Saint Francis

Sermon on Saint Francis October 3, 2021

          Tomorrow is the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi; October 4th is the date on which he died in 1226.  Many people across all religious traditions are familiar with Francis; we often associate him with his love of animals, his love for all of God’s creation.  There were other important pieces of his spirituality that have inspired people over generations. He is taken seriously by all world religions. When Pope John Paul II wanted to gather the leaders of all the world religions to have a respectful interfaith dialogue in the 1980s, the only city in the world that they could agree to meet in was Assisi, because the memory of St. Francis does not carry any negative baggage, even to other religions. We will honor his legacy this morning by offering a blessing for our dear and gentle animal companions later in our Service.  Let us pray, Make us a channel of your peace, O God, help us to live in the ways of Francis, to embrace all of creation, to work for peace, and to extend ourselves to those in need of healing and love.  We ask this through your Son, Jesus. Amen.

          Many years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of studying the life and spirituality of Saint Francis for six weeks in Italy.  I was part of a small group of educators, and it was during a summer when I was finishing my graduate work in Theology.  We read some of the early biographies on his life and visited some of the important places in his world.  As you might imagine, it was an amazing experience for me with 3 weeks in Assisi and 3 weeks in Siena.  We were able to visit many small towns and villages, modest museums as well as grand cathedrals, all of which contained some of the frescoes depicting his life and the life of Christ.   Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who often incorporates the beliefs of Francis and the Franciscan order in his writing.  The life and inspiration of Saint Francis has profoundly affected his life, his spirituality, and his commitment to caring for the earth and others.

“St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and environment could be viewed as the original Earth Day advocate. Francis’ devotion to God was expressed through his love for all of God’s creation. St. Francis cared for the poor and sick, he preached sermons to animals and praised all creatures as brothers and sisters under God. “ He was born in Italy around 1181-1182. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano wrote, “Who could ever express the deep affection Francis bore for all things that belong to God? Or . . . tell of the sweet tenderness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator?”

After a wild youth and a brief career as a soldier, Francis had a conversion experience while he was in prison that inspired him to renounce his family’s wealth and devote his life to God. His dedication to poverty, humility, obedience, patience and compassion soon attracted followers and, in 1209, he received permission from the Pope (Innocent III) to form a new religious order known as the Friars Minor (commonly called the Franciscans). Francis traveled with his small group of friends walking from one town to another, speaking about the Gospel, inviting people to live in peace, and dedicating their lives to the poor.  He always lived very simply and did not want his followers to be ordained, because he feared the ways in which clerical power would undermine his message.  Contrary to his wishes, within two generations of his death, a Franciscan would be named Pope.  The present Pope, Francis, is the first to take his name.

We know that Francis of Assisi is probably best known for his love for animals, but too often the stories become overly romanticized or even magical in their thinking. “The truth of Francis’ respect for animals is far more profound than mere “birdbath Franciscanism” lets on. Everything was a mirror for Francis. What he saw in the natural world, in the sky, in animals, and even plants was a reflection of God’s glory.  Thomas of Celano, writes about how Francis was constantly praising creatures for giving God glory just by their very existence. They could simply be and be themselves. Eventually, nature mirrored back the same message to Francis himself: He could just be and be himself in all of his freedom and joy and poverty.” (Center for Action and Contemplation)

Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation shares that,
“The world of Francis is a much larger world where sun, moon, animals, plants, and elements are all shown reverence.  He is the patron saint of ecology, animals, and peacemaking–because he understood that the entire circle of life has a Great Lover at the center of it all. He is the only Christian man ever known to attempt three trips to dialogue with the “enemy” during the tragic Crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land, telling the Christians they were wrong for being there! He is truly a universal man, addressing the same issues that are still urgent and important in our own time.”

We know that Francis’ deep love of God overflowed into love for all God’s creatures—expressed not only in his tender care of lepers and his (unsuccessful) attempt to negotiate peace between Muslims and Christians during the fifth Crusade, but also in his prayers of thanksgiving for creation, his sermons preached to animals and his insistence that all creatures are brothers and sisters under God.  

One story included in the Celano biography about Francis likely became the inspiration for the statues of Francis most familiar to us. He wrote, “One time as [Francis] was passing through the Spoleto valley, he came upon a place near Bevagna, in which a great multitude of birds of various kinds had assembled. When the holy one of God saw them, because of the outstanding love of the Creator with which he loved all creatures, he ran swiftly to the place. He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason. As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic.

“Meanwhile his joy and wonder increased as he carefully admonished them to listen to the Word of God: ‘My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love Him always. He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings for flying. Among all His creatures, He made you free and gave you the purity of the air. You neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless governs you without your least care.’ 

“At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way. They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission. On returning to the brothers he began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before. From that day on, he carefully exhorted birds and beasts and even insensible creatures to praise and love the Creator.”

          There was also a famous story of Francis taming a wild wolf that was terrorizing the town of Gubbio, Italy, where Francis was the only one who dared to step out and gently tame and befriend the wolf. 

On October 4, 1226, Francis died near the town of Assisi and was quickly brought back to be buried there.  There is now a large Cathedral that has been built over the small chapel under which he rests.  A short walk from the downtown is the small chapel where Francis felt called by God to ‘rebuild my church.’

The poor man of Assisi, as Francis is sometimes called, provides us with the understanding 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.

—From Thomas of Celano, The Treatise on the Miracle of Saint Francis, (1250-1252), ed. Regis J. Armstorng, OFM Cap, J.A. Wayne Hellmoann, OFM Cov, William J. Short, OFM, The Francis Trilogy of Thomas of Celano (Hyde Park:  New City Press, 2004), 329-330.