Saint Francis of Assisi Patron Saint of Animals and Environment
November 1, 2017 | View PDF
Saint Francis of Assisi changed the world during his brief life, and he is still remembered worldwide today for the miracles people say God performed through him and the compassion he showed to the vulnerable -- especially poor people, sick people, and animals. The man who became known as Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone in Assisi, Umbria (which is now part of Italy) around 1181 into a wealthy family. He lived a life of leisure in his youth, but he was restless, and by 1202 he had joined a militia group. After a battle between soldiers from Assisi and the town of Perugia, Francis (who had taken the name "Francesco," or "Francis" in English, as his nickname) spent a year as a prisoner of war. He and devoted a lot of time to seeking a closer relationship with God and discovering God's purposes for his life.
Gradually, Francis became convinced that God wanted him to help poor people more, so Francis began giving away his possessions to those in need, even though that made his wealthy father angry. While worshiping at a Mass in 1208, Francis heard the priest read the words of Jesus Christ giving his disciples instructions for how to minister to people.
The gospel was Matthew 10:9-10: "Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts - no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff." Francis believed that those words confirmed the calling he sensed to live a simple lifestyle himself so he could best preach the Gospel to those in need. Francis' passionate worship and service to God inspired other young men to give up their possessions and join Francis, wearing simple tunics, working with their hands to earn food to eat, and sleeping in caves or in crude huts they made out of branches. They walked to places like Assisi's marketplace to meet people and talk with them about God's love and forgiveness, and they also regularly spent time praying. These groups of men became an official part of the Catholic Church called the Franciscan Order, which is still active serving the poor throughout the world today. Francis had a childhood friend from Assisi named Clare who also sensed God's call to leave her wealth behind and adopt a simple lifestyle while reaching out to help poor people. Clare, who helped care for Francis when he ill during the last years of his life, began a women's prayer and service group called the Poor Clares. This group also grew to become an official part of the Catholic Church that is still active worldwide today. After Francis died in 1226, people who were with him reported seeing a large flock of larks swoop down near him and sing at the moment of his death. Just two years later, Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis as a saint, based on the evidence of the miracles that had occurred during Francis' ministry.
Francis' compassion for people struggling with poverty and illness inspired many more fortunate people to reach out to help those in need. Francis himself experienced both poverty and illness for many years since he chose a simple life. He contracted conjunctivitis and malaria while ministering to sick people. Francis prayed that God would perform miracles through him to help people in need whenever doing so would serve a good purpose. Francis once washed a man afflicted by the destructive skin disease leprosy, and also prayed for the demon who was tormenting the man mentally to leave his soul. Then, miraculously, "as the flesh began to heal, so the soul also began to heal, so that the leper, seeing that he was beginning to be made whole, began to feel great remorse and repentance for his sins, and to weep very bitterly." After the man was "completely cured, both in body and soul," he confessed his sins and reconciled with God.
After three robbers stole food and drink from Francis' monastic community, Francis prayed for the men and sent one of his friars (who had previously scolded them) to apologize for being cruel and to give them bread and wine. The robbers were miraculously moved so much by Francis' prayers and kindness that they joined the Franciscan order and spent the rest of their lives giving to people instead of taking from them. Francis saw animals as his brothers and sisters because they were God's creatures just like people. He said of animals: "Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission -- to be of service to them wherever they require it." So Francis prayed that God would work through him to help animals as well as people. Flocks of birds would sometimes gather while Francis was speaking, and "The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi" records that the birds listened intently to Francis' sermons. "St. Francis lifted up his eyes, and saw on some trees by the wayside a great multitude of birds; and being much surprised, he said to his companions, 'Wait for me here by the way, whilst I go and preach to my little sisters the birds'; and entering into the field, he began to preach to the birds which were on the ground, and suddenly all those also on the trees came round him, and all listened while St Francis preached to them, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing." While preaching to the birds, Francis would remind them of the many ways in which God had blessed them, and conclude his sermon by saying: "Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God." When Francis lived in the town of Gubbio, a wolf was terrorizing the area by attacking and killing people and other animals. Francis decided to meet with the wolf to try to tame it. He left Gubbio and headed toward the surrounding countryside, with many people watching.
The wolf charged toward Francis with open jaws the moment they met. But Francis prayed and made the sign of the cross, and then advanced closer to the wolf and called out to it: "Come here brother wolf. I command you in Christ's name that you do no harm to me or to any other." People reported that the wolf instantly obeyed by closing his mouth, lowering his head, creeping slowly closer to Francis, and then lying calmly on the ground beside Francis' feet. Francis then continued talking to the wolf by saying: "Brother wolf, you do much damage in these parts, and you have committed great crimes, destroying and slaying the creatures of God without his permission. ... But I desire, brother wolf, to make peace between you and them so that you may no more offend them and that they may forgive you all your past offenses and neither men nor dogs may pursue you anymore." After the wolf responded by bowing his head, moving his eyes, and wagging his tail to indicate that he accepted Francis' words, Francis offered the wolf a deal. Francis would make sure that the people of Gubbio would feed the wolf regularly if the wolf would promise never to injure any person or animal again. Then Francis said: "Brother wolf, I desire that you swear fealty to me regarding this promise, so I may trust you utterly," and held out one of his hands to the wolf. Miraculously, "The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi" reports: "the wolf lifted up his right forepaw and put it with friendly confidence in the hand of St. Francis, giving thereby such token of fealty as he was able." After that, the wolf lived for two years in Gubbio before dying of old age, interacting peacefully with the people who fed him regularly and never harming people or animals again.
THE CANTICLE OF THE CREATURES
Although Francis left behind relatively few written documents, his Canticle of the Creatures (also known as The Canticle of Brother Sun) is included and was considered by Pope John Paul II to be a beautiful reminder that everything from God bears significance
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
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 splendor;
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 which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which 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 varied fruits with colored 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.
Franciscan Animal Blessings
For All Animals
Blessed are you, Lord God,
maker of all living creatures.
On the fifth and sixth days of creation,
you called forth fish in the sea,
birds in the air, and animals on the land.
You inspired St. Francis to call all animals
his brothers and sisters.
We ask you to bless this animal.
By the power of your love,
enable [him or her] to live according to your plan.
May we always praise you
for all your beauty in creation.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.
For a Sick Animal
you created all things for your glory
and made us stewards of this creature.
If it is your will, restore [him or her] to health and strength.
Blessed are you, Lord God,
and holy is your name forever and ever. Amen.