ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI – Taking Care of the Boss’ Property

Statues depicting St. Francis can be found in gardens throughout the world, often with a bird perched on his outstretched hand.  There is the legend that if you bury a statue of St. Francis in your front yard, you will have good luck in selling your house.  Statuary and superstition aside, St. Francis is so much more than the Garden Gnome of the Catholic Church and his contributions to Christianity are vast.  It seems almost sacrilegious to focus on his relationship with the animals, when his spirituality goes so much deeper.  But it is through this natural introduction that so many seekers in today’s world meet the man who continues to change the Christian world for the better, even 800 years after he was born.

Francis’ influence is also strong in the secular world.  For instance, the three largest cities in California are directly or indirectly named after St. Francis of Assisi. San Francisco for obvious reasons; Los Angeles, whose original name is Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Portiuncula – Town of Our Lady of the Angels of the Little Portion – which is from St. Francis’ main church and headquarters in Assisi, the Little Portion;[1] and San Jose, which is the county seat for Santa Clara County, named after Saint Clare of Assisi, Francis’ friend and disciple.[2]  Santa Fe, New Mexico – the second oldest city in the United States still existing, was named “La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís” – “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi”[3]

Over 1500 books and articles have been written on the son of Assisi, beginning with a biography in 1229, just three years after his death.[4] This short paper hopes to share the history of this Christian leader, taking a small part of his amazing contributions as “an ecologist before his time (and) a friend to animals”[5], to explore his relationship with the natural world and, in turn, with God.

A brief biography may be helpful to those not familiar with the personal history of St. Francis.  Born in 1181 in the Italian city of Assisi, the man known as Francis was originally baptized as Giovannie (John) Bernardone, given the name by his mother, Pica (though other biographers list her as Giovannia[6]), while his father, Pietro Bernardone was trading in France.  Upon his return, the wealthy merchant gave his son the nickname Francesco, to reflect his passion for France, and it stuck.

Francis loved the good life that his father’s success provided him, and he proved adept at the family business.  He enjoyed the many luxuries that were his, involving his friends in a lifestyle rich in merriment and mischief.

His dreams of becoming a knight changed after serving a year as a prisoner of war, followed by another year of illness.  At 24, he joined another military expedition, but suddenly withdrew during his journey and returned home.  Once home, his slow conversion to solely serving Christ found him demonstrating very odd behavior, including giving away his father’s goods, his clothes and horse to the needy and finally renouncing all the worldly possessions he owned, living as a hermit in an abandoned church under the most meager of circumstances.   It is from this rebirth that his order was founded.

 Although best known for his relationship with his avian brothers and sisters, Francis’ natural concerns went far beyond that limited border. Prior to the teachings of Francis, Christians interpreted Genesis as entitling them to treat all other forms of life as their slaves.  It was Francis’ belief that God’s work “should be respected and loved no differently from men.”[7]  Thomas of Celano, a 13th century Franciscan biographer of St. Francis, said that Francis “was filled with compassion toward dumb animals, reptiles and other creatures. . . . In the most extraordinary manner, never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature in his sensitive heart.”[8]  Simply put,

Francis had a relationship to everything: to man, beasts of the fields and forests, the birds, the fish, trees, flowers, even stones, the sun, the moon, the wind and the stars, fire and water, rain and snow, storms, the earth, summer, winter, and the tender elegy of springtime.  With all of these he dealt courteously and admitted them to the circle of his immediate family, for a man who believes in and loves his Creator with his whole heart must also dignify and love all of His creations.[9]

 In spite of his deep devotion to God’s non-human creatures, Francis never exhorted against the meat-eater or the hunter, as long as the person could show he loved the living animal or showed humility in the presence of a game bird and its beauty.  “Francis accepted and lived with the hunter, the fisherman, the farmer, the butcher.  He neither humanized nor sentimentalized animals.  But he did feel for them, admitting them to their rights of kinship with him and giving them the same courtesy that he bestowed upon his fellows.”[10]

Francis’ love for nature was not limited to animals.  He asked a brother preparing a garden to leave a patch for flowers, so he could enjoy their beauty and scent.  A woodcutter was reminded to make sure that enough of the tree be left for it to grow again. “He exhorted cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests, all the beauties of the fields and green things of the gardens, to love God and serve him willingly.”[11]   It is the teachings of St. Francis that “one of the fundamentals of the universe was its unity; every component related to every other in a logical and harmonious pattern.”[12]

If someone were to be asked, “What do you know about St. Francis?” a likely response would be, “Isn’t he the guy who talked to the birds?”  History tells us that, indeed, Francis of Assisi did talk to the birds and, what’s more, they listened!

Although the story has been “sentimentalized out of all proportion,”[13] Francis’ biographers tell of the time when he was on his way home, reflecting on his apparent failures.  He announces to his companions that “he would probably have a more respectful hearing from the birds.”  Spying a large flock of birds of various species, he runs toward them swiftly, greeting them with his usual cry of “The Lord give you peace.”  Astounded that they did not fly away, Francis asked that they listen to him preach.  He begins,“My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love Him always.  He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need.  God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

The birds stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him.  He passed through their midst, coming and going, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic.  Then he blessed them, and having made the sign of the cross, gave them permission to fly off to another place. . .  And from that day on, he carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the Creator.[14]

Another story tells of the time when Francis was to speak to the Villagers of Alviano.  A large flock of swallows was making such a raucous noise that the people could not hear Francis.  The preacher then implored the birds to be quiet, saying “My sister swallows; now it is time for me to speak, since you have already said enough.  Listen to the word of the Lord and stay quiet and calm…”  Not only did the birds suddenly grow silent, but they did not move from their perches until the sermon was over.[15]

When given a pheasant to feast upon, Francis instead tamed the bird.  As proof of the animal’s ability to come and go as he chose, an out-of-town doctor was given the animal to take home.  Soon, the bird was back in Francis’ cell.  Another time, Francis persuaded a boy to hand over some turtledoves that the boy had trapped.  Francis then made them nests, where they settled and raised their young for many generations.[16]  Other stories include a wren that nestled for a long time in Francis’ cowl and Francis’ attempted duet with a Nightingale, which quickly outsung the friar.[17]

Francis so loved the birds that he wanted towns and corporations to take time off from levying taxes and scatter crumbs, instead, on the frozen roads.  He pleaded for hostels where strays could be fed and housed, and he raged against the caging of larks. He declared, “If I ever talk to the emperor I will implore him, for the love of God, to decree that no one should trap or in any way harm our sisters the larks.  Likewise the lord of every town and village should see that all their people scatter the roads with grain for the birds on Christmas Day.”[18]  In fact, of all his feathered brethren, Francis loved larks most.  He said they reminded him of friars in their habit and hood of brown feathers, humbly gleaning food from the fields and singing God’s praises.[19]  Individually, however, it must have been a crow he adopted that, like all adopted crows, became fiercely loyal.  This crow “sat next to him at meals and came on his visits to the sick; when he died it followed his coffin to San Giorgia, refused to leave or eat, and very soon died too.”[20]


 Francis’ love of animals did not focus solely on birds.  Wild beasts would flee to him from their abusive masters, lambs and sheep were rescued from slaughter and even worms were removed from the roadway, for fear of being trampled.  Animals were reported to smile when he petted them, grant his requests and obey his commands.  He called all animals by the name of brother and sister.  It is clear why St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunters and not St. Francis, for it is Francis who freed a rabbit captured in a trap and returned netted fish to the open water.[21]

Francis felt so strongly for the mistreated animals of his day, for the snared birds and the beaten horses and hungry dogs that he went to the burghers, to the governors, finally to the emperor, begging for a law against their abuse.  He demanded that farmers be forced to treat their cattle humanely and give them an extra treat on Christmas Day.[22]

Francis quieted noisy frogs (not difficult in Italy where they don’t care for human company); and when given a large fish by a fisherman, he slipped it back into the water where it swam beside the boat until Francis sent it off with a blessing.  Another fisherman gave Francis a fish which refused to leave his lap until he had finished a long meditation.[23]  Francis purchased the lambs that were being taken to the butcher in order to save their lives.  He fed the bees in winter that they might not perish.[24]  Brother Leo, a companion of Francis, remembered Francis’ delight in a cicada, which sang in a fig tree next to his hut at the bottom of the garden.  Each day he lifted it onto his finger where it sang for an hour before he replaced it on a branch.[25]

It is the story of the wolf which plagued Gubbio which best speaks of Francis’ love of animals and the respect he commanded from them.  A large male wolf was ranging around the town of Gubbio during a very hard winter, when prey in the forest was scarce, domestic animals weakened or dying, and the townspeople found it difficult to bury their dead.  Rumors about the wolf grew so grisly that no one dared leave the city walls.

Francis agreed to deal with this wolf and found that it was an elderly animal, perhaps reduced to taking any feeble livestock it found and occasionally scavenging limbs from corpses.  The story tells how Francis, addressing him as Friar Wolf, said “Come to me, Brother Wolf, and I order you, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor the others.”[26]  Francis then rebuked the wolf for his reign of terror but acknowledged this was due to hunger.  He therefore proposed a pact between the wolf and the people by which they kept him fed, while he promised to stop his attacks on them and their animals.

By now a crowd had gathered, who shouted their agreement; and when Francis held out his hand to the wolf to seal the contract, the story goes that the wolf stretched out its paw in return, expressing its assent “with movements of its body, tail and eyes.”[27]

Some of the stories about Francis may sound apocryphal, like the tale of the grasshopper that on a winter midnight came to help him sing his office, leaving its tiny tracks in the snow to shame monks who had been too slothful to assist.  Still, his heart truly brimmed over with such affection it had to scatter like rain onto animals as well as men.[28]


 “For I would make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on hay, with the ox and ass standing by.”  (The words of Saint Francis quoted in The First Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Brother Thomas of Celano, 1229)[29]

Although it is now a holiday tradition for Churches all over the world to present living crèches, it was St. Francis who created the first such tableau.  He was inspired one winter night in 1223, as he and one of his followers were making their way to the tiny town of Greccio, to spend Christmas there.  While walking, Francis looked out over the fields and saw some shepherds sleeping in the moonlight.  They reminded him of the shepherds long ago to whom the angel had appeared, telling them to go and greet the Christ Child, born that day in a stable in Bethlehem. Francis created his crèche using only a straw-filled feeding trough as the manger, set between a real ox and a donkey.  The manger served as the altar for Christmas mass.[30]


Francis also embraced the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water as if they were living creatures.  He saw the earth as our Mother and praised Brother Wind “for bringing us changes of weather.”  Sister Water was so precious to him that when he was finished washing, he would not throw it arbitrarily to the ground, where it might get stepped upon. Fire held a special fascination for him and he “hated putting out candles and lamps or smother fires, and quenching their flames.”[31]  When physicians were prepared to apply red-hot irons to cauterize his temples as an aid against his growing blindness, Francis asked of the element, “Brother Fire who art nobler and more useful than most other creatures.  I have always been good to you and always will be so for the love of him who created you.  Now show yourself gentle and courteous with me and do not burn me more than I can stand.”  After the cauterization, Francis declared, “If that is not enough burning, then burn it again, for I have not felt the least pain.”[32]


Lynn White, a professor at the University of California in 1967, wrote that St. Francis was “The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history.”  Lynn wrote that what St. Francis proposed is an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it, offering “the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.”  Although Francis failed in achieving this goal, his efforts were in the right direction, since “the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”  In proposing St. Francis as “a patron saint for ecologists,” we must learn and be inspired by his example. [33]

Eight hundred years before the first “Earth Day,” Saint Francis lived a remarkable life in the name of Christ as a lover and protector of all God’s creations.  His lessons then are more valuable today than ever before.

by Francis of Assisi

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.

            [1] Mary Jo Duffy.  Francis, Brother of the Universe.  MCG Publishers. New York, NY.  1980.  49.
            [2] Julien Green.  God’s fool : the life and times of Francis of Assisi.  Harper and Row, Publishers.  New York, NY.  1985
            [4] Donald Soto.  Reluctant Saint – The Life of Francis Assisi.  Penguin Books.  New York, NY.  2002.  xvi.
            [5] Ibid.  xvii.
            [6] John Holland Smith.  Francis of Assisi.  Charles Scribner’s Sons.  New York, NY 1972.  16
            [7] Adrian House.  Francis of Assisi.  Paulist Press.  Mahwah, NJ.  2000.  177
            [8] Ibid.  180.
            [9] Paul Gallico.  The Francis book : 800 years with the Saint from Assisi.  Roy M. Gasnick, ed.  Collier Books. New York, NY. 1980.  82.
            [10] Ibid.  83.
            [11] Adrian House. 178.
            [12] Ibid.  158.
            [13] Donald Soto.  100.
            [14] Ibid.
            [15] Ibid.  101.
            [16] Adrian House. 179.
            [17] Ibid.
            [18] Ibid.  197.
            [19] Ibid.  144.
            [20] Ibid.  179.
            [21] Donald Soto.  101.
            [22] Phyllis McGinley.  The Francis book : 800 years with the Saint from Assisi.  Roy M. Gasnick, ed.  Collier Books. New York, NY. 1980.  81.
            [23] Adrian House.  179.
            [24] P. Pourrat.  The Francis book : 800 years with the Saint from Assisi.  Roy M. Gasnick, ed.  Collier Books. New York, NY. 1980.  85.
            [25] Adrian House.  178.
            [26] Lawrence Cunningham, ed.  Brother Francis:  An Anthology of Writings by and about Saint Francis of Assisi.  Harper & Row, Publishers.  New York, NY.  1972.  75.
            [27] Adrian House.  181.
            [28] Phyllis McGinley.  81.
            [29] Joanna Cole.  A Gift from St. Francis: the First Crèche. William Morrow & Co.  New York, NY. 1989.
            [30] Joanna Cole.  15.
            [31] Adrian House.  181.
            [32] Paul Gallico.  84.
            [33] Lawrence Cunningham, ed.  94.