"I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do."Those words were the last spoken words by Saint Francis of Assisi just before he died in 1226. Words spoken to his monks from the Order of Friars Minor. And yet, they are words for us today, to consider how Christ taught Francis what was his to do and how Christ will teach and lead us. As the book Lesser Feasts and Fasts puts it, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to his total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ.”
Francis life begin in wealth. Born into a wealthy family – he lived a life of luxury and frivolity. As many young men did, he went off to find glory in war but came back disillusioned. After a time of sickness, he began wondering about the purpose of his life. One day, in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, he heard Christ saying to him, "Francis, fix my Church."
And he did just that. He gave up everything he had, to live a life of poverty. His father who expected Francis to take over his business was incensed and disowned him for a time. Francis fixed up the Church of San Damian and began his life of taking care of the poor, preaching the Gospel in word and deed, wherever he walked.
A story is told of Francis’ visit to the Holy Land in 1219. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, the Sultan who was deeply impressed, remained unconverted, but allowed Francis free passage throughout the lands. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides but was unable to get the Christians at the time to agree.
But of all the images that stick with us about St. Francis, is his connection to God’s creation, and especially the animals. I think of those garden statues with Francis standing and animals swirling about him. We had one in MI where I grew up.
There is a story told, that once when he was staying in the town of Greccio, a hare was caught in a trap and brought live to Francis by a brother. Seeing the hare, Francis was moved to pity and said, "Brother hare, come here. Why did you let yourself be fooled in this way?" As soon as the hare was released by the brother, he dashed over to Francis and, without being forced to do so, jumped into his lap as the safest place available. When he had rested there a while, Francis, stroking him with affection, let him go so that he could return to the wild. Each time he was placed on the ground, the hare ran back to Francis' lap. Finally Francis asked that the brothers carry him to a nearby forest. That worked. This type of thing happened repeatedly to Francis—which he saw as an opportunity to praise the glory of God.
On this day, when we remember this great saint of the Church and his words and works, it behooves us to remember the creatures we care for, our pets, and all living creatures.
"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men." (~ St. Francis)It is St. Francis that reminds us that everything is connected. How we treat animals is the way we also deal with each other. Such care for animals was not lost on Christians centuries later. William Wilberforce the great Anglican of the 19th century who helped end the slave trade in England also helped form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England in 1824. It was the first animal welfare charity to be founded in the world. Wilberforce disliked the sports of England that used animals as the sport calling them "cruel and inhuman."
The legacy of such support exists within our own Humane Society here in the US. All Creatures Great and Small is a campaign of the Humane Society in the US, which aims to raise awareness about our responsibilities to all animals, including those raised for food. The campaign reminds us that "in recent decades, agriculture has taken a harsh turn and animals on factory farms are treated like mere objects. Eating is an activity that has moral and spiritual significance."
Indeed the Eucharist, a Christian sacrament is deeply rooted in eating and drinking and having a meal, it is an example of the relationship between food and faith. Think of those eggs we get at Big Y or Stop & Shop. While many of us picture an idyllic Old MacDonald's farm when we think about where our eggs come from, nothing could be further from the truth. Most eggs produced in the United States come from industrialized factory farms confining hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of laying hens in overcrowded battery cages with no room for them to move.
Such factory farming not only degrades animals but us too because we allow it. These creatures were given into our care by God to be good stewards. Our practices today do not reflect such care. They become mere throw away things and we are the lesser for it. Our faithful stewardship of creation means that we are mindful of the animals entrusted to our care, even those used for food.
When we look at the life of Francis, how he engaged the people around him, how he cared for animals and for those in need, how he proclaimed the Gospel, even in hostile lands, his life was lived with integrity. Like Job from our first reading – who refused to curse God even when his life turned upside down. Or Like the Psalmist who said, “Give judgment for me, O LORD, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.”
Such is the life of St. Francis. A life of integrity, a life lived with God’s love before his eyes; who walked faithfully with God. And yet, Francis never saw his life in such glowing terms. St. Francis said,
“I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”Indeed, God works through all of us. We are not called to be St. Francis but we can sure learn from his witness and respond to God working in us. May we have the same care for animals as St. Francis did in his time. May we fight against animal cruelty. May we live our lives faithfully and with integrity. May we proclaim the Gospel through our lives and when necessary, use words. And just as St. Francis did as was his to do; may Christ teach all of us what we are to do today. Amen.