Many images of St. Francis of Assisi depict the monk cloaked in a brown sack-cloth frock surrounded by animals—sheep, dogs, cats, bunnies, and even birds circling him. That image is so ingrained in us that we don’t think of the Saint as a person. Most people would never think of St. Francis as a young man, let alone as a playboy. In fact, we don’t think of such a thing in the 12th Century, yet Francis was a good-looking, charming young man. He was considered a playboy in his time. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1181, or thereabouts. His mother was a beautiful French woman and his father was a wealthy cloth merchant—born into a life of luxury. As such, he imbibed in wine and the epicurean delights of rich food. He celebrated life.
But that changed.
A war broke out between Assisi and Perugia. Francis enlisted to fight and donned battle armor. Many of his comrades were cut down and lay dead on the battlefield but Francis was captured and spared death. His captors could see by his armor and finery that he was wealthy and was held in prison for ransom. Negotiations dragged on for nearly a year before the payment was made and Francis was released and returned safely back to Assisi to his family. He had changed while suffering in prison—having had visions of God. Francis slowly began the process of breaking with his family and embracing a life of prayer and devotion to the Lord. He adopted Christ-like poverty and forsook his family’s wealth and riches, renouncing his inheritance, his family, and declaring that God was his only father.
Francis began preaching in a plain brown tunic. His charisma and devotion drew crowds to hear him preach. Some thought he was a madman while others were convinced that he had true visions of God. He attracted followers who became known as Franciscan friars. Francis preached in villages near and far—he even preached to the animals—which garnered him the epithet, “God’s Fool.” However, it is one of the reasons he is remembered for his love of animals and why he is often depicted surrounded by them.
But, he is also shown with a skull. Francis had failing health and often contemplated death. Sometimes to encourage his brethren to also contemplate death, he would put a skull on the breakfast table. He did not see death as an enemy of man, but a friend. In “The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” Francis wrote, “Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin!” The skull emphasized the ephemeral nature of life and that a life devoted to God would have victory over death.
Francis died on October 3, 1226, at the young age of 44, in Assisi. He was the first to have received the stigmata of Christ—marks resembling the wounds that Jesus Himself suffered when he was crucified—which he bore with strength and courage. Less than two years after his death, Francis was canonized as a saint on July 16, 1228.