01-2018 Charism of the Month (Respect Life) (Preaching to the Birds / Wolf of Gubbio)


Saint Francis of Assisi is known as the Patron Saint for all creatures including the animals that walk the earth, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and everything else in between. This is why so much of the art pictures Francis surrounded by these creatures and why he is depicted on so many bird baths. Last week, we read the Canticle of the Creatures and his love for these creatures is an extension of that Canticle. There are many stories about Francis with the animals. I would like to share the two most famous of these as they depict both the animals respect for Francis and his respect for them as a gift from God. Stories are a great way to teach. Are these Truth or Legend? Either way, the message is clear. Everything is created by God and deserves our respect and our protection. 

Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds

“He (Francis) came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason. “He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part. The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.

“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”

Thomas of Celano, who wrote an earlier biography of Saint Francis, told this same story of Francis’ sermon to the birds, including Francis’ admission of “negligence,” but Celano adds this sentence: “From that day on, Francis carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator.” Celano XXI

REFLECTION: These stories remind us that Francis loved all of God’s creation and God calls us to do the same. Animals are exploited and tortured for money and entertainment. What actions can I take to stop this abuse? 

The Legend of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

There was in Italy the town of Gubbio, a prosperous village that had a great problem. A wolf was eating their livestock, and attacking the people. Nothing the townspeople did protected them from the wolf. Never had they seen such a fierce predator. He killed a shepherd, then the shepherd’s brother and father when they went out to deal with this menace. The next morning the town was abuzz with the story told by the shepherd’s mother and sisters.    

The mayor of Gubbio announced he would send three of his best guards to find and slay the wolf that very afternoon. At dusk the townspeople could hear shouts and clashing of metal from the woods. Then it was quiet. The guards had met the wolf. Late in the night the only survivor of the encounter struggled into the anxious town and collapsed. As he told his story, fear was in the eyes of everyone in Gubbio.  Children were kept close by, weapons at the ready and the defenses of the town raised. The mayor consulted with his advisors and decided to see if Francis of Assisi could help them. 

Several brave messengers were sent to find Francis and ask him for his help. They begged the simple Holy man to help and implored him to come with them right away. Francis was moved by their plight and wanted to do what he could.                                                                                                                                                                

The mayor wondered what Francis could do with such a challenge. The mayor hated that wolf. He knew the men who were killed and their families. One of the guards was a cousin to the mayor’s wife.  Francis listened as the mayor described what had happened to their peaceful town. He had much empathy for the families of the victims and wanted to meet the wolf and hear his story, too. Francis stated that the next morning he would go the woods where the guards had been killed to see if he could find the wolf. That night he prayed for the wisdom to find a solution that would benefit everyone.

Early the next morning, refreshed and confident this would work out, Francis was accompanied by the townspeople to the gates of Gubbio.  They wished him well and retreated to their homes, worried that Francis would also be killed.                                                           

He walked on to the woods, ready to engage the wolf. As he neared the first stand of trees, the wolf appeared and began to stalk Francis. His slow, deliberate steps, the walk of a predator, announced his intention. He drew nearer and nearer, closing in a circle around the holy man from Assisi.         

Seeing the wolf, Francis felt a connection. He made the sign of the cross and called the wolf to meet him in peace under the grace of the Lord. The wolf watched as Francis came closer. “Come Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.” The wolf froze in mid step. The wolf struggled with doubt and uncertainty.       

Finally, understanding that Francis meant him no harm, the wolf walked to Francis and sat back on his haunches, ready to listen. Francis told the wolf that he had come from Gubbio and described what the townspeople were experiencing because of the wolf’s actions. He described the pain and resentment they held toward the wolf. “How did this come to happen?” Francis asked the wolf. “Why did you kill the livestock and people?”                  

The wolf told Francis his story. He had been left behind by his pack because he was injured and couldn’t keep up. He could only catch prey that didn’t run fast, like sheep and goats. He really preferred to eat deer and rabbits, but, with his injured leg, that was out of the question. He explained to Francis that all he wanted was to eat when he was hungry. The wolf explained that he killed only because he was defending himself and needed to eat. What could he do?                                                                                                                                  

Hours passed as Francis prayed. When Francis emerged from his contemplation, he proposed to the wolf that the townspeople could feed him and, in return, the wolf would stop killing the people and their livestock. The wolf thought this would work well for him, but worried the people would still want to kill him.

Francis understood the wolf’s concern and assured him he would present the idea to the townspeople in such a way that he would be forgiven and welcomed into the town. He knew they could let go of their fear and hate if they saw the wolf ask for forgiveness and accede to a peaceful relationship. Francis extended his hand. The Wolf showed agreement by placing his paw in Francis’ hand.                

As they neared the gate, the citizens could not believe their eyes. Francis and the wolf continued to the town square, although the mayor and the entire town watched with hate and fear.

The wolf had to keep his eyes on Francis to still his fear. Francis called out, “Come countrymen, the wolf will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace. I have spoken with the wolf and he apologizes for his actions and wants to make amends.” Francis told them the wolf’s story. “He has the same needs as you and only wants to eat and not go hungry. Can the people of Gubbio feed him if he promises to never again take the lives of the people and their animals? Remember, our Savior taught forgiveness. He taught us to love our enemies.”                                                                                                  

The citizens returned skeptical stares. Francis continued, “This will be your wolf. He can’t be killed or passed off to Spoletto or Perugia. He will serve the town as a defender as long as he will live.”     

The people of Gubbio talked with each other for hours. Relatives of the dead were the hardest to convince. They harbored a hard place in their hearts for the wolf. Francis wept with them and touched them in a way that softened their hearts. Finally, after many tears, they found compassion for the wolf. At Francis’ suggestion, they addressed him as Brother Wolf. 

Francis asked the Mayor and Brother Wolf to declare a pact. The people would be safe from the wolf. The wolf would be safe from them. Everyone expressed joy that the shadow of fear had been lifted from their town. The wife of the shepherd, the man who was the first to fall, brought out food to feed Brother Wolf. She was crying in relief to have the burden of hate lifted from her spirit. Brother Wolf was humbled when he found his apology accepted. More food was brought out and soon everyone was eating together.                                              

Word spreads to other towns. Soon the people of Gubbio were proclaiming proudly that they had a special wolf, Brother Wolf. He lived another two years like that until he died, cared for by the generous and forgiving town of Gubbio.