|St. Francis of Assisi by fr. Noel Muscat ofm|
The Initial Years
In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes Assisi as the Orient, the place where the sun rises (Canto XI Paradiso, 52-54). In fact, he compares Francis to the rising sun. It is within this mediaeval context of cosmology that we have to understand the life and times of Francis of Assisi and of Clare, his "pianticella", or little plant.
Assisi still presents itself as a typical mediaeval town. It rises above the valley of Umbria, a land-locked region in central Italy. It is a relatively small region, just 8456 square kilometres in extension. It is also characterised by mountains, hills and woods in the central Appennine region of the Italian peninsula. Only about 6% of its territory consists of plains. Assisi, at 424 metres above sea level, overlooks one of these plains, but above it rises Mount Subasio (1290 metres above sea level), a dome-shaped mountain, covered with woods. Today Assisi has a population of about 24.790 inhabitants. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was much smaller.
The mediaeval world evolved around two super powers. On the one hand there was the Holy Roman Emperor and on the other the Pope. Great figures stood out on both sides, such as Frederick Barbarossa and Innocent III. It was a world dominated by the sacred and the profane, but the distinction between the two was so subtle that they often ended up fighting one against another. Politics and religion were jointly used to wield power. It was the age of the crusades to the Holy Land, in which faith and political ambition both played an active role.
The feudal lords still dominated the political scene in many towns. Assisi was no exception. The feudal castle, called Rocca Maggiore, dominates the town even today, although the one we see today is not the castle which stood there in the 12th century. The nobility still exerted a considerable political influence in local affairs. However, by the end of the 12th century, a new class was emerging in society, namely the middle class, composed mainly of business people. Thus, even in a small town like Assisi, there was a clear-cut distinction between the "maiores" or "boni homines", who were the nobles, and the "minores" or "homines populi", the merchants. The latter were feeling that they wielded enough financial power to embark upon a power struggle against the nobles. Their aim was to dismantle the old feudal system and change it with a more democratic type of government which was called "Comune".
Francis was born in this historical context in 1182. There is still an open discussion regarding the house in which Francis was born. Various places in Assisi claim the honour: Chiesa Nova, San Francesco Piccolino, the Bernardone house or TOR Casa Paterna. All these places are found around the central square of the town, called Piazza del Comune, dominated by the Minerva Roman Temple and the Torre del Popolo. In the first fresco which Giotto painted on the wall of the upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, we find a representation of this square. The scene could have been painted today. It has changed very little since the times of Francis.
Francis was the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a rich cloth merchant who often travelled to France on business. In fact Pietro was away when his wife, Pica, whom he had first met in Provence, gave birth to Francis. When Pietro returned he learnt that the boy had been baptised in the cathedral church of San Rufino, and had been given the name Giovanni. Pietro did not like the name, and renamed his son Francesco.
In the upper part of the town, where we find the cathedral church of San Rufino, another child was born some eleven years later, in 1193. This time it was a girl, and she was a member of a noble family. Chiara, or Clare, the enlightened one, was born in a rich house overlooking the cathedral square. Her parents were Favarone di Offreduccio and Ortolana. Clare belonged to the "maiores" class. Francis belonged to the "minores".
Tensions in Assisi arose round about 1198. In that year Pope Innocent III was elected. He was to prove himself a great statesman and affirmed the Church's supremacy even in temporal affairs. In the spring of that year, Duke Conrad of Urslingen, who presided the Rocca fortress of Assisi in the name of the Emperor, travelled to Spoleto to yield the Duchy of Spoleto to Innocent III. The citizens of Assisi grasped the opportunity of his absence to besiege the fortress and raze it to the ground. Francis must have been about sixteen years old at the time. He certainly must have taken part in this adventure, which was to mark the independence of Assisi as a free Comune. Civil war inevitably broke out between citizens and nobles. Clare's family had to flee to Perugia, a nearby town, larger and stronger than Assisi. They probably returned to Assisi round about 1203, when a document established peace between the "maiores" and "minores" of Assisi.
In 1202 the Assisi nobility who had taken refuge in Perugia confronted the people of Assisi. Francis took part in the battle of Collestrada, in which the Assisi forces were captured and taken prisoners. Francis spent one year in prison, and he was lucky enough to be ransomed by his rich father. His frail health had taken its toll upon him in prison, and he had to spend much of 1204 in bed.
When Francis felt better he began to aspire to higher ideals. This time he dreamt of knighthood. His was an age of chivalry. This ideal was the theme of songs by troubadours who travelled along the new roads across the Alps into the Italian peninsula. The romance of chivalry, together with the fame of taking part in a crusade, captured the hearts of many young men. Francis was no exception. In 1204 he found the opportunity to set out to Puglie, in southern Italy, with the aim of joining the fourth Crusade. He set out to meet Walter of Brienne and join his forces. But his adventure was short-lived. The next day, after a sleepless night in Spoleto (his biographers speak of visions and dreams), he returned to Assisi.
Francis returned to the derision of his father and friends. His ideals were shattered, his future bleak. The only practical solution to his problems seemed to consist in staying for long hours selling bales of cloth in his father's shop. But if this was an easy solution to Pietro di Bernardone, it did not convince Francis. The last thing he would do was to remain closed inside a shop. Francis could also choose to live an easy life with his friends. He was accustomed to it. He spent lavishly on entertainment. Many times his friends elected him as the king of their feasts. They would have fun until late at night, and then go out singing loudly along the narrow winding streets of Assisi. But Francis was getting bored of this boisterous company. So he began to roam about the Assisi countryside. His early biographers speak about a period of "conversion". They speak about a very particular period of his life. It was quite short, really, just between the end of 1204 and the first months of 1206. But it was an intense period of reflection.
Francis would go with an unnamed friend in a lonely spot, and enter all by himself into a "crypt", where he would spend hours. When he returned to his friend he would seem completely dazed. Or else he would ride his horse in the plain below Assisi, where there was a leper colony. It was on one of these occasions that he met a leper face to face. Although being terrified of the poor wretch, he dismantled from his horse and ran towards the man, offering him money, and the kiss of peace. He would cherish this encounter all his life and even bring it to his memory before his death. Towards the end of 1205 another encounter changed him radically. This time he was in an old and semi-abandoned church just below Assisi. The church of San Damiano was officiated by a poor priest who could not even afford to buy oil to light the lamp in front of a Byzantine image of the crucified Christ. Francis was enchanted to gaze upon this crucifix. It is still visible today in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi. Christ is alive on the cross. He is not fixed to it, but seems to dominate the background, where angels and saints surround him. His eyes are wide open, and although blood is dropping out of his wounds, he does not seem to feel any pain. It was this crucifix which "spoke" to Francis. His biographers affirm that Christ asked Francis to repair that old church, calling it "my church". It was obvious to the keen eyes of a young man like Francis that that church needed urgent repairs and he set out ot do it. He went to his father's shop, took a bale of expensive cloth, went to the marketplace of Foligno, and sold cloth and horse. Then he returned exuberant to give the money he earned to the poor priest, who wisely rejected the offer, knowing that Pietro di Bernardone would be enraged by his son's latest eccentricity. However he allowed Francis to live with him in San Damiano as an "oblate", that is, as a person who offered his services to a particular church with the aim of living a penitential life.
The turning point
Francis entered in open conflict with his father. Pietro was convinced that his son was going to ruin his business and his family's reputation. He could not bear to see his son begging stones to repair San Damiano's church, nor could he believe his eyes to see his son full of prodigality towards beggars and outcasts to the point of mixing freely with them. Pica tried to calm him down, to explain that Francis needed time to reflect. It was all in vain. Pietro decided to bring Francis in front of the town consuls to declare that he had to renounce his right to the family's possessions. But Francis was an oblate, and thus he was directly under the bishop's jurisdiction. The consuls were well aware of this and they did not get involved in the matter. So Pietro turned to Guido, the bishop of Assisi. Francis this time accepted the challenge. The trial took place in the bishop's residence, near the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Guido tried to coax Francis into giving back to is father the money he acquired for San Damiano. Francis promptly obeyed, giving back not only the money but also stripping himself naked before the onlookers and presenting his clothes and all his belongings to his father. "From now onwards - he stated - I can turn to God and call him my Father in heaven". Pietro had to return home an embarrassed man, and Francis left Assisi for some time dressed in the poor garments of a hermit. Along the road robbers attacked him. He answered that he was the herald of the great king. They considered him a poor idiot and threw him in a ditch full of snow, leaving him there singing God's praises. For some months he found hospitality first as a kitchen worker in the Benedictine abbey of San Verecondo, and later in the town of Gubbio, in the house of a friend, Federico Spadalunga. In Gubbio he served the leper community.
In the summer of 1206 Francis returned to Assisi, determined to repair San Damiano. He boldly entered the town and started begging stones and scraps of food. Although he felt disgust at the idea of eating leftovers, he had to learn the hard way, like the poor did. He understood that the real "minores" of Assisi were not the merchants, but the outcasts. And he was determined to feel one of them. Even when he was still a rich young man he wanted to understand the way of life of the poor beggars. He was on a pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles in Rome. At Saint Peter's tomb he changed his clothes with those of a beggar, and took his place for a whole day.
Francis sang at the top of his voice when repairing San Damiano. He remembered his mother's soft voice singing in her Provençal dialect. These songs came spontaneously to him as he worked hard. Farmers would stop and eye him with suspicion, but also probably with some affection, as they looked at his youthful exuberance. He would tell them that San Damiano would become a holy place where young and noble ladies would come to serve God in the future. The biographers considered these words as a prophecy regarding Clare and her "Povere Dame di San Damiano", as the first Poor Clares would be called.
In a short time Francis repaired San Damiano. Then he proceeded in repairing other churches, first San Pietro and then Santa Maria degli Angeli or the Porziuncola. This church was to become the birth-place of his movement. It lies in the Umbrian valley below Assisi. Francis discovered it in the woods. It belonged to the monks of the abbey of San Benedetto al Subasio. Francis reckoned that the monks would be happy enough to let him make use of it. So he began the task of repairing this church. It soon became so dear to him that he would recommend it to his friars as one of the holiest places on earth. It was there that he wanted to die in 1226. But the Porziuncola chapel was the venue of many important landmarks of his life.
One of these landmarks coincided with the feast of the apostle Saint Mathias, on 24 February 1208. Francis was listening to the Gospel during Mass. It was all about Christ sending his apostles to preach barefoot, with no staff or wallets. They were to be itinerants or pilgrims, and they were to preach peace to all who would listen to them. Francis was overjoyed. That was what he had been searching for all along. He wasted no time in carrying out literally what he had heard. He removed his staff, his shoes, his hermit's leather belt, and went barefoot with a tunic in the form of a Thau, and a cord around his waist. He changed his style of life from that of a hermit-penitent to that of an apostolic preacher. That was the ideal that his movement would follow in the future.
|The first followers
It was only a matter of a few weeks for Francis to have the joy to receive his first brothers or friars at the Porziuncola. The first among them was Bernardo da Quintavalle, a rich young man from Assisi. He invited Francis to his house for supper (incidentally, the house still stands in Assisi). At night Francis slept in his friend's house, and Bernardo noticed that Francis was praying all along. The following morning he took a bold decision. Together with Francis he went to the church of San Nicolò in the town square, and together they consulted the book of the Gospels. For three times they opened the book and met the words: "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Matthew 19,21); "Take nothing for your journey" (Luke 9,3); "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me" (Luke 9,23). These Scripture verses were to constitute the basis of the life and Rule of the evangelical movement initiated by Francis. In April of the same year 1208 two other men joined Francis and Bernardo. They were Pietro Cattani, a canon of the cathedral church, and Egidio or Giles, who joined Francis on 23 April. As soon as they joined forces they left in pairs on a preaching expedition. Francis and Giles went to the Marches of Ancona.
The small brotherhood was steadily growing in numbers. In the autumn of 1208 the friars went to preach in the Rieti valley. They stopped in a tiny village called Poggio Bustone, where Francis greeted the people with the words "buon giorno, buona gente" (good day, good people). In an intense moment of prayer Francis experienced a profound sense of forgiveness and reconciliation with himself.
In 1209 Francis wrote down a brief Rule for the brothers. It was mainly composed of the Gospel texts like the ones quoted above. He boldly decided to take his group to Rome to meet Pope Innocent III and ask for approval of their way of life. It was a courageous gesture on his part. Innocent III certainly would have looked suspiciously on such groups of lay preachers. He had seen enough of them, and most were prone to heretical tendencies. They preached the Gospel and even lived Gospel values in direct opposition to the institutional hierarchy, whom they attacked in their preaching for its immoral and scandalous practices. There were many heretical sects, especially in southern France and northern Italy. The Cathari were the most dangerous. It seemed that the laity was in upsurge against ecclesiastical institutions. Innocent III, however, was a shrewd politician as well as supreme head of the Church. After winning many doubts regarding the group of beggars who were presented to him by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna di San Paolo, he rightly judged Francis to be instrumental in proposing genuine reform among laity and clergy, without the danger of lapsing into heresy. (It is him who tradition indicates as the Pope who had a dream inwhich he saw Francis supporting a Church on his shoulder). So Innocent III orally approved the Rule and life of the Order of Friars Minor, as Francis called his friars in his firm belief that they were to live as true brothers and as true "minores" on the model of Christ and the apostles.
The group of twelve friars returned to Assisi full of joy. After a short stay at Orte they settled at Rivo Torto, some distance away from the Porziuncola. In this place they stayed for some months in extreme poverty. Once the emperor-elect Otto IV passed along the road nearby on his way to be crowned by the Pope. Francis sent one of the friars to announce boldly to him that his glory was short-lived. The poor friar was soon removed and silenced by the imperial guards, but he was happy enough to have carried out his mission. When a farmer rudely demanded to make use of the friars' poor dwelling place, Francis and the brothers left Rivo Torto and went back to the Porziuncola.
One of the characteristic notes about Francis and his movement was its openness to universal dialogue. Francis wanted to meet heretics, saracens, robbers. In 1211 he left for the lands of the saracens. His old dreams of chivalry and glory with the crusades now changed into a heartfelt desire to embark upon a peaceful crusade to preach to the saracens. But his plan this time failed. His ship got caught in a storm and he was shipwrecked on the Dalmatian coast. Francis had to return to Ancona as a stow away.
The Porziuncola was again a venue for an important landmark in the early Franciscan history in 1211. During the night of 18-19 March Clare escaped from her family's house in Assisi and managed to go out of the town gates and proceed to the Porziuncola. It seems that a plan was carefully worked out between her and Francis, with the approval of the bishop Guido. That Sunday was Palm Sunday, and Clare took part in the celebration of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in the cathedral church. When everybody was in bed she set out to execute her plan of escape. For months she had been meeting Francis secretly to tell him that she wanted to join his movement. So they finally decided to put their plans into action. Clare was met by Francis at the Porziuncola. There she let him cut her golden tresses at the foot of the altar of the Virgin Mary. She changed her noble garments and put on the habit of penance. Francis sent her together with some friars to a secure refuge, the female Benedictine monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse in Bastia Umbra. Her family would come demanding her return, but in that place she was protected by a papal intedict upon any outsider who ventured into the nun's quarters. After a short time Clare passed to another Benedictine monastery, Sant'Angelo di Panzo, on the foothills of Mount Subasio. There she was joined by her sister Caterina. Her uncle Monaldo came over to drag Caterina back home by force, but his plan did not succeed. Clare and her sister, who changed her name to Agnese, were sent by Francis to San Damiano. As he had predicted, it was here that the Order of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano was founded. In this small chapel and adjacent monastery Clare and her sisters lived a cloistered life, but without any property or possessions. Until 11 August 1253, the day of her death, Clare never left San Damiano. There she asked two Popes to confirm the Privilege of Poverty for her sisters. There she was joined by her mother Ortolana, and her other sister Beatrice. At San Damiano she received the final approval of her Rule, modelled upon that of the Friars Minor, just two days before she died, praising God for having created her.
Clare's life of contemplation was complementary to the active apostolic life of Francis and the brothers. However one should not be led to think that Francis did not cherish the contemplative life. He spent long months in solitude, normally with a small group of brothers, in one of the many hermitages he founded in the Italian Appennines. The most famous of these is probably the hermitage of Le Carceri, on Mount Subasio, above Assisi. Francis also wrote a short Rule for those brothers who lived in hermitages. On 8 May 1213 Francis was at San Leo, a mediaeval castle quite close to San Marino. There he was approached by a certain Count Orlando of Chiusi, in Tuscany, who offered to him and the brothers a mountain called La Verna, in the Casentino. Francis gladly accepted the offer because La Verna provided an ideal place for a hermitage. The mountain was to witness the event of the stigmatisation of Francis in September 1224.
Journeying for the Lord
Another apostolic journey was undertaken by Francis in 1213-1214. This time he wanted to go to Spain, in order to evangelise the saracens in Morocco. Even this time Francis did not succeed, because of an illness which forced him to return to Italy. At the Porziuncola he received a group of learned men who came to his Order. One of them was friar Thomas of Celano, who would become the author of three biographies on Francis.
In November 1215 Francis assisted at one of the most important events in the history of the Church, namely the Fourth Lateran Council, summoned in Rome by Pope Innocent III. It was during this event that Francis probably met another great founder of an apostolic religious Order, namely Dominic Guzman. This Council took important decisions, among which the decision not to approve new Rules for religious Orders. Francis succeeded in getting his definite Rule approved in 1223 on the grounds that Innocent III had already approved it orally in 1209.
On 16 July 1216 Pope Innocent III died in Perugia. It was during this occasion that Jacques de Vitry, who was elected bishop of Acre in the Holy Land, in a letter written from Genova, mentions the Friars Minor and the Poor Ladies of San Damiano. It is the first non-Franciscan document regarding the movement of Francis of Assisi. Honorius III succeeded Innocent III. From him Francis obtained the Porziuncola indulgence during the summer of 1216. The documentation regarding this indulgence comes from sources as late as 1310, but convincing studies have been made regarding the historical truth of this indulgence and the original way in which Francis requested it.
The Porziuncola church also became the venue for annual meetings of the friars, called General Chapters, usually held during the feast of Pentecost, in May-June. We have documented evidence of some of the more important Chapters. In 1217, for example, the brothers during the Chapter decided to organise missions north of the Alps and across the Mediterranean. Giles was sent to Tunis, Elias to the Holy Land. Francis tried to go to France, but when he arrived at Firenze, Cardinal Hugolino, who was papal legate to Tuscany and Lombardy, asked him to remain in Italy. Cardinal Hugolino was to play a very important role in the organisation of the Order. He helped Francis in the final version of the Rule, and he was also chosen as a Cardinal Protector of the Order in 1220. His personal friendship with Francis was probably instrumental in the latter's canonisation in 1228, just two years after his death, because at that time Cardinal Hugolino had become Pope Gregory IX. During the Chapter of 1217 the Order was organised on more efficient lines, because it was divided into provinces.
The Chapter of 1219 decided to send new missionary expeditions to Germany, France, Hungary, Spain and Morocco. The friars who left for Morocco were martyred at Marrakesch on 16 January 1220. Saint Berardo and his companions are the first Franciscan martyrs in a long list of heroic friars who gave witness to the Gospel by dying for its cause.
During the same occasion Francis decided to leave for Acre and Damiata, in Egypt, where the fifth crusade was trying to conquer Egypt. During the autumn of 1219 Francis arrived at Damiata and requested permission from the papal legate to enter the saracen camp at his own risk. Together with frate Illuminato he went into the saracen camp and even spoke to the sultan Melek-el-Kamel. The sultan listened willingly to Francis, and it seems that he also gave Francis permission to visit the Holy Land. After the crusades conquered Damiata in 1220 Francis went to Acre, probably after having had the occasion to see the Christian sanctuaries of the Holy Land, then in the hands of the saracens. Francis and his followers have remained in the Holy Land ever since. The historical facts of Francis' journey to the orient are documented also in a letter written by Jacques de Vitry, from Diamata in 1220.
During his absence from Italy Francis had left the Order in the hands of two friars, friar Matteo da Narni and friar Gregorio da Napoli. In the spring of 1220 he received information regarding the state of the Order in their hands which preoccupied him greatly. Together with Pietro Cattani, Elias and Caesar of Speyer he returned to Italy and landed in Venice. It was on this occasion that Francis asked the help of Cardinal Hugolino, who was appointed Protector of the Order. Francis resigned from the leadership of the Order, and appointed Pietro Cattani as Vicar. Cattani remained in his post until 10 March 1221, when he died. During the Pentecost Chapter of 1221 friar Elias was nominated Vicar. Meanwhile, on 22 September 1220, Pope Honorius III, by papal decree "Cum secundum consilium", ordered the establishment of the novitiate in the Order.
The Chapter of 30 May 1221 remained famous in the history of the Order. It has been called the "chapter of mats". Historians differ as to the exact year in which this Chapter was held. It seems probable that the "chapter of mats" took place in 1219 and not in 1221, because at this latter date Cardinal Hugolino was papal legate in the Veneto region, and the chapter was presided by Cardinal Raniero Capocci, a Cistercian. This Chapter remained famous because of the great number of friars who attended it, and who constructed simple huts around the Porziuncola; hence its name. What is of importance in the Chapter of 1221 is that this meeting approved the First Rule, or "Regula non bullata", which did not get papal approval. It was also this Chapter which decided to send a new missionary expedition to Germany, under the leadership of Caesar of Speyer and Thomas of Celano, together with Giordan of Giano, who would later write a chronicle of this missionary endeavour.
The year 1221 also marks the approval of the "Memoriale propositi" or the first Rule of the Order of Penitents, or Third Order. The events which led to the beginning of this large Franciscan family, made up mainly of lay persons, are still open to discussion among historians, but it is accepted that Francis gave a norm of life to lay persons who wanted to embrace his evangelical ideals. This norm of life was later sanctioned by the Church.
The period 1221-1222 is marked by a preaching tour which Francis organised in southern Italy. On 15 August 1222 Francis preached in the main square of Bologna, a famous university city, where his friars probably had a school of theology. From a short note which Francis wrote to Anthony of Padova, dated 1223, we know that this famous saint and doctor of the Church was teaching theology to the friars in Bologna, because he belonged to the province of Romagna, in northern Italy.
The need to have a definite Rule approved by the Church led Francis to retire to another hermitage, that of Fontecolombo, in 1223, together with friars Leo and Bonizo from Bologna, an expert in canon and civil law. There Francis composed his final version of the Rule, which after many difficulties and opposition on the part of the learned friars of the Order, was approved by the General Chapter. On 29 November 1223 Pope Honorius III formally approved the Rule of Friars Minor, the "Regula bullata", by the bull "Solet annuere". In yet another hermitage near the Rieti valley, Greccio, Francis celebrated in an original way the feast of Christmas on 25 December 1223, by organising a Christmas Crib Midnight Mass in order to evoke the poverty of Christ's birth in Bethlehem.
The General Chapter of 1224 organised yet another missionary expedition, this time to England. On 10 September the first friars landed in Dover, and proceeded to Canterbury, London and Oxford, where they immediately took up residence and organised their life as itinerant preachers around the universities. Thomas of Eccleston gives us an interesting chronicle of the first Franciscan friars in England, "De adventu Fratrum Minorum in Angliam".
The end of the earthly journey
Between 15 August and 29 September 1224 Francis was at La Verna, for a period of prayer and fasting which he called"the lent of Saint Michael". It was during this time, probably around the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 14 September, that Francis had the mystical vision of the crucified seraph and received the marks of the passion of Christ in his body. The event is well documented by all the reliable mediaeval sources of his life. After the end of this period of retreat he returned to the Porziuncola, passing through Borgo San Sepolcro, Monte Casale and Città di Castello. Although he was weak and very ill, riding on a donkey, Francis made a preaching tour in Umbria and the Marches during winter of 1224-1225.
The year 1225 marks the beginning of his last illness. He became virtually blind, and during the spring was taken to San Damiano to be taken care of by sister Clare. Friar Elias insisted that Francis should receive medical care, but the treatment was postponed. At San Damiano, after a difficult night, Francis composed the first part of his Canticle of Brother Sun, or Canticle of Creatures. Later on he would add the part regarding forgiveness, after he reconciled the bishop and the podestà of Assisi.
In July 1225 Francis agreed to go to Rieti, to receive medical treatment at the hands of papal physicians. In Rieti he was welcomed by Cardinal Hugolino and the papal court. Then he proceeded to Fontecolombo where, under pressure from friar Elias, he accepted to undergo the painful operation of having his temples cauterised. The operation was a complete failure. In September 1225 he was transferred to San Fabiano della Foresta, near Rieti, where he underwent further treatment. By his prayers the vineyard of the poor priest who took care of the church of San Fabiano, produced abundant fruit, even though it was trampled by the persons who often came to visit Francis.
The year 1226 was to be his last. In the spring he was taken to Siena for further treatment. One night he was in agony, and fearing he would die, he dictated some words of farewell which are known as the Siena Testament. Later on he was transferred to the hermitage of Celle di Cortona, where he probably dictated his Testament, or last will.
In the summer of 1226 Francis was at Bagnara, on the hills near Nocera. His condition was worsening, and he was taken to the bishop's residence in Assisi. He was aware that"sister death" was not far away. So he asked to be taken to the Porziuncola in September. Bishop Guido at the time was away on a pilgrimage to Monte Gargano. On his way to the Porziuncola Francis blessed his home town.
On Saturday 3 October 1226, at sunset, Francis died at the Porziuncola, after asking the friars to read to him the passion of Christ according to John, and praying psalm 141. On Sunday 4 October the funeral cortege transported Francis to Assisi, and passed by San Damiano so that Clare and the sisters could see their spiritual father for the last time. Francis was buried in the church of San Giorgio, where, as a child, he used to go to the cathedral school. The Vicar, friar Elias announced Francis' death to the Order by a circular letter.
On 19 March 1227 Cardinal Hugolino was elected Pope and took the name of Gregory IX. One of his first preoccupations was to render glory to the "poverello"of Assisi. On 30 May 1227 Giovanni Parenti was elected Minister General of the Order during the Pentecost Chapter.
On 29 April 1228, with the papal bull"Recolentes" Gregory IX decided to built a"specialis ecclesia", a special church, in honour of Francis. On 16 July he came personally to Assisi to canonise Francis. The bull"Mira circa nos" of 19 July declared Francis of Assisi saint and fixed his feast day for the universal Church on 4 October. During the same occasion Gregory IX laid the foundation stone of the basilica he order to be built on the"collis inferni", on the western part of the town, which he renamed"collis paradisi". The triple church was built in record time, under the direct care of friar Elias. It consists of the burial cell of the saint, and of two superimposed basilicas, that is, a sepulchre church and a monastic church. The sepulchre church was ready for the solemn translation of Saint Francis' relics on 25 May 1230.
In 1939 Francis was proclaimed patron saint of Italy and in 1980 he was proclaimed patron of ecology by Pope John Paul II.
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by John Abela ofm for Communications Office - Rome
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