St. Francis: So Much More Than an Animal Lover

St. Francis pictured preaching to the birds in a fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)
St. Francis pictured preaching to the birds in a fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

I always had a mild aversion to St. Francis. The only way I ever saw him depicted was surrounded by animals. Well, I hate animals. I do. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the beauty of all of God’s creation, but I’m just a city girl who’s never had a pet in her life. To say the least, St. Francis did not appeal to me.

That is, until I got married on his feast day. It was the only date available at the church. In a slightly horrified tone, I asked if any dogs were going to still be walking around the church courtyard when we were going to be saying our vows. On St. Francis’ feast day most churches invite people to bring their pets for a blessing in the early morning. The church assured me that all the animals would be gone.

Later I stumbled across a biography of St. Francis by G.K. Chesterton. Since we were getting married on his feast day, I figured I at least owed it to the guy to read a little bit about him. So I bought the book and began reading it. I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. Of course, G.K. Chesterton is a legendary and wonderful author, but it wasn’t so much the style of the book that kept me captivated, but the actions of St. Francis, especially the actions leading up to his conversion.

St. Francis of Assisi is so much more than just some guy that could talk to animals. In fact, very little of this book even mentions animals. St. Francis is the kind of guy that we need today. He was radical in every sense of the word.

St. Francis was born into a family of cloth merchants. While he was not in the upper class, because of his family’s profession, he was always the best-dressed guy in town. His personality matched his attire. He was very charismatic, and Chesterton described his “swagger” as earning him the position of ringleader among the other young men in town. He loved the attention, and although he was a bit aimless as a youth, one thing was for sure, he wanted fame and admiration when he grew up.

Even if he was the coolest kid in town, he had a generous heart and did, at his core, understand the dignity that each person held. When he was working his father’s booth in town and was in the middle of selling cloth to a buyer, a beggar interrupted the transaction to ask for alms. When the man saw he wasn’t getting anywhere, he left to beg somewhere else. After Francis finished with the customer, he leapt from his station and sprinted after the beggar, who had been gone for some time. He had to run quite a while before he found the beggar and hastily gave him all the money he had on him. He did not want the beggar to think he was being ignored. In the meantime, his father’s booth was left completely untended. Thankfully, it had not been pillaged by the time Francis returned.

Another time, Francis saw a leper in the distance walking toward him. Francis had a horrifying fear of lepers. They were what scared him most. But instead of turning away, he met the leper, embraced him, gave him all the money he had and continued on his way. It is said that as he rode off, he turned once more to see the leper and the leper had disappeared.

In this way, God was very slowly turning Francis’ heart. Events like this led up to a very dramatic conversion experience, where Francis finally gave in to God. He found himself in court. His father had brought him up on charges of stealing. In court, Francis completely stripped, returning everything to his father, and walked out stark naked. He was starting his life over completely in service to God.

The beauty of Francis was that while everyone may have thought him a fool, he was God’s fool. He did things that the world saw as silly or a waste of time or even irresponsible. But he took very seriously the call to be wholly dependent on God. No possessions, no comforts, eating anything he could find, sleeping on the ground. In being a “fool” he found the freedom to live exactly as God was calling him to live.

While we are blessed to have St. Francis of Assisi as a model of faith, there are many modern day St. Francises that I have encountered in my life.

The Zwicks had a nice life. One had a good job in the medical profession and the other loved her job as a librarian. God called. They started Casa Juan Diego. Their adventures are too numerous to even pick one to tell.

This family had a nice life out in California, but they uprooted and moved to rural Michigan because they knew God was calling their family to a different kind of life.

My friend, Mary, went through ACE and became one of the best teachers I know, then started working toward medical school, but decided to start Little Minnow with her sister. This past summer they used part of their profits to take medical and school supplies on a mission trip to Haiti.

I think we could learn a lot from St. Francis and all our modern day St. Francises. God does not call us to comfort, which sucks because I really like being comfortable. But being called to the uncomfortable can also be exciting and is definitely good for our souls.

I guess it was good that we were married October 4. St. Francis will always serve as a reminder that we were made to answer God’s call no matter how foolish it may seem.