Friar Jack Answers
10 Questions About
St. Francis in San Francisco
1. What is the book about?
St. Francis makes a surprise visit to modern-day San Francisco,
the city named after him. In Golden Gate Park he introduces himself
to the dog Sunpatch and his companion, Johnny Thompson. St. Francis
then meets with all the animals in the park, talks with them and
treats them to snacks.
Then he invites Johnny and Sunpatch to go with him on a little
adventure--to visit the Old Spanish Mission of San Francisco, the
city's birthplace, and then to ride the famous cable cars of San
St. Francis' message is one of respect and love for all creatures
and all the peoples of the earth.
2. What prompted you to write a children's book after a lifetime
of writing for adults?
Well, as a Franciscan friar for over 45 years, I've always admired
St. Francis' love for nature and animals. I was especially fascinated
by his calling creatures "brother" and "sister"--you
know: "Brother Sun and Sister Moon," "Sister Lark
and Brother Fox" and so forth.
After pondering this for some time, it became clear to me that
Francis saw all creatures as members of one family! All creatures--whether
humans, animals, plants or minerals--have the same loving Creator
in heaven. We are all members of one family of creation. I wanted
to get themes like this across at a children's level. Most children
instinctively love animals and the wonders of nature. That's why
I thought youngsters might like a story about a saint who loves
animals and talks with them.
3. Is the book just for children?
In writing this book, I was constantly aware of writing for readers
of all ages. Yes, I struggled hard to make the story simple and
appealing and digestible for youngsters, but the theological vision
behind it is for adults as well as children. The story is something
of a parable or fable.
There are little hidden meanings in the story. Is there any special
reason, for example, for the dog to be named Sunpatch? Think about
it for a moment. In St. Francis' famous hymn, "The Canticle
of Brother Sun" (considered the first poem in the Italian language),
he sees the Sun as a symbol of God--the God who sustains all and
radiates goodness upon all. That's why the dog's hair shines like
a patch of sunlight, as if reflecting the very goodness of God.
And why does the dog notice that Francis "has fur on his face
just like me"? The dog senses, better than any human, that
Francis is part of the animal kingdom. Sunpatch sees clearly that
Francis's facial hair, his animal eyes, and ears and breathing system,
and so forth, are not unlike those of the animals.
Most of us "rational animals," as we human beings are
called, tend to distance ourselves from our animal nature, denying
an important part of who we are. Being an animal is not a putdown
in the view of St. Francis. Francis embraces his animal nature as
a gift of God--a gift that Christ also shared. Maybe that is why
St. Francis communicates so well with the creature world.
And now a word about the cable-car ride. It's more than just a
fun cable car ride, though good, wholesome recreation is a wonderful
value. The cable car--filled with people from many nations and races
along with a dog (and a tiny mouse) "to represent the animals"
and all other creatures--is a symbol of "the way the journey
of life is meant to be." From the creation story of the Book
of Genesis, we know that God's original plan was for all creatures
go through life in happy harmony and to live together on this planet
as one big family.
This is also suggested beautifully by Kathy Baron's illustration
near the end of the story, where St. Francis, a Caucasian, Johnny,
a boy of color, and the dog Sunpatch hold each other in one sweet
embrace. It's a picture of reconciliation and harmony amidst the
whole family of creation.
4. What do you hope the book will achieve?
I hope it makes us see ourselves not as separate from the rest
of the family of creation, as if we are proud masters standing "over
and above" our natural environment. God calls us to be good
stewards within creation, not separate from it. We are part of our
eco-system, not outside managers exploiting it for selfish gain.
I hope the book encourages children and adults alike to imbibe the
spirit of St. Francis and become more humble, respectful, joyful,
grateful and caring toward the created world.
5. How did you decide on San Francisco? Do you have any personal
connection with the city?
Well, I don't know why I was so slow in coming to this insight,
but eventually it dawned on me that San Francisco would be the perfect
setting for this tale. This was true not only because Francis was
the patron saint of San Francisco but also because the city's personality
mirrored that of the saint. The world-famous city is full of magical
charm and playfulness just like its saint. The first time I visited
the city, in 1968, I was spellbound.
I have been back many, many times since, as if drawn by a magnet.
I spent a whole summer there in 1973 attending theology courses
at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. I got to know many
of the area's landmarks very well. For example, the university is
just a short walk from Golden Gate Park, where much of the story
takes place. Then in 1993-94 I spent a good part of a year in the
San Francisco Bay area taking courses at the Franciscan School of
Theology in Berkeley.
6. Why is St. Francis especially important to us today?
Today's world is divided and fragmented. There is a great need
for peace and reconciliation between peoples and races, between
ourselves and the rest of creation. We need to have greater respect
for the earth and our environment. We need to replace cynicism and
negativity with hope and joy and gratitude.
Saint Francis was a great peacemaker, a man of joy and positive
spirit. He is the patron saint of ecology because of his great respect
for creation. We need to recapture his spirit. St. Francis is the
man to help us find the way to peace and harmony.
7. Why do you think this is a Christmas story, though it obviously
takes place in the autumn?
The first version of the story was actually a Christmas story.
Thanks to a key suggestion from an editor at Paulist Press, I realized
that the story might have added appeal if I made better use of key
symbols of San Francisco, like a ride on a cable car. It also made
good sense for St. Francis to visit the city on his feast day, October
4. This could be done without sacrificing certain Christmas themes
that were central to the story and to the vision of St. Francis.
The mystery of the Incarnation--God's entering the family of creation
as a human child--was central to the spirituality of St. Francis.
In his mind, the Incarnation had great implications for the whole
created world. By making the created universe his home, God added
great dignity and meaning to all creatures.
This is why Francis had a great fondness for the feast of Christmas.
He believed that God's entering our created world was a cause for
celebration not only for humans but also for all creatures. The
arrival of our saving God was meant to benefit the whole family
of creation, not just human beings.
Therefore Francis wanted all creatures to take part in the celebration.
In fact, he wanted the emperor to tell all people to scatter grain
along the roads on Christmas day, so the birds too could celebrate
God's making his home among them. The beasts in the stable should
be given a festive meal also, and the very walls should be rubbed
This is why St. Francis, in my story, provides a treat for the
animals in Golden Gate Park by strewing seeds and grain upon the
ground. He does this, you'll notice, immediately after telling them
of God's being born among them. It's a little banquet or thanksgiving
meal (a eucharist of sorts) to let the whole family of creation
celebrate the Christmas mystery.
8. So many children's books had animals in them. What is the
significance in your book of having a dog as narrator?
I did not choose to tell the story through the eyes of the dog
just to be cute! I did it to make the point that animals and other
non-human creatures have importance and great dignity in God's plan.
We have enough books, even theology books, which stress God's saving
love for the human race. I don't think there is much danger of losing
sight of that. I simply wanted to follow in the footstep of Saint
Francis, who took the time to preach to the animals and include
them in the story of salvation.
St. Paul teaches that "all creation is groaning" for
its redemption and liberation (Roman 8:22). And Jesus tells us:
"Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature"
(Mark 16:15). Why shouldn't St. Francis preach to the animals? Why
shouldn't he see his spiritual destiny interconnected with that
of all his sister and brother creatures? Francis was not a human
chauvinist--pretending that he would be saved apart from the rest
9. Tell me about Mission Dolores, which is one of the places
St. Francis visits.
Mission Dolores is the popular name for the Old Spanish Mission
of St. Francis of Assisi. In Spanish it is Misión San Francisco
de Asís. This is the historic birthplace of San Francisco.
The mission was established by Spanish Franciscan friars in 1776
under the leadership of Fray Junipero Serra (1713-1784). Father
Serra is often called "the founder of California." The
Franciscan friars, of course, were members of the religious order
founded by St. Francis in the early 13th century.
As a Franciscan, I could not have St. Francis come to San Francisco
and not visit the mission built by his followers, and which was
the birthplace of the city named after him.
10. If this were a longer book--and St. Francis made a longer
visit, what other places would be on his list of "must see"
I can think of two places in the San Francisco area that I would
have liked Francis to visit: Muir Woods and the wine country of
the Sonoma and Napa valleys. I would include Muir Woods because
the majestic redwoods of this fine park would surely lift Francis'
soul into the very presence of God. And I would have him visit the
wine country because it was Francis' Spanish followers who brought
the first vineyards to California in the 18th century. Surely, Francis
would praise God for "Sister Wine," explaining that, if
we enjoy it with gratitude and moderation, it can bring good cheer
to the human heart and to human celebrations.
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