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Saint Francis of Assisi: The Playboy Who Became a Beloved Saint

He was more than just a nature lover

St. Francis of Assisi (Image: Uffizi Galleries)


In what can only be considered a serendipitous moment, today’s installment of Three Minutes With the Saints falls on the feast day of perhaps the most beloved saint of all time: St. Francis of Assisi. After the Virgin Mary, no saint is as revered not just by Christians, but by people of other faiths and of no faith (albeit for very different reasons). Given his popularity, it is hard to believe it took nearly 800 years for a pope to take the name Francis.

Francis de Bernardone was born in Assisi, Italy (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1181 or 1182 (the records are not certain) to a wealthy cloth merchant. He spent his youth enjoying the benefits of that wealth, carousing with friends at parties and festivals (he was nicknamed “the King of the Revels”) and generally living the life of a spoiled playboy. In 1202 war broke out between Assisi and the rival city of Perugia, and Francis joined the militia both out of civic duty and in hopes of military glory. The forces of Assisi were completely routed, and Francis was taken prisoner and held in a dungeon for a year before his father raised the ransom demanded for his release.

He returned to Assisi with an understandably transformed outlook on life, and he began to spend more time in prayer and solitude. His transformation was solidified by two events. The first was when he met a leper on the road and, rather than being repulsed by the man, recognized Christ in him and embraced the poor man as he never would have in the past. From that point he began to visit lepers and hospitals.

The final pivotal moment came at the crumbling chapel of San Damiano. While praying before the crucifix, he asked God what he should do with his life. The answer he received, as clear as if it had been spoken by someone next to him, was: “Francis, go and rebuild my Church which, as you see, is falling down.” Being a typical guy, he took this literally and repaired the chapel, as well as other churches in the area in need of repair. It took him a bit more time and prayer to understand that the call was to help rebuild the faith of the people of the Church, a faith in serious danger of collapse.

From that point forward he renounced all his worldly possessions, lived alone, and focused on prayer, preaching, and helping the poor and sick. Soon others joined him, attracted by his simple and holy way of life, and though he never intended to found a religious order, ultimately founded three: the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order Franciscans. These orders exist to the present day.

During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, he traveled to Egypt in an attempt to convert Sultan Malik al-Kamil to Christianity, without success. He also created two of the most popular Christian devotions, one for each of the two most important liturgical seasons: the Nativity scene at Christmas and the Stations of the Cross for Lent. Through it all, he never lost sight of who deserved credit for his accomplishments. He said: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”

Numerous groups have tried to lay claim to him over the centuries, seeing him as something of a modern-day eco-warrior, peace activist hippie. He was none of these, at least in the way we understand them today. He did seek peace because he had lived through war. He cared about nature and animals because they were part of God’s creation. He was an orthodox believer who recognized both the authority of the Church and the need for positive reforms. Above all he loved the Eucharist, so much so that he considered himself unworthy to become a priest and celebrate the Mass. He only ever allowed himself to be ordained a deacon.

Francis died on October 3, 1226, at the age of 44. He was canonized on July 16, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX, less than two years after his death; his feast day is October 4. He is the patron saint of animals, ecology, and merchants. Along with St. Catherine of Siena he is the co-patron saint of Italy. He was a man who truly practiced what he preached, living his life in imitation of Christ to a degree that still inspires people eight centuries later. It’s hard to imagine a better legacy than that.


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