Francis was born in 1182. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. His early years were frivolous, but two experiences (with illness and another of military service) were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of his life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, he heard Christ say to him, "Francis, repair my falling house." Taking the words literally, Francis sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged, and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him. In turn, Francis renounced his father's wealth--not only handing his father his purse, but also taking off his expensive clothes. He laid them at his father's feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself "wedded to Lady Poverty," renounced all material possessions, and devoted himself to serving the poor. In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was known as leprosy. (It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease by that name.) Lepers kept at a distance and were regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores, and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it through his own labors. He moved in with the local priest, and begged for stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He ate, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetables from trash-bins. He worked as a day laborer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.
Dante in his Paradiso has Aquinas say of him: Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men's hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them....
After three years, in c. 1211, Pope Innocent III authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. ("Friar" means "brother" (as in "fraternity"), and "minor" means "lesser" or "younger." I take the meaning to be that a Franciscan, meeting another Christian, is to think, "I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself."
Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach (Matthew 10:7-10): "Preach as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of Heaven is at hand."'... You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment, nor sandals, nor staff."
They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Because they were not authorized to preach, Francis adjured the brothers to only "using words if necessary," but declaring by their deeds and actions the love of God in Christ. Francis was chivalrous and a romantic, and so prone to using the dramatic, and Tradition indicates that it was our poor friar who set up the first life sized Christmas manger/creche/nacimiento scene, to bring to life the Good News of God made man for our salvation, to impress people's hearts and imaginations, as well as their intellects.
In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to Muslims. He was given a pass through enemy lines, and spoke with the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis shared the Gospel with the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan was deeply impressed, but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis's deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian holy Sites that were then in Muslim hands.
Back in Italy and neighboring countries, the Order was suffering from its own success. Then, as now, many persons were deeply attracted to Francis and his spirit of joy, devotion, and freedom. What is overlooked is that these were made possible only by his willingness to accept total poverty. Not romanticized, picturesque poverty but real dirt, rags, cold, and hunger; lepers with real pus oozing from their sores, and a real danger of infection. Many idealistic young men were joining the Order in a burst of enthusiasm and then finding themselves not so sure that such extremes of poverty were really necessary. When there were only a few friars, they were all known to Francis personally, and the force of his personality kept the original ideals of the Order alive in them. Now that the Order was larger, this was no longer enough. In 1220 Francis resigned as minister-general of the Order, and in 1221 he agreed to a new and modified rule, which he did not approve, but could not resist. He died on 4 October 1226. The Franciscan Order split into the Conventual Franciscans, who held a limited amount of property in common, and the Spiritual Franciscans, who disavowed all property. They taught that Christ and the twelve apostles had held no property, singly or jointly. This view offended those who held property, and was declared to be heretical (proof text, John 18:10; Jesus said to Peter, "Put up THY sword...."). In 1318, several Spiritual Franciscans were burned at the stake in Marseilles.
A story is told of the days when the friars first began to have permanent houses. A beggar came by when Brother Juniper was at the gate and asked for a little money. Brother Juniper said, "There is no money in the house. But wait a minute. Last week someone gave us an altar cloth with little silver bells attached. We don't need those. I will cut them off for you. They will be as good as money." And he did. When the sacristan learned what had happened, he complained to the abbot, who said, "We are fortunate that he did not give away the cloth itself. But send him to me, and I will scold him." Brother Juniper came, and the prior scolded him until he was hoarse. Brother Juniper noticed that the abbot was hoarse, and went to the kitchen and cooked him some mint sauce. He brought it to the abbot, who had gone to bed. He said, "Father, get up and eat this mint sauce. It will be good for your throat." The abbot said, "I don't want any mint sauce. Go away and let me sleep." Brother Juniper said, "It's good sauce, and will be good for your throat." The abbot said, "Go away, I don't want it." Brother Juniper said, "Well, if you won't eat it, how about holding the candle while I eat it?" This was too much for the abbot. He got up and they both ate.
From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians: "O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: "Our Father, who art in heaven," since we must always pray and never grow slack. Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to very human being for God's sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father's children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ."