Throughout the Christian world the Feast of Saint Francis is celebrated on October 4th to honor the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology. When St. Francis was born in 1182, his father, a wealthy cloth merchant, was traveling in France. In his father’s absence, Francis’ mother took the liberty of naming her son Giovanni, after John the Baptist. When Pietro Bernardone returned to Assisi he immediately changed his son’s name to Francesco (Frenchman) because he didn’t want his son to be a man of God, but a man of business who would share his love of France. Francis grew up in a life of ease and wealth. He was happy and charming and everyone loved him. He became the leader of a group wealthy young people, who spent the majority of their time enjoying wild and lavish parties. Francis fulfilled his father’s hope by falling in love with all things French, especially the songs and romantic literature. He also became a very good businessman, but longed to distinguish himself in another way, as a knight. Francis got his chance when Assisi declared war on the nearby town of Perugia. Assisi lost the war and most of its soldiers were killed. Francis was spared because his father was wealthy enough to eventually pay a ransom for him. After spending a year shackled in a dungeon, his father did pay a ransom and Francis returned to Assisi, remarkably unchanged by the experience. He resumed his partying ways and continued to dream of distinguishing himself as a knight. He got his chance when there was a call for knights to take up the Fourth Crusade, but Francis was only one day’s ride from Assisi when he had a dream in which God spoke to him, telling him to go home to begin a new life. When Francis returned he was laughed at and called a coward. His father was furious that he had wasted an extravagant amount of money on a fine suit of armor.
Thus began Francis’ conversion to the spiritual life. He began to spend time in prayer and seclusion until one day he came across a leper. Moved by the leper’s suffering, Francis jumped off his horse and kissed his hand. When the leper returned his kiss, Francis was filled with peace and joy. As he rode off he turned to wave goodbye, but the leper had disappeared. Francis decided it was a test from God that he had passed. One day Francis was praying in an ancient church in San Damiano. As he prayed he heard Christ’s voice from the crucifix say to him, “Francis, repair my church.” Thinking he was meant to repair the crumbling building he was in, Francis sold fabric from his father’s shop to restore the church. His father accused him of theft and demanded that Francis return his money. At that point Francis said, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.” From that day forward Francis embraced a life of simplicity and poverty, emulating, to the best of his ability, the life of Jesus. Eventually he realized that the church he was asked to rebuild was the church of the Christian faith, in which corruption and hypocrisy had become commonplace. For the next twenty years Francis traveled and taught through his example of unconditional love for human beings, animals, and the natural world until he passed away at the age of 45 on October 3, 1226.