Francis of Assisi
Francis was born in Italy into a wealthy merchant family of the town of Assisi in 1181 or 1182. After a series of dreams, revelations and encounters with God, he knew that God was calling him to a life of radical poverty. Francis formed a community of brothers which soon spread across Europe. He presented the Church with a challenge, born in love: to follow Jesus' earthly life, to preach, heal, and make peace.
Francis was the son of a successful cloth merchant. Trade spread throughout Europe at this time; and new towns and cities came into being as merchants settled near ports or at the crossroads of the new network of roads. The balance of the population shifted from rural to urban areas, and this led to a shift in the balance of power too.
Previously the feudal system had been paramount, with everyone accountable to their lord – a great landowner, bishop or abbot. They collected taxes and tolls, gave permission to travel, and ran the courts. But in the towns merchants and craftsmen banded together into associations, called in Italy communes, which challenged the power of the traditional rural ruling classes. The feudal system began to break down, and with it the whole structure of society changed. The vertical relationships of inferiors and superiors of the feudal system, changed into the horizontal relationships of the new urban centres. From a society of masters and servants, overlords and vassals, it became one, ideally, of brothers. Francis called his community the Lesser Brothers, reflecting this new social reality.
Of course inequality still existed, but it was based now not on the accident of birth into a powerful or powerless family, but on wealth. Initially this was in the form of land and possessions, but money came increasingly to be used, and to replace barter in trade. For Francis money was an innovation, and one which pointed up inequalities, and perhaps this lies at the heart of his rejection of it as part of his wider commitment to poverty.
All of these changes did not take place peacefully. The landowners, who saw their power threatened, fought with the emerging middle class of merchants and craftsmen. The new cities fought with each other. And on a wider canvas there were tensions between the Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire and successive popes, and between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
The church too was in a time of change. The turning of the first millennium in 1000 had sparked off a desire for reform, and there had been a number of important meetings, called Councils, in the twelfth century, culminating in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This had a particular effect on Francis, and its decrees and reforms are reflected in his writings.
Francis cannot be understood without appreciating the contribution made by Clare of Assisi. She was born in 1193 or 1194, the daughter of a nobleman in Assisi. When Francis began to preach in the squares of Assisi in 1210 she was 16 years old, 11 years younger than him. Captivated by Francis’ preaching of a simple gospel life, and especially his emphasis on poverty, she made up her mind to join him. On Palm Sunday 1212 she left her parents’ house secretly. She had already sold her dowry and given the money to the poor. At the little church of St Mary of the Angels, just below Assisi she met Francis and a few of his brothers. She changed her dress for a simple habit, and took off her jewellery. Francis cut her hair, and she made a vow of obedience to him. At first she lived with a Benedictine community of nuns, doing simple menial tasks. Soon Clare was joined by her sister Catherine, who Francis named Agnes. Clare and Agnes. Clare and Agnes moved to San Damiano, the church where Francis had heard the crucifix speak to him. Here the first community of Poor Clares came into being. It grew rapidly, and in 1215, very much against her will, Clare was made Abbess. She held this position until her death in 1253. Two years after she was declared a saint by the church.
Francis and Clare lived in times of great change, and in their lives sought to respond to the needs of the day, and the concerns of those around them. Thus they inspire Franciscans in this present age.