The Wounds of Christ
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), one of the best-known and most loved saints of history, was the son of a wealthy merchant in the Italian town of Assisi. He was a carefree youth who enjoyed parties and extravagance. He was repulsed by lepers and didn’t want to help them as some of his wealthy friends, such as Clare of Assisi, would.
After he returned from a war, Francis became convinced of the need to find a deeper meaning in life. He gave away his and his father’s riches, much to the anger of his father, and rejected wealth, trying to live out the Gospel completely in a joyful and humble manner.
He heard Christ speak to him from the crucifix of San Damiano, telling Francis to rebuild His Church, which was falling apart. Francis sold some goods from his father’s warehouse and used the proceeds to reconstruct the dilapidated church of San Damiano. His angry father disowned and disinherited him, and Francis embraced his new life of poverty.
His simple and sincere faith attracted many followers, and in 1210 Pope Innocent III authorized Francis and his companions to travel about Italy, preaching the Gospel. The pope’s favorable decision is said to have been influenced by a dream in which he saw Francis supporting a crumbling church. Francis went about rebuilding church structures, but his mission also included rebuilding the Church, the people of God, through preaching and ministry to the poor of body, mind, and spirit.
Francis and his followers — the Friars Minor (later called the Franciscans) — devoted themselves to poverty, chastity and obedience, living a life of penance and preaching. Their efforts contributed to a major spiritual renewal in thirteenth-century Italy. In 1212 Francis aided his friend St. Clare of Assisi in establishing an order for women based on the same vows of the Franciscan order. Several orders of St. Francis of Assisi now exist, including an order for lay people, the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO).
Francis is especially known today for his gentleness and his great love for all God’s creation, especially animals and nature. It is Francis who originated the practice of commemorating the Birth of Christ with the nativity scene.
Though never ordained a priest, Francis was blessed with many spiritual gifts, particularly the stigmata — the wounds in the hands, feet, and side suffered by Christ on the Cross. During his last two years of life, when he was half-blind and seriously ill, Francis remained joyful and humble; he died at the age of forty-four, surrounded by his beloved friars in the little church of the Portiuncula. He was canonized just two years later.