Over 800 years ago, a young man in Assisi heard a sermon on how Jesus’ disciples were sent out “without silver or gold”. This passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew made such an impression on Francis that he decided to devote himself totally to living poorly, like the apostles. He dressed in a rough garment, went barefoot and with “no bag for the journey, nor a staff”, he began to preach repentance. He also heard a message of renewal from the beautiful crucifix in the abandoned church of San Damiano; “Repair my Church.”
Francis was soon joined by other companions, including a young noblewoman, Clare. They cared for the lepers forced to live outside Assisi, and repaired ruined churches. Their life was extremely austere, but they lived joyfully with a deep spirit of service toward the poor and excluded, and with a trust in God’s providential care.
St. Francis taught about the extraordinary love of God for even the littlest of his creatures, and he spoke of the wonderful humility of God who chose to be born in poverty in Bethlehem, and who every day humbles himself to be truly present under the appearance of a little piece of bread on the altar.
In 1209, the first group of friars went on foot from Assisi to Rome and, in an extraordinary example of the working of the Holy Spirit, the ragged band of brothers was received by Pope Innocent III, who approved their way of life.
The number of friars and sisters increased rapidly, spreading out from the tiny church of Our Lady of the Angels, the Portiuncula, and within the lifetime of St. Francis, the friars had established themselves all over Europe. During those early days, the first martyrs of the Order were killed in Morocco, and Francis rejoiced that he had brothers who had given their lives for Christ. Francis himself went to the Holy Land during the Crusades, where he had the respectful meeting with Sultan and spoke to him about spiritual matters.
Later, he received the Stigmata on Mount Alverna – outward signs of his life of intense prayer and devotion to the Passion of the Lord, and confirmation of his following in the footprints of Christ. Despite severe ill-health, he still sang the Canticle of Brother Sun in the praise of God and the Creation, until Sister Death came to visit him in 1226.