October 3rd 1226 - St. Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint of ecologists. He was awarded this title to honour his incredible love for nature and in particular, for animals. Canonised two years after his death by Pope Gregory IX no one could have guessed that this merchant's son could have grown into a man whose life still inspires millions of people around the world.
Francis De Bernardorne was born around 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing and spent his youth learning the skills of horsemanship and archery, dreaming of becoming a knight. He left school at 14 and became a rebellious teenager who often broke the city curfew and spent his time partying, drinking and indulging in the finest foods. Well known around the city of Assisi for his rebellious ways Francis was, by all accounts, quite a vain, although charismatic, man. It was hoped by the family that Francis would follow his father into the textile business but he found the idea of a life in the cloth trade to be very dull and would not contemplate becoming a merchant.
In 1202 war broke out between Assisi and nearby Perugia and Francis finally realised his wish to become a soldier. He joined the cavalry and went to war, excited at the prospect and having no idea that the path he was about to follow would change his life forever.
Francis was relatively unskilled as a soldier and had no experience in combat. The army of Assisi came under heavy attack from the Perugian soldiers who greatly outnumbered them. The enemy did not take long to win the battle and they put to death any Assisi troops that were still alive. Francis and other soldiers were saved as their expensive armour and aristocratic attire gave them away as being born into wealth and they were deemed worthy of saving in order to obtain a ransom.
Thrown into a dank prison cell where he remained for almost a year, ransom negotiations were taking place between the Perugians and Francis' father. Eventually released from prison in 1203 after his father agreed a sum he was soon to become extremely ill. Possibly as a result of the conditions he had been endured he was confined to his bed for several months. It was during this time, Francis later confided, that he began having the visions that were to become the start of his spiritual conversion. Scholars have long debated that these visions could have been hallucinations caused by Francis's grave illness but Francis always maintained that the visions were messages from God. Whatever the truth, they set Francis on the spiritual journey that would alter his life.
When Francis had recovered and was feeling stronger he decided he wanted to enlist in another military engagement, much to the chagrin of his family who realised that he was not experienced enough for warfare and would be captured again or killed. Undeterred he bought a new suit of armour and an expensive mantel and set off to re-join the Assisi army who were engaged in battle in Apulia.
On the road to war Francis had a dream where God spoke to him and asked him who could do more, the master or the servant. Francis read this dream as a sign that he had been serving the servant and this was not the life that he was destined for. He needed to change the path of his life and abandon his dreams of becoming a knight.
Thus he returned to Assisi determined to give up his luxuries, his expensive belongings and the entrapments of his wealthy upbringing and surrender his life to looking after the poor and sick of his community.
On returning he was, one day, riding in the countryside when he happened upon a leper. Francis jumped down from his horse and embraced him, something he never would have contemplated before. As he rode away he described the feeling he had as indescribable freedom. The experience clarified to Francis that he needed to follow this new path of poverty and caring, wherever it may lead.
Now in his early twenties he was spending his time in churches around Assisi praying to God and helping the lepers. He was looking for answers and for a clear description of what he must do. Whilst praying in a church in San Damiano he believed he had his answer. He heard the voice of God who told him that he must live a life of extreme poverty and also that he must preach the word of God.
Francis sold a bolt of cloth from his father’s shop in order to help fund the rebuilding of the Christian church but his father was furious when he found out. Francis was dragged to the local bishop who told him that he must return the money to his father. Francis stripped off his clothing and handed the money and his clothes to his father proclaiming that God was now the only father he recognised. It is thought that Francis and his father did not speak again.
He left Assisi in a rough tunic that the bishop had given him to cover his nakedness. This tunic later became the trademark clothing of the Franciscans.
He was a charismatic preacher and as he travelled around preaching the ideals of the gospels and the necessity of a poor and simple lifestyle he attracted followers, first a small group but as time went on and word of Francis' preaching grew the followers soon numbered thousands.
Part of the appeal was that his ideas were extremely radical for their time. The church was tremendously rich as were the church leaders, and Francis' embrace of poverty was new and appealing. By now he was preaching in up to five villages a day and would even preach to animals. This earned him some criticism but it also garnered much interest and Francis' message spread quickly and widely, entrancing followers with his simple and easy to understand message that life should be lived through the ideals preached in the gospels.
In 1210 Francis started to send out his followers all over the world to spread the message further. He called these followers 'Friars Minor or Lesser Brothers' from the Latin word 'frater' or 'brother'. This was eventually shortened and the followers became known as Friars. The Friars travelled far and wide reaching the shores of England in 1224.
In 1224 Francis was praying at a remote hillside church on Mount La Verna when he received a vision that left him with the stigmata of Christ (marks resembling the wounds that Jesus Christ suffered during his crucifixion.) These wounds would remain with Francis for the rest of his life and although opinion was divided over whether these marks actually were stigmata or the symptoms of leprosy, Francis remains the first person documented to have received these holy wounds.
Francis was 44 when he died in Assisi. The year was 1226 and by then Francis's preachings had spread throughout the world and earned him hundreds of thousands of followers. Francis had gone to his home town to die when his health began to decline rapidly. Many had predicted that a sainthood would follow his death and knights from Assisi were stationed at his bedside as he died to make sure his body would not be carried off, as the body of a saint was seen as a valuable relic that would bring glory to the town in which it rested.
Today, the preachings of St Francis of Assisi still inspire millions of Franciscans globally and the present day Pope chose to take his name. He chose to be called after St Francis because he is "the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation" Pope Francis also added "how I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor".
If only Francis could have known how far his messages of leading a simple life and of caring would travel and how, hundreds of years later they would still be listened to by so many. His famous prayer still lives on and is a stark reminder of all that he stood for.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.