(This post has been updated as Young St. Francis of Assisi.)
St. Francis of Assisi is a beloved and well-known saint throughout the world. He is the patron saint of animals and ecology. He is honored in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches. His feast day is October 4 and is usually celebrated with a Blessing of the Animals. The following focuses on his early years, his relationship with his father, and his path toward God.
(For later years, see also St. Clare of Assisi, St. Francis and the Sultan, St. Francis and Animals, St. Francis and the First Nativity and The Stigmata and Death of St. Francis of Assisi.)
Francis was born in 1181 or 1182 in the medieval village of Assisi, Italy. His father, Pietro Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant, was in France during his son’s birth and baptism. His mother, Pica, a French woman, named the baby Giovanni after John the Baptist. When his father returned, he called his son Francesco (Francis, or literally, Frenchman).
Francis lived up to his name dressing in fine garments and taking great care with his appearance. He led an easy life helping his father run the business and traveling around with his friends in the manner of French troubadours singing and drinking in the streets. Although Pietro chided Francis for his frivolous behavior, he was proud of Francis’s antics because he acted like a nobleman’s son – rich and carefree.
Young Francis lived a full life, but it was not as carefree as his father believed. Francis was disturbed by beggars. While, his father gave money to the Church and was a generous host to upper-class visitors and customers, he shooed away the beggars. Francis would give to them occasionally as their suffering troubled him. But their filth and odor repulsed him and others of the upper class. Even the dirty working peasants were not to be touched. They stayed in their place in the back of the church.
Lepers were another group to be avoided and shunned. They had a type of skin disease that caused open bleeding sores and deformity. People were so terrified of infection, that they’d cast family members out of their own home. The lepers shook bells as they walked place to place – a warning so that others wouldn’t accidentally come in contact with them.
Lepers were at the mercy of some, including the young Clare Offreduccio (St. Clare), who’d place bread for them in prearranged spots outside the city wall. But fastidious Francis was simply terrified of coming in contact with lepers and looked upon them with horror.
He turned instead toward his desired future as a knight and knew he first needed to achieve honor in battle. Francis joined the young men of Assisi in a war against the neighboring city of Perugia. His father dressed him with the finest amour and weaponry. Although his mother feared for his safety and despaired that he wouldn’t become the monk of her dreams, even she understood that his participation in this battle would bring great honor to the family whether he returned as victor or corpse.
Instead, Francis was captured and placed in a Perugia prison until his father arranged to pay a ransom for his release. His time in prison and his mental battle scars lead him to spend his time in solitude and silence exploring nature and reading the Gospel. His mother took care of his needs while his father grew increasingly impatient for Francis to return to his carefree and carousing ways.
One day Francis awoke from a dream in which he wore white with a red cross and believed that God told him to fight for the Church. His father was overjoyed to hear that Francis wanted to join the Crusades, a decades long war over the Holy Land. Outfitted with the finest horse, armor, and weaponry, Francis left Assisi with the other knights in all honor and glory.
The next day, Francis heard a voice say, “Who do you really want to follow, the servant or the Lord?” He gave his finery to a poorly outfitted knight and returned home confused and feverish.
The fever probably saved Francis from his father’s crushing disappointment and anger. When Francis recovered, Pietro rejoiced and finally gave in to Pica by offering to send Francis to the Benedictine Monastery and financially supporting his life as a monk. Francis refused as he felt that God had another path for him. Pietro could only shake his head and wait for Francis to come to his senses and return to the family business.
Francis again spent time wandering around outside the city walls. One day he came upon a leper. Francis saw the open bleeding sores on his face and the soiled rags wrapped around his limbs. The man was surrounded by an odor of filth and disease. But Francis looked deeper and he saw the eyes of Jesus looking out of this man’s sick face. Francis was overcome with love and caring. He approached the man, and although the man cringed and held up a hand in warning, Francis embraced and kissed him.
Francis wept for pure joy and understanding – Jesus is everywhere and in everyone.
Francis starting caring for the lepers, bringing them food and fresh bandages. Pietro’s customers cancelled their orders because they were afraid that Francis had soiled the cloth with the lepers' infection. Pietro’s shock and rage consumed him. He found the joyous Francis at home and chained him in the cellar declaring that Francis would stay there until the craziness left him. When Pietro left on a trip, Pica released her son and sent him on his way.
Francis went to the ruins of a small chapel of San Damiano. He prayed and prayed until out of the cross, Jesus spoke to him, “Go repair my house which is in ruins.”
Although Francis would later understand that Jesus meant "fix my church" as it was being run like an unscrupulous, for-profit business, he initially believed that God wanted him to rebuild San Damiano Church. The ruins of the church were outside the city walls and visited only by the lepers and Francis.
In his excitement to get to work, he went home and took many bolts of fine cloth to sell at a discount in the streets and set the money aside to purchase supplies to rebuild the walls of San Damiano Church. It was a form of betrayal that left Pietro with such hurt and loss that his only recourse was to accuse Francis in public as he believed the community would help him regain control over his son.
Pietro laid out his grievances in front of the bishop and the assembled citizens, most likely including Clare as well as childhood friends of Francis. As prearranged with the bishop, Francis returned his father’s money and apologized for taking it and for being an ungrateful son of very good father.
Unexpectedly, he continued, “I renounce every right to your name and your inheritance.” He took off all his clothes and laid them at his father’s feet saying, “From now on my only father shall be our Father who art in Heaven.”
James Kiefer's Hagiographies
BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS Edited by Bernard Bangley
THE PERFECT JOY OF SAINT FRANCIS: A Novel by Felix Timmermans
Clare and Francis: A film produced by Ignatius Press
Of course, Francis’s story continues. The bishop most likely heard his vows, had his hair cut in obedience to the Lord, and gave him a brown friar's robe. Yet, Francis did not enter a monastery. He begged in the streets and taverns for bread to share and stones to rebuild San Damiano Church. He attracted followers . . .
But what about his father? Did he finally learn to accept the new Francis? And if so, did Francis allow himself to be accepted by his father? We can only guess.
They provided for us a vivid example of those poignant moments in which we outgrow our parents. For some of us it’s a gradual process, an understanding that we no longer need their approval of our life’s choices. The significant moments fade from memory as we develop a new adult relationship with our parents.
I remember one from when I was a teenager and said to my father, “Dad, I don’t think going after the wasps’ nest with the garden hose is such a good idea.”
For others it’s a more dramatic moment, in which proclamations are declared, acts taken, mirrors held up. Sometimes these moments cannot be erased nor accepted. What do we do when it seems as if all is lost?
We forgive. No one is perfect. Even Saint Francis made mistakes. He was, after all, human.
There’s something about St. Francis and his love for everyone and everything that seems symbolized in the form of bread, especially bread that is shared.
Even though I’m a baker’s daughter, before preparing for this post, I’ve never made bread from scratch before. It ain’t easy. If you consider how time consuming the process can be especially when factoring in the learning curve, it’s simply easier to purchase delicious bread from your local bakery. I’m partial to Great Harvest Bread Company.
My family loves when I use our bread machine, especially in the winter. Follow the instructions on the box of bread machine ingredients, dump them in, turn it on, make sure it’s not too close to the edge of the counter or else it might knock itself off while kneading the dough, breathe in the luscious smell of baking bread and enjoy with the meal you just happened to start off in your crock pot.
Making bread from scratch is more in the category of hobby or, as I learned the hard way, a study of chemistry. Hint: Yeast is alive and very easy to kill. Once I learned the proper care and feeding of yeast, I enjoyed myself, especially the bit about the sharing and the eating.
1 package dry active yeast (NOT Quick or Rapid Rise)
1 cup water heated to 110 or 115 degrees F (check with candy thermometer)
1 TBS sugar
3 cups bread flour lightly packed leveled with knife
¼ cup bread flour to sprinkle on surface before kneading
1-1/2 TBS olive oil (1TBS to mix into dough, 1/2 TBS spread on top of dough)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1/8 cup corn meal
1 egg white
1. Heat water in pot on stove until temperature reaches 110 or 115 degrees F. Measure out 1 cup. Add sugar. Stir. Add yeast. Stir and wait 5 minutes to proof the yeast.
2. Place flour and salt in bowl and stir.
3. If a bubbling foam layer has developed on the yeast mixture, pour it into a large bowl.*
4. Stir in the olive oil and mix the flour in gradually until it’s all absorbed, either with an electric mixer, a spoon or your clean hands.
5. If you used your hands, wash them again. Sprinkle flour onto a clean flat surface as well as on the sticky ball of dough. Knead (squish, mash, push, pull) it for a full 10 minutes. Set a timer, if necessary. If your hands get too sticky “wash” them in more flour.
6. Place dough in a large glass or oven-safe bowl coated with olive oil. Roll dough ball around until it’s also coated with olive oil.
7. Cover bowl with a damp towel and proof (let rise) in a warm place (about 85 degree F) until it doubles in size, about 45 minutes.**
8. Once the dough has risen, punch it down to remove the air. Let it rest on the counter for 10 minutes.
9. Form into a round shape on a cookie sheet sprinkled with corn meal on parchment paper, or spread into a loaf pan. If making a long loaf shape, flatten dough out with a rolling pin, then roll dough up. This will help the dough keep it high shape and not spread out on the cookie sheet. Coat with olive oil and proof again until it doubles in size about 45 minutes.***
10. Remove proofed dough from oven. Place pizza stone in oven for even cooking. Place a pan of water on bottom rack to provide moisture during baking for a crispy crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
11. Combine 1 or 2 teaspoons of water with egg white, stir with whisk and brush over dough.
12. Make a few ¼ inch deep slits across the top of dough using a razor blade or very sharp knife so air can escape.
13. Place cookie sheet or loaf pan on pizza stone and bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes or until bread is browned on the bottom.***
14. Cool on a wire rack.
*If the yeast does not develop the bubbling foam layer, then the yeast is dead and the bread won’t rise. Throw it out and start over. Check the date code on your yeast package, make sure it’s not Quick or Rapid Rise yeast, and confirm that your water temperature is not above 120 degrees. If you’re still having trouble, check the internet or make a phone call to a trusted baking source. I called my dad.
**A good place is the oven. Some newer ovens actually have a “proof” setting. Or you can turn your oven up to “warm,” then turn it off and place the dough in the warmed but not too-hot oven.
*** Temperature and bake time will vary according to your climate and oven. Don't use insulated cookie sheets as you want the bread to brown on the bottom.
Comment below if you’d like to share bread baking advice or mishap stories.