||About Francis - preaching, prayer and penitence
Francis was born in Assisi in central Italy in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica. He was baptized Giovanni 'John' but soon gained the nickname Francesco, because of his father's close trading links with France.
Francis' early years were not especially religious. He was a leader among the young men of Assisi, enjoying a good social life, singing and partying. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, describes him as quite short, with black eyes, hair and beard; he had a long face, with a straight nose and small, upright ears. His arms were short, but his hands and fingers slender and long. He had a strong, clear, sweet voice.
Francis didn't want to follow his father into the cloth trade; he wanted to be a knight. So at the age of twenty he joined the forces of Assisi in a minor skirmish with the neighbouring city of Perugia. He was captured and spent a year in a Perugian jail, until his father ransomed him. This became the first of a series of experiences through which God called Francis to the life which he finally embraced.
One of these experiences, at San Damiano, led to a rift with his father. Francis, in response to a voice which he heard speaking to him from the crucifix in this tiny ruined church, began to rebuild churches; when he ran out of money he took cloth from his father's shop and sold it. His father disowned him before the bishop of Assisi, and Francis in his turn stripped off his clothes, returning to his father everything he had received from him, and promising that in future he would call only God his Father.
Francis now begged on the streets of Assisi for money to repair churches; and after a further experience of God's call he began also to preach. Men came to join him in his life of poverty, prayer and preaching, and he always saw them as God's gift to him, writing 'when the Lord gave me brothers'. As numbers grew the brothers spread out beyond Assisi to other parts of Italy, and then to other European countries, including England. Before Francis' death brothers had travelled to North Africa, where the first Franciscan martyrs died in Morocco in 1220. Francis himself travelled to the Holy Land, and met the Sultan of Egypt, a meeting which has become a template for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, especially among Franciscans of today.
Francis first wrote a very brief Rule 'a way of life' for his brothers in 1209, and this was approved by the Church. It was superseded in 1223 by a fuller Rule, which has continued to shape the lives of Franciscan brothers over the centuries.
Francis spent most of his life on the move, though he also took time away from preaching for times of withdrawal for prayer. It was during one of these times of retreat that he received the stigmata - the marks of the crucified Christ in his own body. For the final two years of his life he suffered constant pain. He died in 1226, and as he died blessed his beloved city of Assisi. He was buried in what became the great Basilica of St Francis, and declared a saint by the church in 1228.