St Francis of Assisi: The Patron Saint of Animals

Saint Francis of Assisi was a Catholic friar and preacher born in Italy in the 12th century. Although he was alive more than 800 years ago, he had some very modern views on animal welfare. He preached the message that they were as much God’s creatures as the human race and as such should be protected.

His benevolent attitude towards animals and nature was the reason he became known as the Patron Saint of Animals. His life is celebrated every year on 4th October, St Francis’ Day, but who was the real man behind the saint whose life we have commemorated for more than eight centuries?

Statue of St Francis

© WDG Photo / Shutterstock.com

 

Early life

Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone was the son of wealthy Italian silk merchant Pietro di Bernardone and French noblewoman Pica de Bourlemont, who originated from Provence. He was born in the town of Assisi, in the province of Perugia, in Italy, in either 1181 or 1182.

Although baptised Giovanni, he was nicknamed Francesco, “the Frenchman”, by his father. He lived the flamboyant lifestyle of a wealthy young man and was said to be handsome, gallant and witty. He loved fine clothes and enjoyed his affluent lifestyle, with all the trappings that his fortune could bring.

Quite early on in life, he became disillusioned with his opulent world. It was said that he was selling materials, including rich velvet, for his father in the marketplace, when a beggar approached him and asked for alms – the Biblical term for money or food.

The incident affected Francesco deeply. He followed the beggar and gave him all the money he had in his pockets. His wealthy friends mocked him for his benevolence and his father scolded him when he got home, angry that he had left the marketplace, but the incident made him question his rich and directionless lifestyle.

 

Holy pilgrimage

Francis, as he came to be known, joined a military expedition against Perugia in 1202 and was held captive at Collestrada for a year. He fell ill as a result and began to completely re-evaluate his life. His conversion to living a spiritual and holy life was a gradual process.

He enlisted in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne, in 1205, but returned to Assisi after finding he had lost his enthusiasm for worldly life. He began to avoid the company of his wealthy former friends and no longer went to their excessive feasts.

They thought he had met and fallen in love with a secret sweetheart. Teasing him and asking if he was thinking of getting married, he replied that he was – adding his betrothed was “a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” He was referring to “Lady Poverty” and meant he was joining the church to fight against inequalities in society.

Subsequently, he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, meeting the poor who were begging at St Peter’s Basilica – the holy building built in the 4th century. He spent a lot of time alone, asking God for guidance. In the forsaken country monastery of San Damiano, he had a vision of Jesus Christ.

 

Family discord

Francis’ father fell out with him at around this time, as he objected when his son sold some fabrics from the family business and gave the proceeds to the poor. Pietro locked Francis in a storeroom, intending to keep him imprisoned, but after being freed by his mother, he fled back to San Damiano, where the local priest gave him shelter.

Pietro tracked him down and reported him to the city authorities. At the time, he pledged to cut Francis off from the family inheritance. Francis renounced his father and went to live in poverty in the hills around Assisi. He begged not for money, but for stones to rebuild the chapel of San Damiano.

 

Love of animals

God had created a good and beautiful world and Francis wanted people to love nature and all the earth’s animals, as the stewards of God’s creation and as fellow creatures ourselves. He travelled around with his followers and was said to have an amazing rapport with wild animals.

In particular, it was said that when he stopped in the road, where the birds filled the trees at either side, they would surround him and seemed mesmerised when he spoke – hence, he’s often pictured with a bird on his hand.

It was also reported that he lived in the city of Gubbio for some time after the townsfolk reported how a “terrifying and ferocious” wolf had preyed on people, as well as animals. Francis felt compassion for the local people and went to find the wolf in the hills.

Such was his rapport with animals that on meeting Francis, the wolf laid down at his feet and made no attempt to bite him. The local residents had tried to hunt the wolf down with packs of dogs, but after he blessed the wolf, it was no longer a predator, but rather living in harmony with the townsfolk instead.

He became known as a friend of the poor, who loved all God’s creatures, including animals, plants and nature. He wanted everyone to praise the lord, urging them to be at peace with creation.

 

Legacy

Francis died of unknown causes in October 1226, at the age of 44. He was said to have been listening to a reading of Psalm 142 just before he passed. On 16th July 1228, Pope Gregory IX made Francis the patron saint of Italy.

He was associated with caring for animals and the natural environment. It became the custom for Catholic and Anglican churches to hold services to bless animals on St Francis’ feast day of 4th October. The practice has continued today, with people all over the world celebrating the life of the patron saint of animals. People traditionally take their animals to church for a blessing. All animals are included in the celebration, whether they are domestic, farm or wild animals.

The animal welfare group, PETA, celebrates St Francis’ Day in honour of all animals – including those in the food industry and those used in scientific laboratories – saying they are all made of flesh and blood and can feel love, happiness and fear, just like people. As such, they all deserve to feel the grass beneath their feet and fresh air and sun on their faces.

In the United States, PETA realised taking animals to church may be stressful for them, or maybe difficult for elderly and infirm owners, so they arranged for a minister, Father John Dear, to give a free blessing by telephone for those who couldn’t attend a service in person.

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