It is no coincidence that the feast day of St Francis of Assisi and World Animal Day are both celebrated on 4th October each year because for Francis, all of creation was sacred. From the tiniest insect to the largest mammal, from the wind and rain to the sun and stars, all were the work of the Divine, all were worthy of respect and love.
Francis was born in 1181 to Pietro Bernadone and his wife, Pica in Umbria, in present-day Italy. Francis’s father was a cloth merchant who travelled frequently to France for business and it was Pietro who is said to have named his son ‘Francesco’ (Francis) in honour of his love for France. It was expected that Francis would follow his father into the cloth trade but he had other ideas, enjoying a wild social life and even going off to fight in a civil war. In 1201 Francis was captured by the enemy and spent one year in prison before being released when his wealthy father paid the ransom for him. But the captivity experience did not deter Francis and, in 1204, he set off to enlist for the 4th Crusade. However, he never made it as, en route, he began to experience strange dreams and visions and, unable to continue with his journey, he returned to Assisi and worked with his father for a time.
But Francis remained unsettled and, in 1205, he found himself in the old church of San Damiano, gazing at a crucifix. As he gazed, it seemed that the figure of Christ spoke to him, instructing him to repair the old church. Francis did not hesitate – he took the directive literally and set about repairing, stone by stone, the crumbling little church, paying for the repairs by selling his horse and some of his father’s most expensive cloth.
Today, no doubt, we would regard Francis’s visions as something requiring medical attention but in the Middle Ages, visions were usually understood as messages of divine (or sometimes diabolical) origin. Francis’s father took the latter view and, infuriated by his son’s behaviour, he had Francis brought before the town council. Francis answered the charges by stripping naked in the piazza, giving everything back to his father, including his clothes. From then on, Francis dressed in rags and went about begging for his food, preaching poverty and the love of God and all creation.
Soon others joined him on his quest. In late 1209/early 1210, Francis and 11 brothers travelled to Rome to seek the pope’s permission to establish a new (religious) order. At first the pope was very reluctant to grant such permission but then he had a dream in which he saw Francis propping up a crumbling church – and not just a single edifice but the whole institution. So, on 16 April 1210, Pope Honorius III gave verbal approval for the establishment of the ‘Order of Friars Minor’ (later, the ‘Franciscans’). Basically, the Franciscan Rule called only for the friars to preach the gospel and to live in absolute poverty. More and more men join Francis and the brothers set about preaching far and wide, even going into Egypt and the Holy Land in 1219. It is said that Francis preached to anyone and anything – his address to the birds, and to a troublesome wolf in Gubbio being particularly familiar stories to us even now.
When Francis’s health and eyesight began to rapidly decline, he retreated from his extensive preaching, spending more time in solitary contemplation. During this period, he composed his famous Canticle of the Sun (sometimes called the Canticle of the Creatures) ***
Francis died on Saturday, 3rd October 1226, at age 45 years and, only two years later (1228) was canonised a saint by Pope Gregory IX. (Of course, some political reasons contributed to this expediency but, even so, in those early years, Francis’s dedication and contributions were undeniable). Centuries on, Francis was proclaimed a patron saint of Italy in 1939 and, in 1980, he was declared the patron saint of ecology.
How wonderful that one man’s love of all creation has persisted for nearly 800 years to be an example that we can all follow today in caring for our planet, and all creatures great and small.
*** Canticle of Creatures
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.