We think of St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of animals, but who was he and how did he come to achieve this distinction?
Born in the year 1181 at Assisi in Umbria (Italy), Francis was originally given the name Giovanni (after John the Baptist) by his mother.
But his father, a successful cloth merchant, was unhappy with this name--he wanted a son who would be known as a businessman rather than as a man of God. He changed his son’s name to Francesco to reflect the father’s great love for the country of France.
Despite being a romantic dreamer and an adventurous young man, Francis did, indeed, do well in business, but this was not his passion; he hoped, rather, to win glory and knighthood on the battlefield. Instead, he was taken prisoner and spent a year of captivity in a dungeon.
Following his release from prison, Francis went back to life in the business world, but he also spent more time in prayer, feeling that God was calling him to service in some yet undiscovered role.
When Francis took fabric from his father’s shop and sold it in order to get money for repairs to a deteriorating church, this so angered his father (who considered this an act of theft) that he disowned this son.
Fine—thought the son, who felt that his true allegiance should be to his Father in heaven. From this point on, Francis went about preaching, singing, sleeping in the woods, and living a simple existence trusting in God and in the kindness of strangers to provide for his most basic needs.
Francis began to gather a following from those who came to hear him preach and who joined in his advocacy of a simple life geared toward living by the Gospel and serving God.
His goal was not so much to establish a new kind of religious order or church as it was to include all of God’s creation in his brotherhood—rich, poor, nobleman and commoner, beggars and saints.
Even the wild animals and songbirds of the fields were brothers to Francis.
This became the essence of his life and his beliefs, and is how we come to think of Saint Francis as the patron saint of the animals.
It is said that he even preached to the birds about being thankful to a loving God for His protection and care.
Francis sought approval of his brotherhood from Pope Innocent III, who promptly had this wandering beggar banished from his presence! Following a startling dream about the power of this humble man, however, the Pope called Francis back and granted permission for him to continue his work of preaching.
A lifetime of wandering and living under less than ideal conditions of sanitation and nutrition took its toll on Francis. He lost his eyesight and his physical health began to decline.
Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order and believer in the brotherhood of Nature and all of God’s creation, died in the year 1226 at the age of 45.
(Much of this information is taken from Catholic Online at catholic.org)