I remember once, as a young editor, compiling the results of a survey on people’s favorite Catholic saints. No other saint—next to the Virgin Mary—was as popular as St. Francis of Assisi. It’s easy to see why. Who gives kids free rein to indulge in their natural love of animals?
Who, besides Mary, stands in statuesque stone among the marigolds in so many home gardens? My childhood celebrations of Francis’ feast on October 4th were always mixed with my mom’s birthday and our rural parish’s Fall Festival until I went to college and met some delightful Franciscan sisters who taught me to celebrate this light-hearted saint in a whole new way: Every October 4th we’d have an evening feast of ice cream sundaes and funny stories, quitting only when our stomachs hurt from too much laughter.
St. Francis, born in 1181, grew up the pampered son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy. After an early life of self-indulgence, he had an encounter with God that led him to denounce his old life by stepping out of his elegant clothes in the town square. He became a traveling preacher, begging for his food and wearing a simple brown robe. Francis, who greatly respected the earth and its creatures, was said to have preached to the birds and to have tamed the wolf of Gubbio. He also created the first nativity scene, using a live donkey and a real baby, for villagers in Italy.
Let your family get to know this wonderful, colorful saint in October and beyond:
1. Draw on animal magnetism. The typical picture of St. Francis shows him communing with birds, a cluster of squirrels or rabbits at his feet. If your child enjoys animals, introduce her to this animal-loving saint in word and image with two beautiful, bestselling younger kids’ books on St. Francis: Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi (Holiday House) by Tomie De Paola and St. Francis (Eerdmans) by Brian Wildsmith. Your kids might like a small statue of St. Francis for their own, as well. If your children aren’t already preoccupied with animals, help them get to know God’s creatures better: Find out how to attract birds or butterflies to your yard, subscribe to a nature magazine, or watch videos about some of our planet’s most fascinating animals, particularly those on the verge of extinction.
2. Celebrate the good earth. St. Francis, swept up in gratitude for all of God’s creation, famously addressed “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” as though they were members of the family. In a world too quickly running out of natural resources and our protective ozone layer, his loving attitude toward the environment is one for kids to emulate today. Teach your children to tread lightly upon the earth. Explain why it’s important not to litter, and why the environment is healthier when we remember to shut off the lights in our house and make an effort to carpool.
3. Keep it simple. From the very day young Francis stripped off his fancy clothes and stood naked before his astonished father and the bishop, he has been a vivid symbol of Christianity’s commitment to the poor. As he founded the Franciscan order, he insisted on vows of poverty and simplicity, on his men giving direct service to the poor. Today Francis and his contemporary Franciscans are admired the world over by Christians who choose a simpler lifestyle over the consumerism so pervasive in our culture. Increasingly families say they want to “live simply so that others may simply live.” They do so by making do with one TV instead of five, by using hand-me-downs and buying used items instead of new. They take money they might have spent at Best Buy and contribute it to good causes instead. They make careful choices about what they buy and consider whether those who made the products received a just wage. Families who simplify say that they, too—not just the poor—benefit from the lifestyle makeover.
4. Give peace a chance. St. Francis is also famous, far beyond Catholicism, for his Peace Prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” Find a copy of the complete prayer in the library (or click here). You might try saying this prayer occasionally before meals, or hanging a copy on your wall at home. It offers abundant spiritual sustenance and inspiration for teens and younger kids. –by Mary Lynn Hendrickson, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.
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