St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals

A statue of St. Francis de Assisi

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St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181—Oct. 3, 1226) is the Roman Catholic Church's patron saint of animals, merchants, and ecology. He abandoned a life of luxury after reportedly hearing the voice of God, who commanded him to rebuild the Christian church and to live in poverty. St. Francis is remembered for the miracles that people say God performed through him and for his compassion for the vulnerable, especially poor people, sick people, and animals.

Fast Facts: St. Francis of Assisi

Known For: Patron saint of animals

Also Known As: Francesco (or Giovanni) di Pietro di Bernardone

Born: c. 1181 in Assisi, Italy

Parents: Pietro di Bernardone, Pica de Bourlemont

Died: Oct. 3, 1226, in Assisi, Italy

Notable Quote: "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

Early Life

Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in Assisi, Umbria, a region in central Italy, around 1181. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, was a wealthy cloth merchant, and his mother was a French noblewoman. His father was traveling when he was born, and his mother had the baby christened Giovanni, the Italian name for John the Baptist. His father wanted a man of business, not of God, and renamed his son Francesco. or Francis, reflecting his love of France.

The boy grew up in wealth, learning archery, wrestling, and horsemanship, but fell in with a group of young people prone to wild parties. Francis reportedly said later, "I lived in sin" during that time.

Life-Changing Experience

He was expected to follow his father into the textile business, but the thought of that life bored him. He dreamed of a future as a knight—in effect, a medieval action hero. So by 1202 he had joined a militia to fight for Assisi in its war with Perugia, an Italian province, The Assisi forces lost, and Francis was captured.

By his dress and equipment, his captors knew Francis was from a wealthy family and was worth a ransom, so they let him live. A year later his ransom was paid; in the interim, as he later reported, he began receiving visions from God.

After returning home, he came across a leper in the country. Instead of ignoring him, Francis, changed by his experience as a captive, embraced and kissed the man and was filled with sensations of sweetness and joy.

Life of Service

Francis became convinced that God wanted him to help poor people, so he abandoned his possessions. At a Mass in 1208, Francis heard a gospel in which Jesus Christ tells his disciples to minister to people: “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff." Those words confirmed his calling to live a simple life, preach the Gospel to those in need, and rebuild the Christian Church.

Despite his vow of poverty, Francis needed money to rebuild the church, so he sold some of his father's cloth and a horse. His father took him before the local bishop, who told Francis to return his father's money. Francis stripped off his clothes and gave them and the money to his father, saying God was now his father. This event is credited as Francis' final conversion.

The bishop gave Francis a rough tunic, and dressed in these humble clothes, he began his work. Francis inspired other young men to abandon their possessions and join him, working with their hands, sleeping in caves or huts, talking about God’s love and forgiveness, praying, and ministering to the poor, including lepers.

Miracles for People

He prayed that God would perform miracles through him. Once Francis washed a leper and prayed for a tormenting demon to leave his soul. As the man healed, he felt remorse and reconciled with God.

Another time, three robbers stole food and drink from Francis' community. He prayed for them and sent a friar to give them bread and wine. Moved by Francis' actions, the robbers joined his order and spent their lives giving instead of taking from people.

Miracles for Animals

Francis saw animals as his brothers and sisters and prayed that God would work through him to help them. Birds sometimes gathered while Francis spoke, and listened to Francis’ sermon. Francis began preaching to them about the ways that God had blessed them.

When Francis lived in Gubbio, in the province of Perugia, a wolf was attacking people and other animals. He met the wolf to try to tame it. The wolf charged Francis, but Francis prayed and moved toward the wolf. The wolf obeyed Francis' commands, closing his mouth and lying at Francis' feet. Francis promised that the townspeople would feed the wolf regularly if it promised never to injure another person or animal. The wolf never harmed people or animals again.

Death

While ministering to the poor and sick, Francis contracted conjunctivitis and malaria. Later, as Francis was approaching death, he went back to Assisi. He was seen as a saint awaiting only formal canonization, so knights were sent to guard him and make sure that no one could carry him off after death. The body of a saint was seen at the time as an extremely valuable relic.

When Francis died on Oct. 3, 1226, at the age of 44, people reported a flock of larks swooping near and singing at the moment of his death.

Legacy

Some thought Francis was a fool or delusional, but others saw him as one of the greatest examples of living the Christian ideal since Jesus Christ. Whether he was touched by God or madness, Francis of Assisi was well known throughout the Christian world. Because of his attention to animals, Francis is recognized by the church as the patron saint of animals.

The community started by Francis and his followers became the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church, whose priests are distinguished by the rough robes they usually wear. The order still serves the poor worldwide.

In 1228, only two years after his death, Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis as a saint based on evidence of miracles during his ministry.

Sources

  • "St. Francis of Assisi Biography." https://www.biography.com/people/st-francis-of-assisi-21152679.
  • "St. Francis of Assisi." https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50.