If you’ve only heard of one saint, chances are it is Saint Francis of Assisi. His international popularity hasn’t waned in 800 years. In fact, if Francis were a man born ahead of his time, in many ways his time is now.
His profound love of all created things was the source of his reputation as an animal lover and one reason why, in 1979, Pope John Paul II declared him the patron saint of ecology. One story tells of Francis stopping in a field to preach to the birds. They gathered around him and kept silent while he spoke. They burst into song when he urged them to praise God. Francis called them “my little sisters” and told his followers to imitate the birds in their joy, their humility, and their trust in providence.
Serious illness following a disastrous attempt to become a knight brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi’s youth. From the cross in the neglected field chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.”
Francis became a poor and humble workman. He gave up all his possessions, piling even his clothes before his earthly father (who was demanding restitution for Francis’ “gifts” to the poor) so that he would be totally free to say, “Our Father in heaven.”
A Man of Peace and Justice
Long before sorting your recyclables was in vogue, Francis had a deep connection with the earth. He saw himself as just one part of creation. The earth and the air, fire and water, birds and beasts were his brothers and sisters, not mere objects to be dominated, tolerated, or ignored. God created the world, and Francis saw that it was very good.
Francis had that insight long before climate change became a catchphrase. He also was a man of peace.
In a time of holy wars, he set out to win glory as a martyr. Instead, he met with a Muslim sultan whose faith was so sincere that Francis dismissed the popular idea that Christians had a monopoly on earnestly seeking God. It was a startling message for his time, and no less startling for ours.
During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44), he was half-blind and seriously ill. On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Creatures: “Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death.”