Today we remember St Francis, a very solemn point in the year for all who regard this remarkable 13th century Umbrian saint as their helper in trying to conform to the person of Jesus Christ. On this feast we remember the holy death of a saint, and also the remarkable conversion of the young man of Assisi and his astonishing evangelical life which brought thousands of Catholics into full conformity with their faith in his lifetime, then millions more later.
Today we have a Pope who has chosen the name of Francis – who wants to bring a message of Franciscan simplicity but accidentally ends up with very complicated and confused media reports of what he actually said.
We also have a strangely skewed perception of the simplicity of St Francis’ message, which is often read as a criticism of the perceived power and authority of the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth. The prophetic dream of Pope Innocent III after meeting Francis for the first time tells us all we need to know about Francis’ mission: he fully supported the structures of the Catholic Church and its doctrine at a time when these values were being undermined.
Throughout his life, Francis demonstrated an extraordinary affinity with creation and often the examples of stories involving Francis and animal life reflect his use of creation to preach the Gospel. But how did we go from that to St Francis as “Patron Saint of Animals”?
Why is it World Animal Day on the feast of St Francis?
Don’t get me wrong: I have four equines – the biggest sort of animals you can get – and I have spent most of today with them. But not because it is “World Animal Day”. I do not need such a day to notice there are animals in the world. Here is a photo of the latest attempt to interest them with a new toy. Thirty euros wasted. Maybe they will play with the new toy eventually…
I love my animals. So it is not because I devalue animals that I make this statement; but I cringe at the conflation of the feast of St Francis and “World Animal Day”.
In the remarkable life of St Francis we can see a way to connect our lives with the Gospel life of the Son of God. To reduce that to the celebration of an Umbrian mystic who had power over animals is entirely missing the point.