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Honouring animals among us

The legacy of St. Francis

World Animal Day began in 1931 as a way of bringing attention to endangered species. A convention of ecologists in Florence, Italy, chose October 4 as the date for World Animal Day because that is the Day of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. He is the patron saint of animals and the environment.

In the 83 years since World Animal Day was founded, it has become a chance to pay tribute to not only endangered animals, but pets, wild animals, zoo animals and in fact every kind of animal, as well as the people who work with them and love them.

St. Francis would be happy to know his legacy includes a day for animals. Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis say that he had a great love for animals and the environment. Cardinal Timothy Dolan remarked recently that Francis is the saint who reminded us that God's love is revealed to us through creation and creatures.

Francis began life a wealthy and frivolous youth; his father was a silk merchant. His life turned corners several times, and he eventually embraced a life of poverty, choosing to live according to the exact teachings of Jesus. Even in his youth, though, he clearly was sensitive to the plight of the poor. In the "story of the beggar," Francis was selling cloth and velvet in the marketplace on behalf of his father when a beggar came to him and asked for alms. Francis finished a transaction and then ran after the beggar. Then Francis emptied his pockets, giving the man everything he had. His friends mocked him for this.

Legend has it that he began to turn away from his companions and their carefree lifestyle. He began spending time alone in contemplation. This caused them to ask him if he was thinking of marrying. He answered, "Yes, a fairer bride than any of you has ever seen," meaning his "Lady Poverty." He began caring for lepers; he joined the poor in begging. At one point, he travelled to Egypt to try to bring an end to the violence of the Crusades by converting the Sultan – and some report that he secretly succeeded in this conversion. Since that time (13th Century), only the Franciscans were allowed to stay in the Holy Land, presumably because of the relationship established on that trip.

Francis preached and wrote about the brotherhood of all living things. To him, nature was a reflection of the mind of God. He referred to animals as his "brothers" and "sisters." In his "Canticle of the Creatures" and "Canticle of the Sun," he notes spiritual aspects of the environment, such as the wind and water, and Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even Sister Death. Amazingly, he called his chronic illnesses his "sisters."

In the Fioretti, aka "Little Flowers" (a collection of stories about St. Francis), the legend goes that while travelling across the land with some companions, he noticed a place where birds filled the trees. Francis said, "Wait for me, while I go to preach to my sisters, the birds." Then he spoke and the birds surrounded him, drawn in by his peaceful being and his voice, none flew off. St. Francis is typically shown with birds.

In another tale from the Fioretti, Francis lived for some time in a city called Gubbio and a ferocious wolf was terrifying the locals near that town. It was eating up the livestock and even the people. Francis wanted to make peace and so he went to find the wolf. Upon finding the wolf, he calmly made the sign of the cross and the wolf lay down at his feet. Then Francis said, "Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil." He told the wolf that the people despised him and they should find a way to have peace. Francis and the wolf then walked into Gubbio together. The amazed citizens called it a miracle and made a pact with the wolf. Francis explained that the wolf had "done evil out of hunger." So the townsfolk decided to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf promised to no longer prey upon them or their flocks. Even the dogs of the town promised to make peace with the wolf upon the request of Francis. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf. In this manner, the town was freed from fear and hatred.

Francis of Assisi died during the evening hours of October 3, 1226, while listening to a reading he had requested of Psalm 142. On July 16, 1228, he was proclaimed a saint by Pope Gregory IX. On November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis to be the Patron of Ecology.

Here are some famous quotes from St. Francis of Assisi:

"LORD, make me an instrument of your peace –

Where there is hatred, let me sow love –

Where there is injury, pardon –

Where there is doubt, faith –

Where there is despair, hope –

Where there is darkness, light –

And where there is sadness, joy..."

"All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle."

"He who works with his hands is a labourer; he who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman; he who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

"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."

"Start by doing what's necessary, then do what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

"It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching."

"While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart."

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