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Catholics commemorate the Feast of St Francis of Assisi

Catholics across the world are today commemorating the feast of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis is the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals and the environment and today’s feast day commemorates his transition from this life to the afterlife.

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Unsurprisingly, it is one of the most important festivals on the calendar in the saint’s home town of Assisi in Umbria, Italy which is illuminated by oil lamps that burn consecrated oil every year. Services are also held in the Basilica of St Francis and in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Yet the celebrations aren’t confined to Italy.

St Francis was known for his love of all created things, particularly animals. He had a strong sense of that he was a created being within wider creation – a sentiment expressed in his Canticle of Creatures where he famously references “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon and Stars”.

His love for animals in particular has inspired artists of all types across generations – American poet Galway Kinnell’s ‘Saint Francis and the Sow‘ and artist Giotto di Bondone’s fresco of ‘St Francis preaching to the birds’, found in the Basilica bearing his name in Assisi, are just two examples.

To reflect these passions, Catholic children in some countries will celebrate today’s feast by bringing their pets to the church to be blessed or take part in other activities reflecting on animals and nature. Coinciding with World Animal Day, many will take the opportunity to highlight those creatures that are endangered or mistreated.

So who was the saint whose life is still celebrated with such honour today?

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.  – St Francis Prayer

“His words were kindly, fiery and penetrating; his voice was powerful, sweet-tones, clear and sonorous,” says Thomas of Celano, an Italian friar, poet and the author of three hagiographies about Saint Francis of Assisi. “His clothing was rough, his sleep brief, his hand most bountiful.”

Born in late 1181, St Francis of Assisi was originally christened Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (after John the Baptist) by his mother. He was soon renamed ‘Francesco’ (Frenchman) by his father – a textile merchant who had no interest in raising a religious son – to reflect his own gods: business and France.

The young Francis (at this time, Giovanni) experienced a privileged childhood courtesy of his father’s wealth. He then spent his teenage years partying, before moving on to the thrill-seeking pursuit of military glory as a knight. Finally, Francis found himself a prisoner of war, kept in a dungeon for a year as his ransom was negotiated.

When he eventually returned home – now a young man in his early twenties – Francis began to search for meaning. He had a series of personal encounters with God that increasingly caused him to surrender his worldly comforts, securities and mindsets.

St. Bonaventure writes that it was in a small church in San Damiano that Francis first heard God say to him three times: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church that is in ruins”.

At the time, Francis believed God’s instructions to him to refer literally to the crumbling church building in San Damiano, so he stole a bolt of cloth and a horse from his father to finance the repairs.

When the game-playing of secular politics infiltrated the church, and the violence of war pitted Christians against Muslims in the crusades, Francis obtained the Pope’s permission to travel to the Muslim Sultan in Egypt, in what has been described as the first ever “transcontinental peace delegation”.

His father, furious, dragged Francis before the local bishop, who told Francis to return his father’s money. Francis stripped off his clothes and gave them to his father along with the money, declaring that God was now his only father. It was the final step in Francis’s final conversion.

Francis soon discovered that the literal disrepair of the small church in San Damiano was a symbol for the disrepair of the entire Church. Dominated by superficiality and with apathetic, untrustworthy leaders, the Church lacked unity and had become a breeding place of heresy. Increasingly, it was regarded with cynicism and contempt.

Yet, as Pope Benedict would say some 800 years later, “…at the centre of this Church in ruins is the Crucified and he speaks: he calls to renewal, he calls Francis to manual labor to repair concretely the little church of San Damiano, a symbol of the more profound call to renew the Church of Christ itself, with his radical faith and his enthusiastic love for Christ.”

Contemporary Franciscan monk Richard Rohr is credited with having said, “The best critique of the bad is the practice of the better” describing a critical method that Francis himself embodied.

“The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.” – Pope John Paul II

Where the church indulged the excesses of materialism and opulence, Francis was known to live frugally and identify with the poor. When the game-playing of secular politics infiltrated the church, and the violence of war pitted Christians against Muslims in the crusades, Francis obtained the Pope’s permission to travel to the Muslim Sultan in Egypt, in what has been described as the first ever “transcontinental peace delegation”.

Along with the spiritual discipline of peacemaking, Francis challenged the views of the day by his own robust theology of creation.

During World Environment Day 1982, Pope John Paul II said that Saint Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics and a reminder “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

The same Pope wrote on World Day of Peace, January 1, 1990, that St Francis “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation …” He went on to make the point that: “As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.”

Whilst realistic, Francis was ever hopeful regarding the Church. A believer, who encouraged others not to speak badly of it and who worked through the structures of the church, to gain the blessing of those in leadership whenever he wanted to make change or begin something new.

“Jesus was calling Francis to live a life that so nearly mirrored his own that it would cast a humiliating light on the Church’s failures and force her to repent and reform….” says Ian Cron. Cron is the author of Chasing Francis, the fictional account of a troubled pentecostal pastor whose inner world is restored as he takes a pilgrimage that retraces St Francis’ steps and learns from the saint’s life and teachings.

“It’s hard to believe that one man rebuilt the whole church from the foundation stone up, but historians claim Francis succeeded,” he says.

St Francis Prayer

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

 

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