Saint Francis and the Animals
Long ago there lived a man named Francis who was born to a wealthy Italian merchant. Francis was generous beyond compare, and when he was a young man, his father sent him away, angry because he believed Francis was too generous with the poor. Francis wandered away, into the world. One day as he was passing through a village, he was startled to see the streets were nearly empty.
At last, Francis met a merchant. “Where are all the people?” Francis asked.
“Oh sir,” said the man, “no one will leave his home these days. A fierce wolf who lives just outside the village has been attacking us.”
“But have you talked to the wolf?” Francis asked.
“No one can talk to a wolf,” the merchant laughed. “You must be a fool.”
Francis said only, “I will go and speak with Brother Wolf.”
“Don’t do that,” the merchant begged, and when the townspeople heard the stranger’s plans, they too pleaded with him. “You will be killed,” they said. “The wolf is fierce and terrible, and he will kill you.”
Francis simply shook his head and walked toward the forest. As he approached the woods, the wolf bounded from the trees and prepared to pounce on Francis.
Francis did not even tremble. Instead, he knelt down, and when the wolf was only two feet from him, Francis whispered, “Come to me, Brother Wolf.” The wolf stopped and stared at the stranger.
For a long time, the two knelt silently before each other. As darkness began to fall, the wolf took one step forward, and Francis bent his head to the ground and began to speak. “Brother Wolf,” he said, “you have been wicked. You have terrified a whole village with your desire to hurt people. If you understood the pain you have caused, I know you would not behave this way.” He talked on, explaining to the wolf the love he would receive if he apologized and changed his ways. Before long the wolf began to nod, for he understood Francis’ words. Soon Francis knew the wolf was sorry for the grief he had caused.
“Come with me to the village,” Francis said to the wolf. “You can tell the people you are sorry, and they will welcome you.”
The wolf bowed his head in agreement.
That night Francis slept on a mountainside beside the wolf. At dawn, Francis and the wolf walked, side by side, to the village. When the people looked out of their windows, they saw the slender man wearing a long, brown coat with a cord wrapped around his waist, and they gasped. They could not believe his eyes. This was the stranger they remembered. He was safe. And more astonishing still, the wolf was walking calmly by his side.
They crept out of their homes and crowded into the marketplace, waiting eagerly to hear what Francis had to say.
Francis laid his hand upon the wolf’s broad back. “The wolf wishes to tell you he’s sorry,” Francis told the gathered crowd. The wolf bowed his head in agreement.
From that day on, wherever Francis walked, the wolf walked beside him. Before many days had passed, the people grew calm, and they knew the wolf would never harm them again. They began to allow him into their homes, and he became a favorite of the village children.
When the wolf grew old and died, the people gathered to mourn the loss of their old enemy who had, upon receiving kindness, become their Brother Wolf.
The people began to listen more closely now to Francis, observing his way with the creatures who shared their world. One day Francis and some friends were walking in the woods. Suddenly Francis said to his friends, “Stop here a moment. I wish to speak to the birds, my brothers and sisters.”
His friends watched as Francis walked into a wide poppy field and hundreds of birds swooped out of the sky, swirling around his head.
“My friends,” Francis said to the birds, “you ought to thank God who made you, for it is He who lets you fly wherever you like. He has provided places for you in the mountains and valleys and trees, and because you cannot sew or spin or weave or knit, he has dressed you and your babies. Always remember to give Him thanks for these gifts.”
The friends watched in amazement as the birds opened their beaks to speak and stretched out their necks and fluttered their wings and bowed their heads low to the ground in prayer.
Francis bid the birds farewell, and a great flock rose into the bright sunny sky and began to sing, all together. Soon the whole valley was filled with music.
That afternoon, Francis and his friends came to a walled garden. “This would be a fine place for us to pray,” Francis said, and he and his friends walked into the garden.
As Francis began to speak of God’s great gifts, the swallows who had nested in the walls around them, twittered so loudly and long that no one could hear Francis’ words.
Francis looked up at the nests. “Brother Swallows,” he said gently, “please be quiet when I am speaking.” The swallows stopped. They did not make another sound until Francis had finished speaking.
That was the way Francis had. Soon after his death, he was made a saint whose love of animals taught the people and the animals to love and respect one another.