St. Francis in San Francisco: The Biblical Vision Behind the Story

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. Surely, the God of love, who brought the plants, animals and all other creatures into existence, had every intention of caring for them. Naturally, God's care extends not only to human beings but to the whole family of creation as well.

The Bible offers great clues that both humans and non-humans together make up the one family under the Creator's care. Consider the story of Noah's ark in the Book of Genesis. For me, the ark is a wonderful symbol of God's desire to save the whole family of creation. The story suggests to me that it is not God's plan to save human creatures apart from the other creatures. We are all in the same boat, so to speak. As St. Paul writes to the Roman (8:22), "All creation is groaning" for its liberation.

Listen to the covenant that God makes with all living creatures after the floodwaters went away. The covenant or agreement is not simply between God and the humans, but also "with all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals…. Never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood" (Gn 9:10-11).

Then God puts a rainbow in the sky and tells Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all mortal creatures that are on the earth" (9:17). Isn't it interesting that God is much more careful than we human beings to include the animals and other creatures in the plan of salvation?

Let's go now to the book of Jonah. It almost reads like a children's story. There's a furious storm at sea, the sailors throw Jonah into the raging water, a big fish swallows the prophet Jonah and spits him out on the shore. Jonah does not like the task God has assigned him, namely, to preach to the city of Nineveh. Like his fellow Jews, Jonah despises the people of Nineveh. Jonah does not like the fact that God's saving love includes the likes of them.

The story is really a parable of God's all-embracing love. Significantly, even the animals are included in God's saving plan. When Jonah proclaims that Nineveh will be destroyed because of its sins, the king of Nineveh announces a fast that not only includes humans but animals as well: "Neither Man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything," orders the king. "They shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth" (3:7-8).

Much to Jonah's disappointment, God mercifully forgives the city because of its repentance. And the last line of the Book of Jonah clearly reveals that God's saving love extends to all living creatures, not just the humans: "Should I not be concerned," God asks Jonah, "over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle" (4:11)?

If we turn to the Book of Psalms and similar forms of prayer in the Bible, we can find examples of prayer that call upon other creatures to praise God along with the own human voices. These are very inclusive kinds of prayer. Listen to Psalm 148. It is a Hymn of All Creation to the Almighty Creator: "Praise the Lord from the heavens…. Praise him sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars…. Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all depths; Fire and hail, snow and mist, storm winds that fulfill his word; You mountains and all you hills, you fruit trees and all you cedars; You wild beasts and all tame animals…. Let the kings of the earth and all peoples…Young men too, and maidens, old men and boys, Praise the name of the Lord…."

A similar hymn of praise to God is sung by the three youths in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel (3:52-90). In the midst of their distress, they invite the whole family of creation to praise the one Lord of all. Such styles of prayer suggest that all of us creatures are meant to walk together in one common journey to God. Does this not imply that all creatures are included in God's saving plan?

It seems obvious that when St. Francis wrote his "Canticle of the Creatures" he based its style of prayer on such passages of Scripture as just cited. But he adds a special personal touch: He gives the title of "Brother" and "Sister" to the various creatures, as if to emphasize the fact that we all form one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. Francis had the amazing intuition that we are not meant to come to God alone, as if in proud isolation from our brother and sister creatures. Rather, we are to form one family with them-becoming one symphony of praise.

Here's a condensed version of St. Francis' canticle, sometime known as the "Canticle of Brother Sun:"

"All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made.
And first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day….
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright and precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air….
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister water,
So useful, lowly, precious and fair.
All praise be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night….
All praise be your, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us…and produces various fruits
With colored flowers and herbs….
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility."

Turning our attention now to the Gospels, we see, first of all, that the Word of God did not set out to save the world from the outside, but rather from the inside. The Eternal Word entered the family of creation at the Incarnation. He made this world his home, thus giving all creatures a whole new dignity. Jesus interacted very naturally and respectfully with the created world, whether on the lakeshore or in the desert or on a mountainside or crossing a wheat field or the Sea of Galilee. In his preaching of the good news of God's saving love, Jesus easily used images of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, also foxes, pearls, salt, fig trees, mustard seeds, lost sheep and many more.

Perhaps, Jesus did not speak to any animals in the Gospels in the manner of St. Francis, but he did speak to the wind and the sea during the storm on the lake. "Quiet. Be still," Jesus said, and the wind and the sea listened--they quieted down! His amazed disciples commented, "Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?" (Mark 4:41). There's a lot of food for thought in this episode and you can take it in many directions.

In one sense, Jesus is depicted as the Lord of the Universe, subduing the chaos symbolized by the violent storm and raging waters. This is something of a repeat of what the Creator had done in the Book of Genesis (1:2) when the Spirit of God swept over the chaotic waters--the primordial sea or abyss--and an orderly universe came forth. Noah and his passengers' success in surviving the flood, by means of the ark, is another echo of this. Noah and crew are not simply fighting an ordinary rainstorm, but the return of the primordial sea, which the Creator had subdued in the book of Genesis (see 7:11).

Finally, after his resurrection, Jesus seems to leave another hint, near the end of Mark's Gospel, that the whole family of creation was included in God's saving love. After his death and resurrection, he tells his disciples: "Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).

Moving to the book of Revelation, we encounter the seer John describing a heavenly vision of all creatures before the throne of God. In that glorious gathering, he sees more than saved humanity: "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: 'To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever'" (Rev 5:11-14).

If ever there was a saint who took to heart this inclusive and integral vision of salvation, it was Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Francis literally preached the gospel to every creature--to birds and fish, rabbits and wolves, as well as to humans. St. Francis did not present himself as a human chauvinist, pretending that he was to be saved apart from the rest of creation.

As fanciful as it may seem, the story of Sunpatch and St. Francis, as told in "St. Francis in San Francisco," flows from the same biblical tradition as described above--and dramatized so wonderfully in the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

A Note on the Catholic Liturgy And How It Mirrors This Vision

"Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise." These words, which begin Eucharistic Prayer III of the Roman Missal, express wonderfully how the Catholic Christian community includes the whole family of creation in its public worship.

The Catholic liturgy, with its many sacramental rites, makes abundant use of the created world: water, oil, fire, bread and wine, incense, ashes, palm branches, flowers, candles, stained glass, colored vestments, paintings and images of biblical creatures such as eagles, lions, oxen, serpents and doves. The Catholic community includes all kinds of created elements in its prayer-journey to God. The spirit of St. Francis seems very much in evidence in Catholic liturgical life.

The world of sound, of course, also plays a part in many Christian liturgies. Psalm 150 serves as a good biblical model for this approach: "Praise [the lord] with the blast of the trumpet, praise him with lyre and harp, Praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and pipe…. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Alleluia."

A Note on the Resurrection of the Body

Our Christian belief in the resurrection of the body has great implications for the whole created world. Our belief in the Resurrection tells of the great significance of our earthly bodies. At death, our bodies are not discarded like empty shells, as if only our souls are precious and meant to live with God. Not at all. The resurrection affirms that our bodies are precious too and destined to rise again like Jesus' own body.

At one point in the Catholic funeral ceremony, the priest without saying a word solemnly walks completely around the casket, gently swinging the censor, allowing clouds of rising incense to honor the bodily remains of the person who died. Our earthly bodies, too--with all they represent--are meant to be saved and transformed just as was Jesus' glorified body.

Our bodies, moreover, are vitally interconnected with the whole created world. They could not exist one moment without the sun or the oxygen transmitted by plants. We depend, as well, on our environment for water and food and the minerals that make up our earthly bodies. Because of the intimate linkage between our bodies and our environment, it's hard to imagine how we can be transformed and saved apart from the rest of creation.

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body seems to assure us that no genuine part of our human or earthly experience will be lost. Would our body's resurrection and transformation not run parallel with the creation of "a new heaven and a new earth," as suggested by the Book or Revelation (21:1)?

Sometimes our children ask so earnestly: "Will I see in heaven my little doggy or hamster who died?" The question may sound a bit naïve and simplistic, but is it not our Christian expectation that all creation will some day share in the fullness of salvation won by Jesus Christ? The more we see the full implications of our belief in the resurrection of the body and the better we understand the biblical vision of God's inclusive love, the easier it will be for us to give a hopeful answer to our children's question. And ultimately, how many of us could be truly satisfied with a vision of heaven that does not include the whole family of creation?

We take comfort, therefore, in St. Paul's words that "all creation is groaning" for its freedom and redemption. Yes, Paul understands that the created world has been wounded by the corruption of sin, but he nevertheless speaks confidently of the "hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (8:21).

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