By Sister Roselynn Humbert
“The dominant narrative about St. Francis is that he was someone who simply “loved animals,” which is why his likeness is placed in gardens the world over and people bring their pets to church to receive a blessing on his feast day. People generally like St. Francis because they view him as a naive, romantic, kind, cutesy and unthreatening figure. Yet, the early Franciscan sources reveal that he was anything but these things,” writes Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, National Catholic Reporter.
I was thinking this very idea as I reflected on writing about St. Francis. I remember reading a newspaper article about St. Francis stating, “St. Francis loved animals and people too.” Fr. Dan goes on to quote the Canticle of the Creatures to support the fact that Francis was intuitively revolutionary in seeing the relationship of humanity to all of creation. I want to take one step back and talk about how Francis loved “people too.”
If Francis only wandered in the forests and made friends with a wolf, and preached to birds, I doubt if the young men of Assisi would have been attracted to follow him. As many biographers point out, the young Francis loved a good time. His year in prison in Perugia changed him and when he recovered, he spent time alone to get his bearings. After he heard the voice from the crucifix at San Damiano tell him “Rebuild my church” he took it quite literally and began repairing the chapels in the plain below Assisi. It was while he was working at this that the young men he “hung out” with began coming around. Some of them eventually joined him in his primitive life style. From the beginning, Francis emphasized the relationships among his followers. They were to be friars not monks. They called each other Brother and Francis was their Father. In his writings, we find male caretakers and leaders referred to as both mothers and fathers.
In the beginning, the Franciscans were more of a movement than a religious order but men and women were joining quickly. A leader who did not love people would not have been attractive to so many nor would they continue the journey with Francis if they were not in relationship. There are many stories of the friendship with Brother Leo and Brother Juniper. We know his friendship with Sister Clare was important.
He knew each of his early followers with their strengths and weaknesses. He defended poverty with vigor that could be frightening, trying to tear down a house he thought the brothers owned. Remember, he was Italian and had the full range of emotions we identify as human. There is a story that he built himself a snow family, he was tempted so much by the idea of family life. He was sensitive to human needs. When one of the brothers was unable to sleep because of the fasting, Francis woke the brothers and they all had a bit of the bread they had collected to help the hungry brother not feel guilty about his inability to complete the fast. Toward the end of his life, Francis suffered from an eye disease and the results of his fasting. He apologized to his body for abusing it. As he lay dying he asked the brothers to sing his Canticle, we call the Canticle of the Sun. He added the last verse about death. I include it here for your reflection and ask you, Could someone who saw humanity in relationship to the universe not value human relationships as primary after relationship with God?
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.