St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most widely recognized Christians of all time and is one of the most beloved saints in the Catholic Church. His ministry was widespread, and he was responsible for founding and organizing several orders of Catholic monks and scholars that remain a powerful force in the church to this day. Many also recognize him as the patron saint of nature and animals.
About St. Francis
He was born in 1182 as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a wealthy and affluent family. He lived much of his life indulging his desires, but eventually grew to embrace a life of austerity and later full poverty. He ended up renouncing his inheritance after abuse by his father, and wandered the hills of Assist as a beggar, finding true devotion to the Church during that time.
When his father, who was a wealthy merchant, saw his son’s supposed fanaticism, he punished him and brought him before the village priest. As a sign of his genuine faith, Francis handed over the possessions he had and stripped himself naked in front of the assembly, returning everything to his father and renouncing the wealth that would have been his. The bishop, who had previously turned away a financial gift by St. Francis, took his own cloak off and gave it to him, and Francis left the assembly for the hillsides to begin his ministry.
Although he had not been authorized to do so, Francis began preaching to the poor people of the surrounding villages, gathering a small following of like-minded individuals. They dedicated themselves to a lifestyle of simplicity. They went before the Pope in 1210 and were authorized as the Order of Friars Minor, which would later become known as the Franciscan Order. He also began the Order of Poor Clares for women and the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance for laypeople who wanted to live by similar vows as the Franciscan friars. Francis later reorganized the rapidly-growing Order of Friars Minor in 1220.
Francis devoted himself to a life of poverty, foregoing any material possessions in stark contrast to his lavish lifestyle prior to his conversion. He would sleep in the open country, which lent to his close association with nature. He also took seriously the command of Christ to preach the Gospel to the whole world: he tried several times to visit other countries but was always waylaid in his attempt by external circumstances. This dedication to personal poverty is spelled out in the first rule (Regula prima) of the Franciscan order, which states that all members must “observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own and in chastity.”
During a meditation in preparation for a religious feast, Francis was reportedly given a vision of the experience of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the appearance of wounds corresponding to those Jesus received (marks on His hands, feet, and side) miraculously appeared on Francis’ body. These marks have come to be known as the stigmata. Francis died a few years later in 1226, and due to his extraordinary works and ministry, he was made a saint only two years later.
St. Francis dedicated himself to fulfilling the mission of Christ to preach the Gospel to all the world. He also has a storied reputation for being a friend to nature, leading to his becoming the patron saint of animals and nature. He saw God’s work in all mankind and all living creatures, as well as nature itself. It was said that he would stop along his travels to preach to the birds, which would stay and listen to his sermons. Because of his, Francis is often depicted in statues or artwork with a bird in his hand. One way that modern believers honor St. Francis is to bring their pets to churches on his feast day, October 4, for a special blessing from the priest.
Another popular work of St. Francis is his “Canticle to the Sun,” which shows nature itself rejoicing in the glory of God. He used the phrases “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” which have worked their way into popular vernacular. This song was adapted into English in the 20th century into the modern hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
St. Francis is also the originator of a beloved holiday practice: the Nativity scene. In the year 1223, Francis took part in a celebration of the birth of Jesus around Christmastime by recreating the scene of the manger in Bethlehem. This led to the practice of creating nativity scenes around Christmastime as a tool to visually teach the story of the birth of Christ. Such nativity scenes are often adapted to the culture creating them, leading to hundreds of different versions of the Nativity shown around the world every Christmas.
One of the most recent popes chose his papal name in honor of St. Francis. When cardinals are selected to become the next pope, they choose a new name for themselves apart from their given birth name. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was selected to become the next pope, he was reminded of Francis’ ministry to the poor and chose the name Pope Francis for himself.
St. Francis’ legacy lives on in the continued work of the Franciscan Order, one of the largest and most popular orders of Catholics priests in the world today. They maintain a vow of poverty and chastity throughout their lives as they minister to others, particularly the poor and needy. In the 20th century, the Pope also declared St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology.
St. Francis is one of the most dynamic personalities to come from the Catholic Church, and one of the most powerful examples of what a life devoted to Christ can look like. After he was converted, he dedicated his entire life to preaching and prayer, always giving away everything he gained for the good of others. His impact is still felt in the work of thousands of priests who see similar value in a lifestyle that puts aside personal wealth in favor of a more wholehearted devotion to Jesus.
St. Francis also had a peculiar and equally powerful devotion to nature, extolling its values and ensuring that keeping the natural world beautiful and recognizing its value to its Creator was a hallmark of his ministry. Images the world over show Francis in scenes of nature, making him an ideal focus of attention when considering the works that God has made.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.