St. Francis was born into a wealthy merchant class family in the small town of Assisi in central Italy.
Francis himself was both heroic and gracious. Although his early life was considered carefree and even frivolous, his friends remained loyal to him throughout his life. Because he loved singing the songs of the French troubadours, his friends even dubbed him the “king of song.” Francis’ father, Pietro, actually named his son after the country of France—Francesco—a nation and culture that he loved. Pietro was an industrious cloth merchant who enjoyed his son acting like a prince, and indulged the boy in everything.
Civil strife, however, ended the hapless days of Francis’ prolonged youth. Francis, who longed to be a knight, joined in a war against the neighboring city of Perugia. He was captured in battle and held as a prisoner-of-war. A year in the dampness of a dark dungeon eventually wore away at his health and his sense of purpose and meaning.
Only this I want, Only this I seek,
Only this is what I desire with all my heart!
–St. Francis of Assisi
Once ransomed from prison, Francis’ illness remained with him a long time. He wandered aimlessly through the countryside, not knowing what direction his life should take. He often knelt in a dilapidated church just outside the city walls, calledSan Damiano. He prayed fervently for a sign that would lead him out of his melancholy. And one day Francis believed that he actually heard the crucifix speak to him. The voice of Christ said, “Francis, go and repair my house, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin.”
It was not long after this event that some of Francis’ earlier companions began to join him in his ministry of service and Gospel life. Francis was creating a new kind of knighthood and a new code of honor. When the number of companions reached twelve, Francis thought it best to request formal approval from the pope. There had been too many other well intentioned and similar looking communities that had fallen into heresy. Francis desperately wanted to remain faithful to Church teachings by placing his community directly under the authority of the Holy Father. Thus, in 1209, Pope Innocent III granted an oral approval for his new way of life.
Even before Francis’ death in 1226, the men whom he called “friars minor” (lesser brothers), had scattered throughout the world. Their influence would have a far reaching effect in every aspect of society. Francis and his brothers would be a new light for a tired generation. They trusted in a better world yet to come, but worked tirelessly at improving this one as well. The friars’ joyfulness was infectious and it would indeed radiate for centuries to come.