Today we commemorate the Feast of Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and the environment. St Francis teaches us that we can experience the presence of Christ through humble labor and service to those who suffer.
His mother named him in honor of St John the Baptist: he was baptized Giovanni Bernardone in 1182 and raised in Assisi (Umbria in Italy). He was nicknamed Francesco (“Frenchy”) – possibly because his mother was French. His father was a wealthy merchant, and Francis enjoyed the life of an affluent young man, with fancy clothes and many parties with his friends. He served in the army during a war with Perugia. Francis was captured and held prisoner, and he was very sick by the time of his release. During his convalescence, he had a spiritual enlightenment. He stopped his partying and started praying. On his knees in the chapel of San Damiano, Francis had a vision. Jesus asked him to rebuild the church, as it was falling into ruin. Ultimately Francis renounced his inheritance and left home.
Often we bless animals on the Feast of St Francis, because Francis had a deep love for animals: he called them his sisters and brothers, and the mirrors of God. Francis preached to animals about Jesus and he told them that the duty of animals was to praise God. It is said that birds stopped singing to listen to his sermon. Francis organized the first large Christmas crèche in Gubbio, with people and their animals, to honor the birth of Jesus with a living picture.
The most important work of Francis, however, was his care for anyone on the margins of life: the poor, the sick, and the heretic. Joined by other men inspired by his aura of joy-filled holiness, Francis and the Lesser Brothers (aka the Franciscans) were holy troublemakers, attending to people the church preferred to ignore. In a time when the Church identified herself with the rich, the Franciscans were mendicants, awkwardly begging for alms to pay the bills. In the frightening world of contagious disease before antibiotics, the Franciscans took care of those afflicted by leprosy. In the middle of the Christian Crusades to take control of the Holy Land, Francis traveled to Egypt in order to meet with the Saracens (Muslims), talking with the Sultan about Jesus and the gospel. From an era as polarized by fear as our own, Francis teaches us that the goodness of a person transcends their financial worth, their health, or their religious identity.
Francis may be the most loved and least imitated saint. Perhaps we may want to consider changing that. How can we, like Francis, be filled with blessing and joy even in challenging times? How can we, like Francis, know that God loves us deeply, even when we are mired in difficulty or in failure? How can we, like Francis, share that love with all of creation? Our faith can guide us. There is no divine barrier that separates us from God, beating us when we are already down. Hear the words of Christ in the Gospel: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Come to the Lord. Bring your selves, bring the critters, bring your friends, bring the broken. Know the rich and merciful love of God for all. Find your joy and find your rest.
May it be so.