Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Today, listening to a homily in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, in Portunicula, a young man named Giovanni was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty. He was to become known as Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy family of a prosperous silk merchant, this was a radical step, and wasn’t out of the blue.
Previously, he had been selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. At the conclusion of his business deals, he ran after the beggar to give him everything he had in his pockets. His friends quickly chided and mocked him for his act of charity. When he got home, his father scolded him in rage.
His conflict with his father grew as Francis tried to reorient himself. In order to avoid his father's wrath, he hid in a cave near San Damiano for about a month. When he came to town, hungry and dirty, he was dragged home by his father. He was beaten, bound, and locked in a small storeroom. After his mother freed him he returned at once to San Damiano, where he found shelter with the officiating priest, but faced legal actions from his father who wanted to force his son to pay back what he owed his father. In the midst of the legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony. Some accounts report that he stripped himself naked as a gesture of this renunciation. The Bishop covered him with his own cloak.
It’s in this context that that young Francis today made a radical commitment to a life of poverty. Having obtained a coarse woollen tunic, the clothing then worn by the poorest Umbrian peasants, he tied it around himself with a knotted rope and went forth at once exhorting the people of the countryside to penance, brotherly love, and peace. This charismatic radical drew others to him and within a year Francis had eleven followers. The brothers lived a simple life in deserted place. He composed a simple rule for his followers ("friars"), "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps", which came from verses in the Bible. They went to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to preach. The Pope told them that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official approval as a religious order. Meanwhile, to avoid accusations of heresy and as a sign that they recognised the authority of the Church, the group was tonsured.
The founding of the Franciscans is an interesting case study for institutional renewal and reform. In the centre a number of the Pope's counsellors considered the mode of life proposed by Francis as unsafe and impractical. However the Pope had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, thus the 'home church' of all Christendom). The dream led the pope to endorse Francis's Order. The Order were centred in Umbria, before expanding throughout Italy and then the world. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest, although he was later ordained a deacon. As the order grew beyond his expectations, Francis had to write a more detailed rule and found that governance of the growing order started to be beyond his capabilities, something which modern management theory refers to as ‘Founders syndrome’.
Francis handed over the governance of the Order to Brother Peter Catani but he died only five months later. In a curious sidenote on Franciscan history, when numerous miracles were attributed to the deceased brother, people started to flock to Umbria, disturbing the daily life of the Franciscans. It is said that Francis then prayed, asking Peter to stop the miracles and to obey in death as he had obeyed during his life. The reports of miracles ceased. Brother Peter was succeeded by Brother Elias as Vicar of Francis. Once Francis’ new rule had been accepted by the pope he withdrew more and more from external affairs. In this final part of his life, more intensely focused on prayer, the strange phenomenon of stigmata started to be reported.