Francis was born in Assisi in 1182 and baptised Giovanni, but his father, Pietro di Bernardone, a merchant dealing in French cloth, nicknamed him Francesco, or “the Frenchman”. Child of a wealthy family, Francis was well-educated and carefree in youth. The Franciscan Sources describe him as lighthearted and fun-loving, though not superficial, generous and sensitive, though an attention-seeker. He had big dreams regarding his future, encouraged by his ambitious father and a number of auspicious omens, including a poor man who, forseeing the saint’s future greatness, would lay his cloak before the feet of Francis each time they met.
At twenty years of age, Francis was captured during battle at Collestrada by the Perugian troops and held as a prisoner of war for a year, during which time he began his conversion. Upon his return to Assisi, he succumbed to a lengthy and mysterious illness and, upon recovering, was a changed man. Often seeking solitude in the quiet countryside around Assisi, he continued dealing cloth and socializing, but was restless. In 1204, he joined forces with a battalion leaving for a military campaign in Puglia, but the adventure was short-lived. In Spoleto, following a dream, he abandoned his horse and arms to return to Assisi, to the bafflement of his family and the derision of his neighbors.
A year later, the embrace of a leper produced an unexpected joy in Francis and, soon after, a rood cross hanging in a decrepit country chapel miraculously commanded him to “go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin” (FF 593). He began rebuilding the chapel and surrounding himself with the poor and lepers, investing both his energy and the wealth of his family’s business. Francis’ father, who had until now tolerated his son’s eccentricities, lost his patience, first locking Francis inside the house and then dragging his son in front of Assisi’s Bishop. It was here that in January (or February) of 1206 that Francis publicly stripped himself of his clothing—thus symbolically cutting his family ties–declaring “from now on I will say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘Father Pietro di Bernardone.’” (FF 597)
After a brief period of solitude, Francis garnered his first followers and settled at the “tugurio”, a rough hut, in Rivotorto. In spring of 1209, Francis wrote a simple Rule (now lost) and traveled to Rome to present it to the Pope. Innocent III, moved by a vision in which he saw the collapsing Lateran Basilica held up by the young monk, granted his approval and invested Francis with the task of “preaching penitance to all”. In 1212, the rapidly growing Franciscan brotherhood moved to the Porziuncola near Assisi. During this time Claire, a young noblewoman from Assisi, became a follower of Francis and settled at San Damiano. The following years brought a rapid expansion of the Franciscan Order, following a number of sermons in Italian and European cities attended by vast numbers of men and women inspired to emulate the humble monk. Francis, who wished to spread the Gospel across the globe, undertook a series of journeys to non-Christian lands; in 1211 his travels were interrupted by a shipwreck in Dalmatia, and, in 1214, by an illness in Spain.
In 1219, he finally reached Egypt, where he famously met with the sultan Melek-el-Kamil, and afterwards continued on to the Holy Land.
Upon returning to Italy, Francis stepped down as leader of the brotherhood. On November 29, 1223, Pope Honorius III approved the Franciscan Rule, which sanctioned the formation of the Order of Friars Minor. Almost blind, Francis retreated to the hermitage at La Verna in 1224, where he received the stigmata. He died at the Porziuncola on October 3, 1226 and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on July 16, 1228
Franciscan “Ways” and “Sites”
Contrary to the traditional stabilitas of monks, the mendicant orders established between the XII and XIII centuries were characterized by a strong inclination towards travel as a means to spread the Gospel. The Franciscan Order was no exception; Francis and his brothers moved incessantly–through cities and hamlets to preach the Word, but also across mountains and forests in search of isolated places to retreat in prayer and penitance. Outside Umbria and its environs, the Saint from Assisi undertook three long journeys in partibus infidelium: in the first (1211; cf. FF 417-418), he reached Damatia and in the second (1214; cf. FF 368; 1830), Spain (probably visiting Santiago de Compostela).
Only during the third journey would he finally reach the Orient (1219; cf. FF 1172-1174). Francis’ travels retraced the primary land and sea routes and passed through the most important cities of his time. Many Franciscan settlements, which Francis called “luoghi”—or sites–to underline their simplicity and small size (cf. FF 1561-1563), were established on the outskirts of cities, strategically near both the poor and a large populace to whom the brothers could preach and beg for alms. Over the centuries, many of these primitive settlements grew to become important convents, including churches and buildings rich in art. Other “luoghi”, however, were established in isolated spots in forests or on hilltops suitable for prayer, contemplation, and penitance.
Francis, himself, retreated to one of these hermitages, abandoning his mendicant life of preaching for a period of solitude, despite the protests of his contemporaries Saint Rufinus and Saint Claire, who insisted that his divine purpose was not a life of contemplation (cf. FF 1845). These peaceful convents, which are numerous along the route of Saint Francis’ Way, remain compelling symbols of Franciscan simplicity, with their rough architecture both perfectly in harmony with the natural surroundings and with the search for God which begins with the minute. Not merely historic relics, however, these hermitages are where passing pilgrims can still find modern disciples of Francis, men and women who are following in his footsteps and embracing the virtues of poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity towards their fellow man. Here travelers can share living quarters and experience the Franciscan rhythm of prayer and of life which only enhances the profound significance—both as humans and as Christians—of their journey along Saint Francis’ Way.
This journey of pilgrimage looks not only toward the past, but at the present and into the future as it unfolds along a living, breathing route where the humble saint still speaks to the soul.