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St. Francis of Assisi: A Biographical Sketch


Francis Bernardone (1181/82-1226) was born in the Umbrian town of Assisi, Italy to Peter and Pica Bernardone. The family belonged to the up and coming merchant class of citizens. In his youth Francis devoted himself to the bon vivant pursuits of his youthful contemporaries and also joined in a series of military adventures. Around the year 1205 Francis began to experience a conversion. He left behind care-free high living exploits, his apprenticeship in his fatherís cloth merchant shop and devoted himself to solitary prayer. While meditating before a crucifix in the dilapidated wayside chapel of San Damiano Francis underwent a deep spiritual experience. He heard the voice from the crucifix telling him to rebuild the church. Francis interprets this literally at first, eventually as his life unfolds, he perceives his vocation to renew the spiritual life of his time by a return to living the gospel ideals of Jesus Christ.

By the year 1209, a group of disciples has gathered around him which formed the nucleus of what was to become the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans. They devoted themselves to the imitation of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels, preaching repentence and the love of God in the town squares and serving the needs of the poor, especially lepers. In order to guide this growing fraternity, Francis composed a Rule or Way of Life which was approved by Pope Innocent III.

Francis of Assisi died on Oct. 4, 1226 and was canonized a saint two years later. He is often pictured in the habit of the Franciscan Order, grey or brown; usually he is depicted with the Sacred Stigmata or the wounds of Jesus Christ in his hands, feet and side. Other symbolic details include him preaching to birds, or propping up a tottering church, or kneeling before a crib. He is the patron saint of Catholic Action and Ecologists.


Study Guide on St. Francis of Assisi


Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in Christendom. The variety and depth of information concerning him is so much more than what can be listed here. This study guide suggests and highlights items from the vast resources readily available in the English language.


The most complete listing in English, now somewhat dated but still useful, is the Bibliographic Appendix prepared by the noted scholar, Raphael Brown for St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies; English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977). More recent and selective bibliographies are found in Francis: A Call to Conversion by Duane W.H. Arnold and C. George Fry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility by William R. Cook (Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier, 1989).


Biographical works on Francis of Assisi span scholarly treatments, popular accounts and works for juveniles. A little one volume library of ten books, St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies; English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis of Assisi (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973, 1977), contains Francisí writings, several early biographies and legends. Its editor, Marion Habig, O.F.M., brought together the work of a number of noted Franciscan scholars and includes concordances and indexes.

Early modern biography on St. Francis began with the controversial The Life of St. Francis by Paul Sabatier (New York: C. Scribnerís Sons, 1894). Some of Sabatierís conclusions are not accepted by modern Franciscan scholars. One of the classic biographies in the English language is G.K. Chestertonís St. Francis of Assisi (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1924). The following works are highly regarded scholarly, yet readable English translations: Saint Francis of Assisi by Johannes Joergenson (Garden City, N.Y.: Franciscan Herald Press, 1965, 1966) and Francis of Assisi by Arnaldo Fortine (New York: Seabury Press, 1980). Fortiniís work, based to a great extent on documents and records discovered in the Assisi town archives, gives information not readily available in other biographies o the saint.

Recent works that give a more personal interpretation to Francisí life are those of Leonardo Boff, St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1982) and Julien Green, Godís Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985). Boffís work approaches the life of Francis filtered through the perspective of South Americaís Liberation theology; while Greenís portrait based on The Legend of the Three Companions focuses on the spiritual and human dimensions of Francis of Assisi.

No guide to works on Francis of Assisi would be complete without mention of the Fioretti or Little Flowers of St. Francis. These are collections of stories rather than history concerning St. Francis and his early companions. There are numerous editions in English, such as Raphael Brownís translation, The Little Flowers of St. Francis (Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1958). There is a modern paraphrase edition in sense line format translated by Donald E. Demaray (New York: Alba House, 1992).

Writings of Francis of Assisi

In addition to the aforementioned, Omnibus volume, the writings of St. Francis are presented in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, edited by Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady (New York: Paulist Press, 1982) and St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life, edited by Regis Armstrong (New York: Crossroad, 1994). In a more meditative approach is Murray Bodoís Through the Year with Francis of Assisi: Daily Meditations from his Words and Life (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993).

St. Francis and the Environment

One aspect of the saintís life which is much in contemporary focus is Francisí relationship to nature, especially since he has been named the Patron saint of Ecology. Some of the recent works which discuss contemporary ecological concerns and Francisís reverence for creation include: Michael W. Foxís St. Francis of Assisi, Animals and Nature (Washington, D.C.: Center for Respect of Life and Environment, 1989), Roger D. Sorrellís St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes Toward the Environment (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1988) and St. Francis of Assisi: Patron of the Environment by Warren G. Hansen (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971).

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