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Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi, St (1182-1226), Italian mystic and preacher, who founded the Franciscans. Born in Assisi, and originally named Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, he appears to have received little formal education, though his father was a wealthy merchant. As a young man, Francis led a worldly, carefree life. Following a battle between Assisi and Perugia, he was held captive in Perugia for over a year. While imprisoned, he suffered a severe illness during which he resolved to alter his way of life. Back in Assisi in 1205, he performed charities among the lepers and began working on the restoration of dilapidated churches, reportedly in response to a vision in which the crucifix of the ruined chapel of San Damiano at Assisi ordered him to repair its house.

Francis's change of character and his expenditures for charity angered his father, who legally disinherited him. Francis then discarded his rich garments for a bishop's cloak and devoted the next three years to the care of outcasts and lepers in the woods of Mount Subasio.For his devotions on Mount Subasio, Francis restored the ruined chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In 1208, one day during Mass, he heard a call telling him to go out into the world and, according to the text of Matthew 10:5-14, to possess nothing, but to do good everywhere.

Upon returning to Assisi that same year, Francis began preaching. He gathered round him the 12 disciples who became the original brothers of his order, later called the First Order; they elected Francis superior. In 1212 he received a young, well-born nun of Assisi, Clare, into Franciscan fellowship; through her was established the Order of the Poor Ladies (the Poor Clares), later the Second Order of Franciscans. It was probably later in 1212 that Francis set out for the Holy Land, but a shipwreck forced him to return. Other difficulties prevented him from accomplishing much missionary work when he went to Spain to preach to the Moors. In 1219 he was in Egypt, where he succeeded in preaching to, but not in converting, the sultan.

Francis then went on to the Holy Land, staying there until 1220. He wished to be martyred and rejoiced upon hearing that five Franciscan friars had been killed in Morocco while carrying out their duties. On his return home he found dissension in the ranks of the friars and resigned as superior, spending the next few years in planning what became the Third Order of Franciscans, the tertiaries.

In September 1224, after 40 days of fasting, Francis was praying upon Monte Alverno when he felt pain mingled with joy, and the marks of the crucifixion of Christ, the stigmata, appeared on his body. Accounts of the appearance of these marks differ, but it seems probable that they were knobby protuberances of the flesh, resembling the heads of nails. Francis was carried back to Assisi, where his remaining years were marked by physical pain and almost total blindness. His sufferings evidently did nothing to diminish his love of God and Creation, as exhibited in his "Canticle of the Creators", supposed to have been composed at Assisi in 1225, in which the Sun and the rest of nature are praised as brothers and sisters, and the oft-depicted incident in which he preached to the sparrows. He was canonized in 1228. In 1980, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the patron saint of ecologists. In art, the emblems of St Francis are the wolf, the lamb, the fish, birds, and the stigmata. His feast day is October.