Saint Spotlight: St. Francis of Assisi
It’s hard for me not to think of St. Francis of Assisi as “cute.” On walks in my neighborhood, I routinely spot my neighbors’ St. Francis statues, peering out at me from their lawns and shrubs with a friendly smile. As I imagine what he might have looked like, I can’t shake the image of a cartoon friar with a cassock, bowl cut and a bird perched on his hand.
But there’s actually little that’s particularly cute about St. Francis, and to think of him that way sells short the radical story of his life. The son of a rich Italian merchant, Francis was a popular young man and a partier. He sought nobility and distinction, and so when Assisi declared war against a nearby enemy, he joined the ranks of the city’s soldiers. Francis escaped slaughter because he was wealthy, and was instead taken captive and held for ransom. However harrowing the experience, it didn’t deter him from going off to battle again. And it was while he was on his way that he experienced God in a dream, telling him to give up his quest for glory and to rethink his life.
Francis returned to Assisi, and began to devote more time to prayer. One day, while riding on a horse, he encountered a man with leprosy. Always repulsed by leprosy, Francis resisted the urge to ride by, and was instead compelled to dismount to offer the man a kiss, and accept one in return.
This experience profoundly transformed Francis. Having pushed past his fear, he now found himself consumed by God’s grace. He became an ascetic who identified with the poor and reached out to outcasts and even enemies. He renounced his family’s wealth to follow God and help rebuild his Church. The people he once avoided he now sought and served with joy, finding God’s face in theirs. His radical commitment to follow Christ drew people to him. The Founder of the Franciscans, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of St. Francis never actually wanted to form a religious order. But he was drawn to the idea of “brotherhood.”
Who was a part of Francis’ brotherhood? It included all of God’s creation. Francis’ vision grew, until he saw that all created things—including animals, nature and people— are made by God and so reflect God’s goodness. And this became a key point for Francis: that when we care for creation, we praise God.
In his “Canticle of the Sun,” a lyrical prayer, Francis calls created things—like the sun and moon—“brother” and “sister.” He says to God, “praise be you, my Lord,” for each of these gifts of creation.
Though Francis walked the earth in the thirteenth century, his “Canticle of the Sun” still resonates and challenges us today. The title of Pope Francis’ encyclical about caring for our home, “Laudato Si,’” means “Praised be,” and is a direct reference to Francis of Assisi’s Canticle.
Both Francises invite us to recognize creation as a revelation of God’s goodness and to respond in love by caring for this gift. That’s what we are called to see—and that what we are called to do—when we see those statues staring out at us from the bushes.
As we commemorate the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct 4), patron of the environment, let us pray that we treat all created things in a way that says: “Praised be you, Lord.”