Francis of Assisi (Bernardone, Giovanni Franceso)
b Assisi, central Italy, 1182; d Assisi 1226. Brought up in comparative luxury, he pursued pleasure as a youth but at 20 was imprisoned during a local war. Serious illness made him rethink his lifestyle, but by 1205 several factors had combined to change his life. A vision at Spoleto interrupted his further military plans; back at Assisi he met a man suffering from leprosy; and reported hearing a voice from the cross in the ruined church of San Damiano, telling him to rebuild it, which he did with the help of friends and adherents. He left his family, vowed lifelong poverty, and began a ministry to poor and sick people which included a pilgrimage to Rome, 1207. In 1209 he drew up a simple rule for his ‘brothers’, sending them to preach, work, beg, and always be joyful—founding what became the rapidly-growing Franciscan order. In at least one notable sermon, and perhaps others, he addressed ‘Angels, men, and demons…’. Plans for a mission to Syrian Muslims were thwarted by shipwreck and illness, and after healing rifts among his followers but failing to halt what he saw as worldly compromises he eventually withdrew from formal religious activity, retaining only his love of the natural world and its wild creatures. His life of prayer, meditation and singing was marked by increased pain and blindness, notably in his final 2 years. Part of that time he spent in a small solitary hut, but not finding any cure, he was carried back to Assisi to die. In spite of his many troubles, such joy kept breaking through that he was dubbed ‘joculator Dei’—God’s joker. Francis’s first (and second) biographer, in rhythmical Lat prose, was his younger friend and follower Thomas of Celano (c1190–1260) who may also have written hymns and produced two ‘lives’ in 1228 and 1246–47, both at the insistence of other friends. It must be regretted that in the Roman veneration of such a remarkable man, some of the historic and human facts have been overlaid with pious legend. No.203.