissipation. The statutes of the commune of Assisi punished any one found guilty of such an offence with banishment from the city…The civil authorities did not want to press the issue and said to Pietro that ‘as Francis had entered the service of almighty God, he was no longer their subject.’” “…Francis, resolute, bade farewell to all, publicly, before his father Pietro di Bernatone and Guido, the bishop of Assisi…webpage 4the bishop before asking Francis to give back the money to his father, advised him to think about the fact that this was the condition necessary for him to become a conversus: ‘If you really want to consecrate yourself to the Lord, you must give back the money you have…Francis replied…‘Since I have decided to dedicate myself to the service of the Lord…I shall give him back not only money…but also the clothes.’ “Francis left the scene of the renunciation, officially recognized as a penitent by the bishop of Assisi and, as a penitent, he will permanently reside at San Damiano.”

Francis is Called to Rebuild San Damiano

“One summer day, in 1206, Francis was walking in the vicinity of San Damiano when he
felt an interior tug of the Spirit to go inside to pray. Obeying the inner voice, Francis entered and fell on his knees before the familiar icon [the San Damiano Crucifix], his own spirit alert to what the Lord might wish to convey. webpage 7“In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the crucified Lord, and prayed this prayer: ‘Most High, glorious God,’ he prayed, ‘cast your light into the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility, with wisdom and perception, so that I may carry out what is truly Your holy will. Amen.’ Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer, lost in devotion and wonder before the image of his crucified Lord. “Then, in the quietness, Francis heard Jesus speaking to him from the Cross: ‘Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruin.’” So, in obedience, Francis proceeded to follow Jesus’ word, literally.
“While restoring the church at San Damiano, Francis led an eremitical penitential life, for two years. Until the work of restoring the church at San Damiano was completed, blessed Francis still wore the garment of a hermit with a strap to serve as a belt, and he carried a staff and had sandals on his feet…Two years after his conversion, several men were drawn to follow his example of penance, and they left everything in order to join him.” After these two years, Francis was brought to the decision to not be not only a solitary penitent, but also an apostle…A factor of primary importance in this period of Francis’ maturation and planning of future action was the closeness to Bishop Guido, who counseled him on the steps he should take.” “We believe that the closeness, guidance, and advice of Bishop Guido were essential elements of the success of Francis’ work with the penitential movement or ‘Third Order’ which took its name from him as well as the ‘Order of Friars Minor’ and that of the ‘Poor Ladies.’”

Francis’ Approval by Innocent III and Pope Innocent’s Dream

Francis left for Rome with his companions for Pope’s approval of his way of life. Pope Innocent III was wise to see the benefit to the Church of the penitential movement; he, of course, was harsh in dealing with those heterodoxy elements movement. Knowing webpage 11this, Bishop Guido was easily able to guide Francis among the rocks which had destroyed many of his predecessors in the penitential movement. A good part of the success of the young man from Assisi can probably be attributed to the wise advice of the bishop of Assisi. “When, only two years later, in the spring of 1210 [many historians believe it was 1209], Francis and his companions went to the Lateran, asking the pope for approval of their ‘fraternity of itinerant preachers,’ based on poverty, but also on the two pillars of a ‘complete adherence to the Church’ and ‘obedience to the hierarchy,’ Innocent III, assured of their ‘fidelity’ either directly or through Cardinal John of St. Paul, had little or no hesitation to give them permission to ‘preach penance to all.’” “At his first meeting with Francis, Innocent III was perplexed at receiving the request to approve Francis’ way of life. In Vita Seconda … Celano states that the following night the pope dreamed that the Lateran basilica was beginning to fall when a tiny, scraggly religious held it up with his shoulder so that it did not fall. He recognized in that ‘religious’ the man whom he had sent away the previous evening and, as a result of this dream, he immediately ‘granted the request’”

Preaching AFrancis Preached the Kingdom of God

Francis “went about towns and villages announcing the Kingdom of God, preaching peace, teaching salvation and penance unto the remission of sins … He acted boldly in all things because of the apostolic authority granted to him, using no words of flattery nor seductive blandishments. Men and women, clerics and religious hastened to see and to hear the holy man of God who seemed to all to be a man of another world.”

The Story Continues . . .

Francis’ life continued well after receiving approval from Pope Innocent III – in fact, most of what Francis is “famously” known for happened in his later years of life. He founded three religious orders, created prayers, and songs and ways of finding joy in the world and ultimately in God, and he showed that a person can become intimately in love with God to a point of physical expression (the stigmata). Many of these are covered elsewhere on this website – use these links to continue reading about Francis and his life:

Life of Saint Francis


Testament link graphic


 Some LinksThe Lesser Brothers (the friars minor)

 St. Clare and her sisters (the poor Clares)

 Brothers and Sisters of Penance (the secular Franciscans)

 History of Our Rule of Life

 The Nativity Creche-Christmas Manger


 The Peace Prayer of Saint FrancisPraying with Francis

The Canticle of the Creatures

The Blessing of Saint Francis

Prayer Before the (San Damiano) Crucifix

The Praises of God

The Meditation Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi





~ Material for this page from “A Brief History of the Secular Franciscan Order and  its Rules” by William Wicks, OFS. Please consult this publication for complete citations and references (left out of this text for brevity).