Saint Francis of Assisi was one of the great saints of the Middle Ages, the founder of the Franciscan order, and the namesake of Pope Francis.
Born the son of a merchant in the hilltop town of Assis in Italy, Francis grew up with the benefits of wealth. In his early twenties, he participated as a knight in some of minor wars that were frequently fought between different Italian cities. However, after a period as a prisoner of war in which he suffered a protracted illness, he experienced a vision in which he was called to follow Christ and to give up worldly possessions. After this, he spent much time in prayer in the small chapel of San Damiano, which contained a crucifix icon. One day, while in prayer, he heard Christ speak to him from the icon saying, “Francis, go and repair My church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” At first, Francis took this order literally and collected money to rebuild the physical chapel in which he had heard the voice. But later he realized that he was being called to rebuild the whole Church, not just one building.
Francis gained follows as he lived in poverty and cared for and preached to the poor. Francis wrote a monastic rule for the order, and in 1210 the pope recognized the order as the Friars Minor or “little brothers”, which remains their official name today although they are often called the Franciscans after their founder.
Francis traveled widely and was known for caring for the most marginalized in society (such as those suffering from diseases such as leprosy), for his love of nature (in one famous story he converted a wolf who had been terrorizing a town) and for his efforts to promote peace. During fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, Francis traveled to Egypt and personally preached to the Sultan in hopes of converting him and bringing an end to the war. On September 13, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis had a vision of a seraph, a six-winged angel, and the Cross, from which he received the stigmata: the wounds of Christ. St. Francis carried these wounds in his hands, feet, and side for the remaining two years of his life. He was proclaimed a saint a mere two years after his death, and is feast day is on October 4th.
In this icon, Francis is shown holding the San Damiano cross from which he heard the voice of Christ. Above his shoulder is the seraph from his vision of the Cross, and on his hands and side we can see the stigmata. He also holds a scroll in his hand with the words, “For it is in giving that we receive.” These words are from the St. Francis Prayer, which although not written by the saint reflects his spirituality and is often said in his honor:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
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