Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich cloth merchant, was born in the hills of Umbria, Italy, in 1181. The young Francis led a wealthy and privileged life, and took his place among the fashionable, popular and influential elite of 12th Century society.
He was a lively and handsome youth who had all the money he wanted, and he did not hesitate to spend it. Francis had a lot of friends and enjoyed parties, but he felt that there had to be more to life.
When he was about 20 years of age, a war was declared between Assisi and Perugia, a rival city. Hopeful for battle glory, Francis joined the army, but was captured by enemy soldiers in 1202 and spent a year in prison. Upon his release, he made a second abortive attempt at military honours before he discovered that his call was to serve the Lord.
Francis undertook a pilgrimage to Rome and returned to Assisi following spiritual visions and mystical experiences. One day, when Francis was praying in the old crumbling church of San Damiano, he heard the voice of his Master, who called, “Francis, go restore my Church which you see is falling into ruin.” He resolved to devote his life to God and renounced all his wealth in favour of leading a life of poverty.
Francis’ Gospel witness, inspired preaching, brotherly care and joy-filled living led others to follow him. In 1209, Francis and his first followers went to Rome to seek the permission of Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order. The pope agreed and Francis of Assisi became the founder of the Franciscan Order , which comprised friars, nuns and lay people.
By the time he returned to the Lord in 1226, the Franciscan Order had grown to the thousands, with a presence in major cities, university towns, rural villages and remote missions in Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany, Syria and the Holy Land.