John’s background and early life could be easily described as lavish. His Italian dad made his money in the silk garment industry; his mother sprang from French royalty. So, yes, one could say that John’s upbringing was luxurious. His dad, knowing that his son was half French, fondly nicknamed him The Frenchman.
And, as one might expect, John felt superior to those around him because of his family’s wealth. He was accustomed to the finest things because that was all he had known since birth. Fine clothing, fine wines, fine women, fine friends—and it did not hurt him that he was incredibly handsome and had a witty mind and a fast tongue. Who wouldn’t feel superior? John had every reason to feel so. His life’s ambition as he grew into young manhood was to become a singer in a band because he liked the musician lifestyle.
One day, as he was with his dad on a sales call, John was approached by a beggar who asked him for some change. John not only gave the man his change, but he also gave him all the money that was on him—a not insignificant amount. The act of kindness caused John to receive a chastisement from his father. The man saw John’s charity as weakness. His friends likewise mocked him for his choice.
But the encounter with the beggar somehow changed John in a profound way. He decided that his superior attitude and devil-may-care lifestyle was somehow a useless way to live, and since his nation was at war, John joined the army. During the war, John was captured and held as a POW for a time. He became deathly ill during his captivity, and this caused even more self-reflection on John’s part. However, when he was finally freed when the war ended, and he returned home, John once again took up his playboy lifestyle.
Some say that the illness he suffered while in the prison camp caused John to have hallucinations. What he himself later testified to was that he started to see things. These visions told him to once again renounce his wealth and seek happiness among the poor of the land. And, so, that is exactly what John did. He began a life of a beggar. He would only eat what was given to him. He began telling all who would listen that the secret to happiness was to dedicate oneself to God and to an extremely Spartan lifestyle. Because of his earnestness, his innate charm, and the fact that it was known that he had rejected wealth to become penurious, people were drawn to John and his teaching.
By the way, in Italian, John’s name is, of course, Giovanni. But also in Italian, The Frenchman—the name by which everyone knows him—is Francesco. We anglicize that name into Francis.
St. Francis of Assisi.