Today we celebrate the feast day of The Poverello (poor little man), a beloved saint, small in stature and large of heart. St. Francis of Assisi was born in Italy around 1181 or 1182. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a cloth merchant and his mother Lady Pica, probably of French descent. Pietro was in France on business when his son was born. Lady Pica named their son Giovanni, but upon his return from France, his father changed the name to Francesco. Many believe the name change was in honor of his mother’s heritage.
Francesco was a charismatic youth, had a great zest for life, and was a leader among his peers. He received a good education and was able to read and write in Latin, and could read and converse in French as well, although not fluently. In 1202, Francis fought in a war between Assisi and Perugia and was taken captive. He was held prisoner for almost a year, and when finally released, in a feeble condition. A dream (or vision) to return to Assisi prevented him from joining yet another battle. Upon his arrival in Assisi, he devoted himself to solitude and fervent prayer that he would know God’s will for his life.
Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome, dressed in rags so that he might experience the life of a beggar seeking alms before St. Peter’s Basilica. Francis himself gave alms to a leper and despite a deep personal aversion toward lepers, kissed the man’s diseased hand.
Francis renounced both family ties and worldly goods in order to embrace a life of poverty. His deepest heart’s desire was to emulate the life of Christ and to follow the teachings of the gospel; that is, embracing with joy and humbleness of heart all that Jesus said and did.
A simple man, he lived an extraordinary life. He was a preacher, teacher, Founder of two religious orders and imitator of Christ in the highest sense of the word. He referred to poverty as “his bride,” and respected all nature as the reflection of God. To this fragile man, weakened by illness and self-denial, all creatures were his “brothers” and “sisters.” Today, he is the Patron Saint of Ecology.
In 1224, Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ, the first saint in history to do so. On October3, 1226, he died a young man of 44, partially blind and in great pain. To his last breath, he lived the essence of his own prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.