St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, led a brief, if productive life, dying in 1226 at about 44 years of age. (His exact birth date is unknown.) The final years of Francis' life were marked largely by illness and physical discomfort, including the first recorded case of stigmata in Christian history.
Stigmata is the appearance of wound marks matching those recorded on Jesus after his crucifixion. The marks can include wounds in hands and feet as if from nails, a gash in the side from a lance and head wounds from the crown of thorns. To qualify as stigmata in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the wounds must be spontaneous, of supernatural origins, rather than by a person's own hands. “Genuine stigmata,” according to the church, bleed most often on important spiritual days such as Good Friday. Francis became the first certified stigmatic in August 1224. As he was praying at a mountain hermitage, Francis is said to have asked to share in the sufferings of Christ. One month later, at the Feast of the Holy Cross, Francis is believed to have had a vision of embracing Jesus and, as a result, received the stigmata.
In addition to his stigmatic marks, Francis suffered greatly toward the end of his life from trachoma, an eye infection that can lead to blindness. This condition left him with an extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing or eye discharge. At the time, Francis' doctors believed this tearing to be the cause of his weakening sight, but it now appears it was a symptom. Some scholars and historians believe Francis contracted the trachoma during his stay in Egypt, to which he embarked in 1219. Here he seems also to have picked up malaria. There are also accounts of Francis vomiting blood, a possible indication of a gastric ulcer. The treatments for these ailments appear almost worse than the illnesses themselves: Cauterizing Francis' face with a hot iron and piercing his eardrums were both attempted.
All of this amounted to an incredible amount of pain and suffering for Francis. Death became a larger preoccupation for him. The evidence can be seen in the final two stanzas he added to his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon”: "Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will. No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks, And serve Him with great humility." Sister Death arrived for St. Francis on October 3, 1226.
Two years after his death, in 1228, Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX, the former Cardinal Hugolino and a friend of the deceased. In his address for Francis' canonization, Gregory called him “so great a light” that God could not permit it to remain under a bushel, adding, “God declared through many brilliant miracles that his life has been acceptable to God and his memory should be honored by the Church Militant.”
- Catholic Education Resource Center: What is the Stigmata?
- The Ecstasies of St. Francis; John R. Haule
- The New Yorker: "Rich Man, Poor Man"
- Catholic Online: "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon"
- The Franciscan Friars, Tor: "Chronology of St. Francis' Life"
- EWTN: "The Bull Canonization of St. Francis of Assisi"
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images