The Roman Catholic Church has its first Pope Francis, who has taken his name from one of the most recognized and beloved of Catholic saints, Francis of Assisi.
Statues of Saint Francis, in hooded robe with beard and the crown of his head shaved in a monk’s tonsure, usually with woodland creatures nestling at his feet or in his arms and birds on his shoulders, grace many gardens.
He is probably best known as the patron saint of animals, and Catholics and non-Catholics alike often bring their pets to be blessed at ceremonies around Francis’ annual feast day on Oct. 4.
But beyond garden statues and animals, many people know very little about the life of the saint after whom the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina – not a member of the Franciscan Order, but a Jesuit priest from the Society of Jesus – has named himself.
Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1181, to wealthy cloth merchant Pietro Bernardone and his wife, Pica, while Pietro was away. Upon returning, he was irritated to learn his wife had named the baby boy Giovanni, after John the Baptist. A lover of all things French, Pietro changed his son’s name to Francesco, or Francis, in English.
Young Francis was reportedly handsome, charming, witty, and a natural leader. Indulged and given great freedom, he showed little interest in becoming a merchant but very much enjoyed spending the money his father’s business generated on fine clothes and entertainment.
A biographer and friend, Thomas of Celano, said of young Francis, “In other respects an exquisite youth, he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.”
Francis did fulfill one of his father’s ambitions by enjoying all things French, especially the songs of traveling French troubadours.
Francis longed for the glory of battle, and about the age of 20, he joined in a petty skirmish against people of the rival city of Perugia. Taken prisoner, Francis spent more than a year in captivity, suffering a fever during that time. The long illness began to make him reconsider his spiritually empty life of pleasure.
But eventually he was ransomed, and as his health returned, so did his eagerness for military renown. As he prepared to head out to battle, Francis had a series of dreams that began to change his outlook, including one that told him to return to Assisi, which he did.
Not long after that, Francis was praying before an old crucifix in a forgotten chapel to St. Damian (twin brother of Saint Cosmas, both doctors reputed to have been born in Arabia) near Assisi, when he heard a voice from the crucifix, saying, “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
Francis interpreted this to mean the chapel itself, which he did rebuild, one stone at a time. He initially financed this by selling fabric taken from his father’s shop, which caused the angry parent to drag Francis before the local bishop, demanding that he return the money and renounce his inheritance.
The bishop urged Francis to give the money back, telling him that the Lord would provide the necessary funds. Inspired by the bishop’s words, Francis stripped off all his clothes down to his hair shirt, renounced Pietro Benardone as his father and gave himself over to God.
While rebuilding the chapel of St. Damian, Francis came to realize that his true task was to rebuild the larger Church, beginning with a personal quest to live out the Gospels, especially Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. He slept in the open, depended on the kindness of others for food, and displayed a radical devotion to the poor and to the ideas of charity, forgiveness, and love.
Francis is reported to have kissed the hands of a priest who was living openly with a woman, since, however the cleric had disgraced himself personally, the hands had still consecrated the Eucharist. Francis is also known to have kissed a leper, an experience which changed him profoundly.
Just before Easter 2001, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis traveled to a hospice, where he washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients, as part of a Holy Week commemoration of Jesus doing the same for his disciples. In 2008, Francis repeated the process, with 12 recovering drug addicts at a rehab center.
The new pontiff is also known for rejecting the trapping of his office, living in a small apartment in Buenos Aires, taking the bus and cooking meals for himself and a handicapped Jesuit that lived with him.
And despite the doctrinal drift sometimes seen among modern Jesuits, Pope Francis appears to be orthodox in his views on faith and morals. With a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, he does seem to blend the Jesuit devotion to science and education with a Franciscan sense of personal holiness, humility, and devotion to the downtrodden.
Unlike Pope Francis, Saint Francis never became a priest – but was eventually ordained a deacon – and never wanted to found a religious order. But when so many began to follow him, he set up a rule that the brothers should own nothing, give everything beyond basic necessities to the poor, and live in humility and chastity.
But Francis didn’t just attract men to his way of life. One of his followers was Clare, a young heiress and noblewoman of Assisi, who abandoned her family at 18 on the night after Palm Sunday in 1212. Francis cut off her hair, dressed her in simple robes, and she went to stay with Benedictine nuns until Francis found a place for her and her pious female companions.
She eventually was installed at a house adjoining the chapel that Francis had rebuilt and became the foundress of an order of religious sisters now popularly known as the Poor Clares.
Incidentally, the foundress of the viewer-supported worldwide Catholic TV and radio network ETWN – short for Eternal Word Television Network – is Mother Angelica, a Poor Clare. Since she and her nuns are cloistered at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, AL, meaning their lives are devoted to prayer within the monastery walls, the MVFA, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, actually staff the network, conduct the televised Masses and are hosts for several of its shows.
In 1219, Francis made a pilgrimage to Syria during the Fifth Crusade. In the middle of a battle, he went to the local sultan and engaged in a three-week dialogue with him.
While no records exist of their conversation – and subsequent accounts tend to reflect the views of those writing them, whether Christian or Muslim – it is certain that Francis survived the encounter and was not martyred (as he might have expected would happen). He also reportedly admired the Muslim devotion to daily prayer and urged more piety among his followers.
Many stories exist of Francis’ rapport with animals, especially birds. As reported by Thomas of Celano, he spoke to a varied flock of birds that did not fly away at his approach, saying, “My brothers the birds, you should love your creator deeply and praise him always. He has given you feathers to wear, wings to fly with, and whatever else you need. He has made you noble among his creatures and given you a dwelling in the pure air. You neither sow nor reap, yet He nevertheless protects and governs you without any anxiety on your part.”
According to Francis and his companions, the birds seemed to like his words and allowed Francis to walk among them and touch them.
Eventually, years of poverty and travel took a toll on Francis’ health, and he became ill and began to go blind. He died on Oct. 4, 1226, at the age of 45.
But during his illness, he wrote one of his most famous prayers, the beautiful “Canticle of the Sun”:
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor And all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, And first my lord Brother Sun, Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods, By which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, So useful, lowly, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, Through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful is he, how gay! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces Various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon. For love of you; through those who endure Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace, By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, From whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those She finds doing your will! The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, And serve him with great humility.