Blessing of the Animals

“In 1182, Pietro Bernardone returned from a trip to France to find out his wife had given birth to a son. Far from being excited or apologetic because he’d been gone, Pietro was furious because she’d had his new son baptized Giovanni after John the Baptist. The last thing Pietro wanted in his son was a man of God — he wanted a man of business, a cloth merchant like he was, and he especially wanted a son who would reflect his infatuation with France. So he renamed his son Francesco — which is the equivalent of calling him Frenchman.

(Francesco) enjoyed a very rich easy life growing up because of his father’s wealth and the permissiveness of the times. From the beginning everyone — and I mean everyone — loved Francesco. He was constantly happy, charming, and a born leader. If he was picky, people excused him. If he was ill, people took care of him. If he was so much of a dreamer he did poorly in school, no one minded. In many ways he was too easy to like for his own good. No one tried to control him or teach him.

As he grew up, Francis became the leader of a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. Thomas of Celano, his biographer who knew him well, said, “In other respects an exquisite youth, he attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.” Francesco himself said, “I lived in sin” during that time.”1

No one could have known, but certainly no one would have guessed, that this darling Francesco, so charming and yet so wayward, would end up standing guard over most of the gardens of the world. St. Francesco, St. Francis, his image as recognizable as any saint, his statue sales second only to the Blessed Mother. St. Francis is known for his utmost love of God and care for the creatures of God. This being the weekend of the Blessing of the Animals (the feast of St. Francis was Thursday), I went looking for Francis stories, and I found this joke:

Some race horses were staying in a stable. One of them starts to boast about his track record. “In the last 15 races, I’ve won 8 of them!” Another horse breaks in, “Well in the last 27 races, I’ve won 19!!”
“Oh that’s good, but in the last 36 races, I’ve won 28!”, says another, flicking his tail. At this point, they notice that a greyhound dog has been sitting there listening. “I don’t mean to boast,” says the greyhound, “But in my last 90 races, I’ve won 88 of them!” The horses are clearly amazed. “Wow!” says one, after a hushed silence. “A talking dog.”

Francis, not unlike talking horses and dogs, sometimes put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLable, so to speak. His piety was extraordinary, which sometimes led to humorous ends. One night, as Francis knelt before the crucifix in the church of San Damiano, Francis heard Christ speak: “Francis, go rebuild my church, which is falling down.” Francis took this to me the actual church he was praying in, so he went and took bolts of cloth from his father’s shop and traded them for building stones. Not only was his father not impressed by any of this, but Jesus didn’t mean for Francis to rebuild the church of San Damiano, but rather to rebuild His Church, the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

St. Francis can teach us a couple things this year, as we roll past his feast day once again. His love of God and his care for creation can remind us that we humans are set above and in creation for the nurture of the same. Along with us, all of creation fell into death on that fateful, apple-laden day in the Garden of Eden, and, along with us, all of creation will be made new when Christ comes back in glory. We can learn that the Lord speaks to us through the wonder of His creation, in the beauty and riches of the natural world, and that the Lord delights in our efforts to lift the fruits of His creation back up to Him. And finally we can learn from St. Francis, who had his times of rending, his times of falling short of the glory of God, that when we keep listening for Jesus, when we keep looking to love Him and care for His creation, when we trust so fully in the love and mercy of God, that we too may, by those same mercies, take our place amongst the saints of God.

1Francis, Catholic Saints and Angels.

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