Francis of Assisi has become probably the most beloved figure of the European Middle Ages,
transcending time and religious divisions. He is remembered as taming the wildest of beasts with
gentleness, captivating the birds in the air with his praise of nature, singing songs of love to the
sunshine, moving the very stones to cry the praises of their common creator, and speaking
familiarly with God, Francis seems to fit the needs of many people in a very special way. The
Franciscan Order (OFM) have placed a sympathetic account of their founder's life on-line, and it
may be accessed
We are so fixed upon his gentleness, humility, trust in the morrow and simple joy of life that it is
difficult to recognize him as a revolutionary figure, whose words and example sparked a
movement that seemed to many at the time to endanger the very bases of civilization as they
knew it. Such, however, was the case.
In 1209, Francis and a few of his followers went to Rome to obtain papal permission to follow
the way of life Francis had chosen. He intended to follow the example of Jesus in all ways
possible, particularly in regard to Jesus' poverty. He and his followers were to own no property
but would dress in the cast-off clothes of the peasants. They would live in huts of twigs and
branches in the winter and wander the roads of Europe with the paupers, seeking work and eating
only what they could earn. They would not subject themselves to a schedule, compose and
follow complex rules, establish a hierarchy of officers, or or practice austerities beyond those
imposed by their way of life. There would be no novitiate, and members could leave if they
found that they could not meet the ideals of the group. They would not only care for the naked,
hungry, thirsty, sick and oppressed, but would join them.
Pope Innocent III (1196-1215) was moved by their idealism, but doubted whether they could live
up to their aspirations. Nevertheless, he gave them permission to undertake the life they proposed
and promised them his protection, although only orally and not through an official papal decree.
He might not have done so if he had stopped to think that, without a rule or officers, each
Franciscan was free to do whatever he (and later she) thought was right. Although the
Franciscans gathered together once a year, it was to discuss and share their enthusiasm rather
than to make rules and decide disputes. Francis felt that each person was responsible for his or
her own actions, so it was an early element of Franciscan belief that each person had the right to
refuse to obey any order (and perhaps law) that he or she felt was immoral or unjust.
Francis and his followers returned to Assisi and took up the way of life that they had proposed.
The movement spread in a way that neither the pope nor Francis had anticipated. Literally