Francis was born into a silk merchant family in Assisi, Italy. As a young man he lived an extravagant life with beautiful silk clothes and accessories, while partying, squandering money on drink and girls, and playing practical jokes on people. In a whimsical search for adventure he enlisted as a soldier, and was taken prisoner. He spent a year as a captive. After his liberation, he felt depressed at the thought of picking up his frivolous life once more. The only moments of consolation were those of secret prayer in a corner of the church. One day, he met a leper on the road. Without thinking, he descended from his horse and embraced the man with the contagious disease, giving him what cash he had on him. In a deserted chapel, dedicated to San Damiano, he knelt before the icon of Jesus on the Cross. Here, he heard a voice telling him to repair God’s house. First, he thought that he was to restore the chapel, which was crumbling down. Then he realised that the entire Church community was crumbling down, and that preaching the faith was of the utmost importance. This discovery changed his life completely.
To his family’s shame, Francis began to live like a beggar, asking for alms and counting on God’s providence alone. He did not want to have any earthly possessions, and spoke with great joy to anyone he met about the love of God for every creature. So great was his love for God, that he even preached when no one was present, addressing his enthusiastic words to the animals he encountered in nature.
He saw God’s splendour in people, animals, and nature alike. Soon, his example attracted followers, the first Franciscan friars. They lived by a simple Rule written by Francis, which focuses on poverty and preaching. Francis undertook various attempts to preach the gospel outside of Italy. He even tried to convert the Sultan of Egypt, and received permission to go to the Holy Land, where until today the Franciscans are in charge of the holy places as ‘Custodians of the Holy Land.’ Francis’s closeness to Jesus was clear in everything. Probably he is so universally loved precisely because he so closely resembled Jesus in his own life.
Love for Creation
Francis was profoundly in love with God, and had great care for both people and animals. In everything he demonstrated a love for God’s creation. For example, he ‘invented’ the nativity scene — with a real ox and donkey — so that people could use all their senses in recognising the mystery of Jesus’s birth. He cared for these animals by giving them a manger with straw.
Francis even called animals his sisters and brothers. He knew that God has given human beings stewardship over creation, which includes care for animals. In some places, on Saint Francis’s feast day people bring animals to church, where these are blessed. World Animal Day is dedicated to him.
It is very Catholic to care for creation. God entrusted us with stewardship over nature, including animals (Gen 1:28-30). Animals can serve for our wellbeing, for example as food or for transportation. At the same time, animals have the right to be protected and cared for. Pope Francis said that every act of cruelty towards animals is contrary to human dignity (Laudato si, 92). God himself ordered us to care for creation. In line with Saint Francis, we can see all creatures and creation as our brothers and sisters. Do you want to praise God for all creation?
‘Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir brother Sun…
Praised be you, my Lord,
through sister Moon and the stars…
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 our sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape…
Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks
and serve him with great humility.’
[Francis, Canticle of the Creatures, 1224]
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