Someone once asked me what is a saint, and why do we make a fuss about them on special days. This was a long time ago before they invented Wikipedia, or I would have answered, “A saint is one who has been recognized for having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue.” Instead I answered that some Christians have a clearer understanding of God than others. Saints are people whose lives give us a better understanding of what God is like. The lives of the saints are close to the life of Christ. They are holy people because they see clearly the holiness of God. They are called holy ones or saints because their ordinary lives have been changed into extraordinary lives by the love of God, which we call God’s grace.
St Francis of Assisi is a saint because his life was completely changed by God. Francis was changed from a wealthy and privileged young man to a wonderful example of the Christian life, a great and influential teacher of the faith; a person of inspiring faith and prayer, one whose life put God’s love first and a person who showed others the power of God at work in the world.
I am not an expert on St Francis. The brief account of his life which you can read in the Pew Bulletin is straight out of Wikipedia. If you want to know more about St Francis, I suggest that you ask the Franciscan Brothers or the Poor Clare Sisters. I am sure they can help you to understand this amazing man.
What I can tell you is the effect Francis has had on me, and how I personally understand his life. First of all, Francis took his Christian faith seriously. Francis was the son of a wealthy and influential Italian silk merchant and he lived a life of privilege and ease.
But then he heard the gospel which told him to leave everything and follow Christ. He did exactly that, and lived among the poor and the beggars. Francis developed the ability to see God in all people and all things living and not living, seen and unseen. Sometimes, when we have a blessing of pets on St Francis’ day, we are tempted to think of Francis as a rather soppy and sentimental saint, the friend of fluffy creatures with feathers and fur. I think that Francis was very tough and determined. He saw God in the poor, the violent, the stupid and the fierce.
There is a story told of a village which was attacked by a fierce wolf, which killed and ate the sheep and lambs, and even small children. The villagers wanted to hunt and kill the wolf, but Francis wouldn’t let them. Instead he left the village, found the wolf came back to the village with the wolf following him quietly.
“This wolf is not evil.” He told the villagers, “He is one of God’s creatures and he kills because he is hungry. If you promise to feed the wolf, then he will promise not to attack your village.”
Francis also persuaded the village dogs not to attack the wolf when he came to be fed. And then Francis solemnly blessed the wolf to show that this fierce animal was also under God’s care and protection.
What I have learned from St Francis is that God is present in all things and cares for all things. Without the presence of God, nothing can exist.
I try to live my life, seeing God in all. Those whom the world condemns, the beggars, the drug addicts, the criminals, these are all humans made in the image of God, in whom the Spirit of God lives and for whom Christ died. I try, not always successfully to treat them as God’s beloved children.
I am saddened when people treat these people as outcasts, as if they were less valuable than any other part of God’s creation. I am distressed when Australians call people wanting to come to Australia, “illegals” or “queue jumpers” as if they were not men, women and children. I am saddened when these children of God are locked away in concentration camps. I have even met people who say they are glad when these people die in unseaworthy boats.
I think of St Francis’ story of the villagers and the wolf. In that story, the wolf, the villagers and the sheep and children were all saved. Perhaps if we could see the boat people through St Francis’ eyes, we might find a way of saving us all.
Perhaps the people of the Italian island of Lampedusa could provide a clue for us; after all, they are St Francis fellow country men and women.
Lampedusa is a little island in the Mediterranean sea. It is the part of Italy closest to Africa, where boat people come from, seeking a better life. Last week I read of the sinking of a boat carrying 500 people (they call them migrants in Italy). The people of Lampedusa were horrified by the loss of life as they gathered the corpses from the sea. They mourned for their lost brothers and sisters and held candle-lit prayer vigils in the streets.
I give thanks to God that the spirit of St Francis is still alive in the world. May it spread until all the earth is full of God’s compassion and mercy. Let us not forget that strangers are God’s children, too.