Though never officially ordained to the priesthood, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, known today as Saint Francis, is one of the most famous religious figures in history. Nicknamed “Francesco” by his father, Francis was a Catholic friar and preacher who lived from 1181 to 1226 near the town of Assisi, Italy. While fighting as a soldier for Assisi, he had a vision that caused him to change his life and take orders as a Catholic monk. On a trip to Rome, Francis experienced the sufferings of the poor and as a result made the decision to live in poverty. In 1224, Francis is purported to have received the stigmata after having a vision of an angel.
Francis founded three religious orders: the Friars Minor, the Order of Poor Ladies (or Clares), and the Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Those who followed the Rule of Saint Francis were called Franciscans. Those in the first order (Friars Minor) took vows of obedience, chastity, and strict poverty. They could receive no money, wear no shoes, and ride no horses; they also had to observe several extended fasts every year. Several non-Catholic orders based on the Franciscan Rule exist today in the Anglican, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches.
Francis is known today as the patron saint of animals. Depictions of Francis in art often show him surrounded by wildlife, and his statue is often found in gardens and nature parks. He is also considered the patron saint of Catholic Action, ecology, and Italy.
Francis is often praised for his humility and service to others. A well-known prayer, sometimes called the “Peace Prayer,” is often attributed to Saint Francis, although its true origin is much more recent. It begins this way: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; / Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Other writings attributed to Saint Francis include prayers in praise of Mary, prayers to be recited before the crucifix, and a celebration of all creation.
As with anyone elevated to sainthood, there is some degree of idealization about the life and character of Saint Francis of Assisi. Despite that, it is clear Francis was committed to living his life the way he thought Christ would have lived. His kindness and compassion to the poor and downtrodden flowed out of a humility that saw all people, and indeed all living things, as his brothers and sisters under God. There is no doubt that Francis had a dynamic, likable personality, and his peaceful nature impressed all who came into contact with him.
Francis performed many good works, and his humility and aid of the poor and sick are certainly worthy of emulation. However, Francis was Catholic, and many of his teachings depart from biblical truth. His veneration of Mary, his staunch allegiance to the pope, and his extreme asceticism should all be causes of concern to New Testament believers. The New Testament never commands fasting and, in fact, warns believers of those who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (1 Timothy 4:3). Also, the Bible does not condone the elevation of men to “sainthood”—everyone who is in Christ is a saint (Romans 1:7)—or even the naming of ministers as “teacher” or “father” (Matthew 23:8) because we are all brothers. As with any man-made system, we should examine the Franciscan Rule in light of Scripture. Then, “hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9) and follow Christ (John 21:22).