Born in 1182 the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Francis was a restless and searching young adult in the year 1205. He had tried his father’s business but found the shop too confining and the profits too closed to the poor. He was the leader of Assisi’s youth and their most attractive suitor, but he yearned for a different love. He sought the glories of war, but a dream in the night told him to return home and await what God would reveal to him.
For several years Francis searched the Scriptures, talked with friends and spiritual advisors, and prayed long hours in churches, woods and caves listening to God’s call and purpose for his life. Then one day in the church of San Damiano, a chapel right outside of Assisi, he heard the invitation of Jesus: “Francis, go rebuild my Church, which you see is falling into ruins.” “Yes!” said Francis. “This is what I want, this is what I long for with all my heart.”
With that he gathered a group of brothers, gave them a few Gospel texts for their rule of life, and sent them out like the disciples of Jesus to live and announce the Good News of God’s love.
In the year 1209, after several years of preaching, Francis and eleven companions went to Rome to obtain permission for their new way of life in the Church. While Pope Innocent III worried that their poverty was too radical, the brothers prevailed upon the Holy Father simply to allow them to live the Gospel, taking “nothing for their journey” and trusting in God’s love and care for them. Thus Francis and the new community began to “poor follow the poor Christ.”
Francis named the new community the Order of Friars Minor, because he wanted them to be “lesser brothers” in their relationship to God, to one another, to the Church. They were not to be as the “majores,” the wealthy and influential ones in society, but “minores,” the servants of the rest. Thus brotherhood and minority became unique and key elements of Franciscan religious life throughout history.
From the beginning, the membership of the Order included both brothers and priests, and the works of the community were multiple and varied. Friars preached and taught, begged and did manual labor, cared for the sick brothers as well as lepers. Francis said that the brothers should do whatever work God gave them the grace to do, as long as they maintained a spirit of prayer and humility in all their activities.
The Rule of St. Francis went through several editions between 1209 and 1223, when the present Rule of the Friars Minor was approved. This document still remains the rule of life for three separate Franciscan Orders in the church: the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (O.F.M.Conv.), the Order of Friars Minor Observants (O.F.M.), and the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Cap.). The Capuchins, as well as the Observants and Conventuals, have their own “Constitutions” or spiritual guidelines to apply the Rule to its own life, spirituality and mission.
During his life Francis also assisted St. Clare of Assisi in establishing the Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano, or Poor Clares. These followers of St. Clare are cloistered sisters who live in community, poverty and contemplative prayer, fulfilling their mission of seeking prayerful union with God and interceding for the needs of the church and world. In addition, Francis began in the year 1213 a community of Secular Franciscans, formerly called the “Third Order of St. Francis.” The Secular Franciscan Order is an order of lay people, married and single, who follow the Gospel spirituality of St. Francis and support one another in faith and prayer for their everyday work and family lives in the world.
Between 1223 and his death on October 3, 1226, Francis’ body was sick and frail but his spirit soared to the heights of mystical love and union with Christ. At Christmas 1223 he celebrated the birth of Jesus in an outdoor pageant and Mass in the village of Greccio, thus giving to the Christian world ever since the Christmas crib or crêche. The following year, in September 1224, Francis while absorbed in contemplation on Mt. LaVerna received the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side. It is from these years of deep union with God and the Crucified Christ that come Francis’ most beautiful prayers, including the Praises of God and the Canticle of Brother Sun and his Testament.