Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the best known and most loved saints, not only in the Catholic Church, but among admired historical figures throughout the world and across many cultures. As a young man in early 13th century Italy, he experienced a profound personal conversion. It changed him from an immature and careless adolescent to a man who saw the whole world around him as a gift and all persons, especially the poor and suffering, as brothers and sisters.
He himself identified his conversion moment with meeting a leper near Assisi. On that day of grace, he suddenly realized that the leper was a human being like himself, created by God out of love and loved by God without limit. This sudden sense of communion with the other transformed Francis's way of viewing the world and filled him with a sense of awe and profound compassion. He determined then to live in an entirely different way, abandoning his comfortable middle-class life style. He saw himself as a poor man before God, from whom all good comes. He realized that he himself could make no claims to goodness—all was gift. With this new awareness, the entire creation appeared amazing and wonderful—something to be treated with the greatest reverence and respect.
Francis began to live an austere life of poverty and manual labor, seeing the gospel as his guide and Jesus Christ as his model of the perfect human life. Eventually, other men gathered around him to share this life. They focused their attention on prayer and proclaimed God's goodness joyfully wherever they went. They invited others to conversion of life. They saw that many lives needed to be turned around, away from selfishness and towards generous and forgiving relationships.
Pope Innocent III gave conditional approval to Francis and his brothers in 1209, allowing them to preach "penance" to the people. By 1223, Pope Honorius III gave unconditional approval to the Order, and its Rule became official. By the time of Francis's death in 1226 at the age of 44, there were over 5000 Franciscan brothers in Europe and England.