Who Is Saint Francis of Assisi?
St. Francis of Assisi gave up a life of materialism and wealth and found his purpose in Christ. Throughout his life, St. Francis preached the Gospel and shared his love of all God’s creations. Learn more facts about St. Francis of Assisi and how this saint changed the world and spread the message of Christ.
What Is St. Francis the Patron Saint Of?
A patron saint is a guiding or protecting saint of a place or person. St. Francis is one of two patron saints of Italy, alongside Catherine of Sienna. St. Francis of Assisi is well-known for his many miracles involving animals and birds and his compassion for healing critically ill and injured people. St. Francis is also the patron saint of ecology, including animals, their lives and welfare.
St. Francis had a devoted love of God and His word and mercy. His love for God was so profound that it overflowed to compassion for all His creatures, ranging from other people to birds and even predators, such as wolves. St. Francis’ noteworthy accomplishments include caring for lepers and even trying to negotiate peace between Christians and Muslims during the Fifth Crusade.
St. Francis firmly believed all God’s creatures deserved compassion, and often preached sermons to animals. He became the first-ever saint to exhibit Christ’s wounds, known as stigmata, in 1224.
St. Francis fostered bonds with all animals, but had a particularly devoted relationship and appreciation for birds. Reportedly, many birds would follow him around, listen to his sermons and even perch on his arms, shoulders and hands. Since birds symbolize growth and spiritual freedom, many people believe the miracle of birds listening to St. Francis’ sermon was a sign from God encouraging St. Francis to continue his work sharing the Gospel of Christ.
Francis of Assisi: Early Life
Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 in Assisi, a duchy of Spoleto, Italy. Francis was the son of Pietro di Bernardrone, a wealthy cloth merchant, and lady Pica, believed to be French. During Francis’ birth, his father was in France on a business trip. His mother had the infant baptized Giovanni, but when Pietro returned, he had the baby’s name changed to Francesco — either in honor of his wife’s French roots or his unique interest in France.
Since Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant, he lived a privileged life and learned to write and read Latin at a school near the church of San Grigio. He also learned about French language and literature, taking a particular interest in the troubadours’ Provençal culture. While he never spoke French fluently, he loved the language and would even sing in French.
The young men of his town respected Francis for his worldliness and exuberance. His father expected him to take over the family textile business when he grew up. However, Francis was not interested in the cloth and textile trade. He dreamed of being a knight, idolizing Medieval war heroes.
In 1202, Francis fought in a war between Perugia and Assisi. The enemy captured him and held him as a prisoner for a year. After his release, he fell gravely ill. Once he recovered, Francis attempted to join Count Gentile’s papal forces in 1205 against Emperor Frederick II in Apulia. During his journey, Francis had a vision that he should return home to Assisi and wait for a sign to create a new form of knighthood. He then dedicated his life to regular prayer, seeking God’s plan for him.
Another life-changing experience happened when Francis encountered a leper while riding horseback in the countryside. Before the war, Francis would have avoided the leper. However, he felt the man was a symbol of moral conscience. Francis went to the leper and embraced and kissed him. Francis later described the experience of overall sweetness in his mouth, writing that it was incredibly liberating and freeing. By this point, he felt his early life of wealth had lost its appeal.
Francis’ Conversion to Apostolic Life
Early in his life, Francis feared and disdained lepers, but his decision to embrace a leper and give him alms entirely changed his life. After kissing the leper, Francis got back on his horse, but when he looked around, he could not see the leper anywhere. At that moment, he knew it was Jesus that had visited him. Francis realized when he lived in sin, he felt lepers were repulsive, but God led him into their company, allowing Francis to share his compassion with people society rejected.
After this epiphany, Francis only had compassion and empathy for lepers and would visit a leper colony outside Assisi’s city walls, ministering to people, feeding them and tending to their wounds. Caring for lepers became an ongoing ministry for Francis and his followers.
Another life-altering moment for Francis was when he found himself wandering through the hills of Umbria, on the border of Assisi. During his walk, he came across San Damiano, a small church in need of care and repair. When Francis entered the church, he knelt underneath a crucifix and looked at the eyes of Jesus.
Francis asked God to show him his purpose in life. God answered clearly, telling him to go and rebuild His church. While Francis worked on restoring San Damiano and other run-down or damaged churches near Assisi, he eventually realized that God was also telling him to repair His church in the sense of the human institution and religion.
While Francis heard God’s purpose for him, he knew he would need money and resources to repair the church, so he thought of his wealthy merchant father with many goods to spare. He took one of his father’s horses and some cloth without asking and sold them to use the money for repairs on the church.
While he thought his father would not mind, Pietro was furious and even brought Francis to the local magistrate under accusations of theft. Francis was profoundly hurt and humiliated but received protection from the local bishop. After this incident, Francis renounced his earthly father and all worldly possessions to follow God’s purpose for him.
As Francis devoted his life to God, he began to live the Gospel as best as he could. He also began to preach, sharing God’s love and mercy. In giving sermons, he began to draw followers and realized his purpose was to spread God’s word. Throughout his journey, Francis also began to understand the sanctity of all creation and that all people and animals were the children of God.
Founding of the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church
In the 13th century, Francis founded the religious order that still bears his name today. The Franciscan Order received official papal recognition in 1210. Throughout his life, Francis went on many missions with the Franciscan Order to help those spiritually and materially less fortunate while sharing the Gospel of Christ. He made it his life’s work to share God’s word and spread compassion and love throughout the world.
Gradually, the Franciscan Order began to attract followers, also known as lesser brothers. These early adherents were street preachers without possessions who first worked in Umbria but quickly grew in numbers throughout Italy.
Throughout his life, Francis also instated several rules for friars of the Franciscan Order. In 1209, after attracting 12 friars, Francis instituted a practice known as regula primitiva or primitive rule, which derived from various Bible passages. This decree stated that they should all follow Christ’s teachings and lead a life in His footsteps and grace.
Following this, Francis led his 12 disciples to Rome, seeking Pope Innocent III’s approval. This crucial step demonstrated Francis’ devout respect for papal authority. Upon the group’s arrival, the pope was a bit hesitant. Then, one night, he had a dream where he saw Francis holding up the church of San Giovanni. Afterward, he gave Francis oral approbation, thus marking the official start of the Franciscan Order.
The second rule Francis introduced was known as regula prima or regula non bullata because the pope never issued an official papal bull confirming it. The second rule consisted of 23 chapters, primarily composed of scriptural texts. It reasserted friars’ devotion to living a life of poverty and imposed additional structure for the growing order.
Two years later, Francis sent a revised version of the bull, today known as regula secunda, to Pope Honorius III, who officially approved it in 1223. Regula secunda stated the friars must “observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own and in chastity.”
How St. Francis of Assisi Changed the World
One of the most significant actions Francis took was meeting with the sultan in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in an attempt to broker peace. He left the safety of Assisi and crossed into potentially dangerous territory to meet with the sultan in Damietta, Egypt. During his visit, Francis expressed his wish to make peace and discussed ending the war and interfaith conflict. This peace summit demonstrated Francis’ love and compassion for all God’s children, even ones from different faiths.
Today, we remember St. Francis in many ways, but one of his most notable contributions is creating the Christmas nativity scene. Francis wanted to help people appreciate God’s miracles from the first Christmas. Before Francis introduced the nativity scene, people celebrated Christmas by going to Mass and listening to priests tell the Christmas story in Latin, which many people did not speak or understand.
While the Church often featured depictions of Christ as an infant, there were no realistic manger scenes. Francis used his love of Christ and appreciation for all God’s creations to make the first nativity scene and create an extraordinary experience that was more accessible to everyday people looking to celebrate Christ’s birth.
St. Francis of Assisi Miracles
St. Francis of Assisi performed numerous miracles throughout his life, with many involving his ability to influence nature and communicate with animals. Some of the most significant miracles credited to St. Francis include the following.
Miracles for People
Many of St. Francis’ miracles involved healing severely ill or injured people, including when he washed a leper and prayed to God for the demon to leave his soul. The leper healed, felt remorse and reconciled with God Almighty.
Pacifying a Wolf
Another miracle Saint Francis performed was pacifying a wolf and convincing the animal to stop attacking and killing God’s creatures in an Umbrian city called Gubbio. St. Francis wanted to make peace between the townspeople and the wolf, promising the wolf the humans would provide him with food if he agreed not to harm any animal or person again.
After this miracle, the wolf lived in the town for two years and would tamely enter homes for food, never again hurting humans or other animals. When the wolf died of old age, the townspeople grieved the loss of their beloved companion.
St. Francis instructed others to serve even criminals with good humor, humility and food until they were satisfied. After serving robbers and killers a nutritious meal, St. Francis asked them to stop hurting people and mentioned that serving God is a much easier and rewarding process than their profession.
St. Francis had faith that the Lord would inspire these men to lead better lives. The men pledged to be honest and faithful, and all entered the Franciscan Order, where they served for the rest of their days.
Delivering a Sermon to Birds
Throughout his life, St. Francis viewed all God’s creatures to be brothers and sisters in his faith. One of St. Francis’ best-known miracles is his ability to preach God’s Word to animals and birds. One day, Francis noticed a flock of birds appearing to watch him and decided to deliver a spontaneous sermon about God’s love and mercy. The birds remained present and attentive, seemingly listening to every word he had to say.
After the sermon, Francis blessed the birds, and they flew away. As the story goes, the birds headed in every direction to spread the word and love of God with the rest of the world.
How Did St. Francis of Assisi Die?
In August 1224, Francis became the first certified stigmatic when he asked to share in Christ’s sufferings. A month later, Francis was at the Feast of the Holy Cross and had a vision of embracing Jesus, resulting in him receiving stigmata. These marks represent the wounds inflicted on Jesus after he endured torture and crucifixion, including on the feet and hands from nails, puncture marks from the crown of thorns and an injury on His side from a lance. To meet the criteria of stigmata, the Catholic Church requires the wounds to arise spontaneously from supernatural origins. Supposedly, genuine stigmata bleed more often on high holy days, including Good Friday.
Unfortunately, Francis fell ill after developing an eye disease in 1219 while proselytizing in the East. While he was losing his sight, he wrote the Canticle of Creatures, which explains how the elements and creatures reflect in the strength and beauty that come from God and His eternal love. Historians and linguists believe the Canticle of Creatures is the earliest piece of literature written in Italian instead of Latin, which was the official language of the Catholic Church.
Medical treatments were unsuccessful, and Francis returned to Assisi, dying at the Proziuncola on Oct. 3, 1226. Francis received a temporary burial in the church of San Grigio.
When Did Francis Become a Saint?
After Francis’ death, Pope Gregory IX officially canonized him as the patron saint of Italy. Because of his well-known devotion to spreading God’s word, the pope significantly expedited the canonization process to quickly make St. Francis an official saint.
While St. Francis is also the patron saint of ecology, he did not receive this title for centuries after his death. Pope John Paul II officially declared St. Francis as the patron saint of ecology and those who promote environmentalism on Nov. 29, 1979, via papal bull. In the bull, Pope John Paul II discussed the sense of the Creator at work in the world and reminded us how St. Francis revered nature as God’s gift.
The Legacy of St. Francis of Assisi Today
St. Francis went on many missions throughout his life, dedicated to helping the poor and those who were spiritually and materially less fortunate than he was. A vital aspect of his life was renouncing his father’s wealth and status. While Francis could have taken over his father’s business and enjoyed a prosperous life, he knew that was not his purpose.
After rejecting his worldly possessions and inheritance, St. Francis realized his mission was to spread a different kind of fortune. St. Francis shared spiritual wealth, love and compassion wherever he went. He dedicated his life to preaching Christ’s Gospel and saving unfortunate people. Even centuries after his death, the legacy of St. Francis carries on.
We don’t know the exact date when St. Francis was born, so we celebrate his life and sainthood on his feast day, which is Oct. 4. The feast of St. Francis celebrates his life and commemorates his death in 1226. While St. Francis died close to midnight on Oct. 3, the Catholic Church chose the following day to honor him and his contributions to the faith.
The feast of St. Francis of Assisi is an annual celebration to remember this saint’s life and good works. While people worldwide mark this occasion, St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi holds a special celebration. For two days each year, Assisi is illuminated with oil lamps holding consecrated oil from a different Italian town.
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Basilica of St. Francis hold religious services observing the feast of St. Francis. Children often bring their pets to these churches to receive blessings, as St. Francis loved and appreciated all God’s creations.
Pope Francis Honors St. Francis of Assisi
After Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, a papal conclave elected Jorge Bergoglio as his successor. Bergoglio chose his papal name Francis in honor of St. Francis, the man of peace who loved and protected all God’s creations. Pope Francis has earned a reputation for his concern for the poor, humility and commitment to interreligious dialogue. He has also gained attention for his less formal approach to the papacy.
Partner With Catholic World Mission
St. Francis led a life sharing God’s word and his appreciation for all God’s creations. The Catholic World Mission strives to celebrate the life of St. Francis and empower people throughout the world to share God’s truth and love. We aim to alleviate spiritual and material poverty throughout the world while sharing the Gospel of Christ.
Learn More About Catholic History
Deacon Rick Medina is the Former Executive Director of Catholic World Mission and for years oversaw the management of all of Catholic World Mission's projects in over 35 countries. He was ordained a deacon of the archdiocese of Atlanta in 2013. He currently serves at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, and is active in several ministries, including RCIA, baptism preparation, Life Teen, Altar Server group, Grief Share, and Adult Faith Formation.