If the pope hadn't dreamed, the history of the Church might have been very different.

Exactly eight centuries ago, in 1209, St. Francis of Assisi arrived in Rome to request papal approval of a community he had founded. Pope Innocent III had recently dreamed of the Lateran Basilica, Christianity's mother church, tilting dangerously as though falling, and a young man in a brown habit steadying it firmly against his shoulder.

Recognizing the raggedy-looking Francis as the man from his dream, Innocent granted him the audience he wanted and soon gave his approval to the fledgling order. The decision was momentous, for Francis and his order would have an incalculable impact on Christian spirituality, theology, liturgy, charity and the work of social justice, right up to our own day.

But it was a long journey from the Umbrian countryside that Francis called home to the Lateran palace that day.

Call to conversion

Francis Bernardone was born in the village of Assisi, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and his wife, around 1182. As an adolescent, he embraced his life of privilege. His wealth, charisma and good looks made him popular among the young men of Assisi, and he threw himself into frivolous pursuits with rowdy friends.

At 20, seeking adventure and glory, Francis joined the local army in battle against a nearby city-state. He was captured and spent a year in prison before finally returning home. He soon became sick and spent many months convalescing. In the reflective time these periods provided, Francis began to feel called to a different kind of adventure.

A first sign of the conversion that was transforming him came when he met a man with leprosy as Francis traveled the countryside on horseback. Though he would previously have been repulsed by such a man, now Francis stopped to offer his cloak. He dismounted, approached the leper with arms outstretched, and kissed his diseased face.

Later, sitting in the dilapidated little chapel of San Damiano, outside Assisi, Francis heard Christ speak to him from a painted crucifix that hung on the sanctuary wall: "Repair my house, which, as you can see, has fallen into disrepair."

Assuming God wanted him to restore the crumbling building, Francis set to work. To get money for supplies, he sold some cloth from his father's store. His father was furious and demanded that his son return the money. This led to the famous scene in Assisi's public square, in which Francis not only returned his father's money, but brashly tore off his own clothes and threw them at his father's feet, crying out, "From now on, my only father is the Father in heaven."

He committed himself to the simple life of itinerate begging. His growing love for God compelled him to repair several of the area's little churches. One of them was the Portiuncula, which would remain a favorite site for the rest of his life.

A crucial year

In 1209, Francis was about 27. Hearing a sermon on Matthew 10 -- in which Jesus sends out the apostles to preach the Gospel, taking no money or shoes for the journey -- marked another step in his ongoing conversion to Christ. Francis felt called to follow it precisely, and to his itinerate begging he added preaching.

As in his youth, Francis' charismatic appeal brought followers.

"He wasn't looking for followers. They simply asked to join him in his radical way of following Jesus," said Father Dominic Monti, O.F.M., author of "Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars" (St. Anthony Messenger, $14.95). Within months, the group included a dozen men. Francis eventually called it the Order of Friars Minor -- literally, "lesser brothers."

Also in 1209, Francis met Chiara (in English, Clare) Offreduccio, who was about 15 at the time. Hearing Francis preaching in the Assisi streets, she was deeply moved. Soon after this, when her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her, she ran from her home and committed herself, under Francis' guidance, to the same life of poverty. She became the co-founder with him of the female branch of the order, which is known as the Poor Clares.

Finally, 1209 also brought the approval from Pope Innocent III.

"Having the pope embrace what he was doing was incredibly important to Francis. He was always a faithful son of the Church. It was important to him to have that connection to the Church," said Susan Pitchford, an Anglican Third Order Franciscan and author of "Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone" (Morehouse Publishing, $16).

The community grew quickly. Francis organized it into three distinct orders. The community of male friars and priests was called the First Order. The consecrated women made up the Second Order. Members of both groups took religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Later, Francis added the Third Order for laymen and women, as well as secular clergy, whose members lived outside of a religious community.

In his later years, Francis entrusted the daily governance of his order to others, but he remained active in its development. He wrote guidelines for the lives of its members and became frustrated by major divisions that began to develop.

Surrounded by many of his spiritual brothers, he died at Portiuncula, on Oct. 3, 1226. Pope Gregory IX canonized him less than two years later.

Competing values

The years after Francis' death were marked by remarkable growth in the order, but also complex development and division. Pitchford attributes much of the success to Francis' passion.

"What is so compelling is Francis' passion, that romantic imagination. He saw the Christian life as an adventure. Our tendency is to allow our religious routines to become bland and lose sight of what we're called to. Francis always knew he was on a terribly important and exciting quest," she said.

But maintaining that passion and original vision was a challenge. "The question then and now," Pitchord said, "is 'How do you keep that original fire?'"

The three primary divisions came to be the Order of Friars Minor, the OFM Conventuals, and the OFM Capuchins.

"Many orders, such as the Dominicans, never experienced the divisions we have had, because they had a much clearer purpose," said Father Monti. "At the heart of the Franciscan order are some competing values, and how the life is lived depends on where the accent was placed."

Monti cited as four competing Franciscan values: prayer, creating a brotherhood, living simply and humbly, and mission. He noted that the Capuchin reform in the 16th century, for example, was driven by a desire to emphasize the third value.

In addition to the three primary branches of the order, there are many smaller Franciscan communities, such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the United States. Today, Franciscans can be found preaching, teaching children, providing medical care, feeding the poor, doing theological scholarship, defending the environment and much more.

Last month, around 2,000 friars, priests, sisters and laypeople gathered from around the world in Assisi and Rome, in thanksgiving for the 800th anniversary. Perhaps one thing for which many gave thanks was the fact that Pope Innocent dreamed.

St. Francis' ecumenical appeal

St. Francis of Assisi holds a broad ecumenical appeal. His ardent love for Christ is inspirational to many outside the Catholic Church. His simplicity, charity and peaceful ways draw the admiration even of non-Christians. When Pope John Paul II invited leaders from many world religions for a historic day of prayer for peace in 1983, he chose Assisi as the gathering place.

There are even Franciscan orders outside the Catholic Church. The Society of St. Francis is a religious order within the worldwide Episcopal Church, and exists in the United States as The Third Order, Society of St. Francis. The Order of Ecumenical Franciscans includes members from a variety of denominations, including Lutheran, Mennonite, Quaker, Salvation Army and Assembly of God.

Famous Franciscans

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) -- friend and co-founder

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) -- Doctor of the Church

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) -- Doctor of the Church

Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) -- philosopher and theologian

William of Ockham (1288-1348) -- philosopher

St. Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) -- great missionary priest

Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) -- founder of the California missions

St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) -- miracle worker and stigmatist

St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) -- martyr

Father Mychal Judge (1933-2001) -- fire chaplain who was the first recorded victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks

Secular Franciscans

Laymen and women who wish to follow St. Francis of Assisi's spirituality may be called to join the Secular Franciscan Order. There are three stages in the process of becoming a tertiary, or Secular Franciscan.

Stage 1: Orientation, which lasts at least three months, introduces inquirers to the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi and gives them information about the order, which helps them discern if they are being called to the vocation.

Stage 2: Inquiry, in which they partake in in-depth study of St. Francis and Franciscan charism and spirituality. This period typically lasts a minimum of six months.

Stage 3: Candidacy, lasting at least 18 months, which is a preparation period for immersion into fraternity life. Central to this stage is the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order: "The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people."

Source: National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order-USA

Barry Michaels writes from New York.