Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 in a small town in northern Italy. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis was a popular youth who lived a comfortable life. Like most other young men of his time, he longed to be a knight and to win renown for himself through brave acts of heroism. While still in his early twenties, Francis was taken prisoner in one of the many military skirmishes that often took place between medieval cities. As he was sitting in prison – and later when he was recovering from a lengthy illness – Francis began to do some extensive soul-searching. It was during this time that he heard the call of the Gospel and his life was forever changed.
A man of deep passion, filled with joy, and on fire with God’s love, Francis was determined to follow the Gospel in a radical way. He wanted to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, who became poor for our sake.
As Francis prayed and reflected on the Scriptures, he was deeply moved by the poverty and humility of Jesus who, though divine, freely and lovingly shared our human existence (Phil 2:6-7). For Francis, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the gift of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist were the most profound expressions of God’s unconditional love for each of us. For Francis, God was not a distant ruler and judge, but a loving Father, Brother, and Spouse.
Eager to imitate his Lord and Master in all things, Francis gave away all that he owned and lived as a beggar – preaching, repairing churches, caring for lepers, and filling the Umbrian hills with the joyful message that our God is a God of love. Enduring opposition and ridicule from family and friends, he identified with the outcasts of society. Recognizing God’s hand in the beauty of creation, he reverenced the Divine Presence in all of creation and especially in each human person. Almost immediately, he began to attract other men and women from every walk of life who were touched by this same dream. The spirit that inspired Francis was contagious; his message was simple and direct – all are called to live the Gospel. Perhaps one of the great gifts that we have received from Francis lies in the fact that he did not dictate a specific lifestyle, rather he gave us a way of life for all people.