Francis of Assisi was a literal man. On several notable occasions he took the words of the gospel, or visions, as his verbatim instruction. The gospel for his feast, (Luke 9:1-6) is an example. Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.


Francis was born around 1181 and grew up in a well-to-do family, in Assisi, Italy, the son of a prosperous silk merchant. As a youth he enjoyed parties and sports. He was handsome, appreciated fine clothes and spent money lavishly.  He also seemed to lack a firm grasp on reality. When he was about 20 he joined a military expedition against a neighbouring region. It was more of a whim and an adventure than something to which he was deeply committed, until he was captured and spent a year in prison. After being ransomed he resumed partying and sports then signed up for the fourth Crusade to the Holy Land…complete with a custom made suit of armor decorated with gold. 

However, en route to join the force he had a vision and returned to Assisi where he seemed to lose interest in his former lifestyle. He abandoned his carefree ways and made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he took the words of this morning’s gospel literally: Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. He slept in the streets with beggars and prayed for spiritual enlightenment 

After visiting Rome he went to remote locations and spent time in prayer. He had another vision of Christ in a dilapidated country chapel of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, in which the icon of Christ Crucified said to him, "Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." He took this literally, referring to the ruined church in which he was praying, and so he sold some cloth from his father's store and gave the money to the priest so he could pay for the repairs. (He later came to understand the vision as referring figuratively to the whole church in which bishops, cardinals and the pope rivalled princes and kings in their wealth and grandeur… and in many cases debauchery.) 

To avoid his father's anger for selling the cloth and giving away the money, Francis hid in a cave near San Damiano for about a month. When he returned to town, hungry and dirty, his father dragged him home, beat, bound, and locked him in a small storeroom. Freed by his mother, Francis returned to San Damiano and renounced his inheritance. Some accounts report that he stripped himself naked in token of this renunciation, and the local bishop covered him with his own cloak.

In the following months, Francis wandered as a beggar in the hills behind Assisi or worked at a nearby monastery as a menial kitchen servant. Returning to Assisi, he carried stones to the St. Damiano chapel which he rebuilt over time. He also took to nursing lepers near Assisi.

In February 1208, Francis was attending a Mass in which the gospel was the "Commissioning of the Twelve" from Matthew 28:5-13. In the gospel, the risen Christ tells his disciples to go and proclaim the Kingdom. Once again, taking the gospel literally, Francis obtained a coarse woolen tunic, typical garb of the poorest peasants, knotted a rope around it and went about exhorting the people of the countryside to penance, brotherly love, and peace. (Francis's preaching to ordinary people was unusual as preaching was regarded, exclusively, as a priestly role.)

Nonetheless, his example attracted others. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. They lived a simple life in a deserted home for lepers near Assisi. Again, taking the gospel literally, Francis and his companions went out to preach two by two, impressing their listeners by their earnest words and ways.

In 1209 he composed a simple rule for his followers (friars). The rule was "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps". He led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. 

The Pope agreed to meet Francis and gave the group provisional status in the church, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. Though a number of the pope's advisors considered Francis’s proposed order as too harsh, unsafe and impractical, the pope endorsed it. 

From then on, the new order grew quickly with new vocations. Hearing Francis preaching in the church of San Rufino in Assisi in 1211, a young noblewoman, Clare of Assisi. sought to live like Francis and left her family's palace. Francis received her and established the Order of Poor Ladies Other young women joined her. He established them near the church of San Damiano, in a few small huts. This became the first monastery of the Second Franciscan Order, now known as Poor Clares.

In 1224, while he was praying on the mountain of Verna, during a forty-day fast in preparation for the feast of St. Michael (29 September), Francis had a vision as a result of which he received the stigmata (the wounds of Jesus in his hands, feet and side resulting from his crucifixion). 

He died two years later, on the evening of Saturday, 3 October 1226, singing Psalm 141 that begins, I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me. Francis set out to imitate Christ and literally carry out his work.  


Francis’s love of creation was a mirror image of his devotion to poverty. He took Matthew 6:28 literally, too: why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. He saw the richness and beauty of creation as being all that he needed. He also believed that nature told a story of God. He called all creatures his "brothers" and "sisters", and even preached to the birds and supposedly persuaded a wolf in Gubbio to stop attacking some locals if they agreed to feed it. 

Francis preached that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of human sin. As someone who saw God reflected in nature, In his poetic Canticle of the Sun he gives God thanks for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth, all of which he sees as praising God.

A collection of legends and folklore sprang up after his death. One account describes how, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis then went to preach to my sisters the birds. The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and unafraid of him. (He is often portrayed with a bird in his hand.)

On 29 November 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Francis the patron saint of ecology. John Paul II said that Francis' love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Christians to care for the environment so that those who succeed us can continue to enjoy it and to see in creation the honor and praise for the Lord. 

When cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope, he chose Francis as his papal name in honor of Francis of Assisi, becoming Pope Francis. He said that he had chosen the name because he was especially concerned for the well-being of the poor.


On a personal note, I notice that Francis was never ordained a priest, although he was ordained a deacon late in life.


  • Which part of Francis’s life do you find most notable? His turning away from wealth? The acceptance of his order by the pope? His love of nature, which could be harsh as well as beautiful? His stigmata?
  • What part of the gospels do you find hardest to take literally? What part of the gospels do you find are almost within reach of taking literally? 
  • Franco Zeffirelli’s lushly filmed movie of Francis’s life called “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)  with music by Donovan is a delightful entertainment if you can find it.