October 1, 2008

St. Francis Comes to San Francisco

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.




It’s pet-blessing time again, and the feast of St. Francis is just around the corner. About seven years ago, I wrote the children’s book St. Francis in San Francisco (published by Paulist Press). One of the first things St. Francis does in this story is to talk to the animals, wild and tame, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—and to bless them!


Although this book is for children, it was also intended from the beginning as a parable for adults. In the story, St. Francis makes a surprise visit to modern-day San Francisco on October 4 because it is his feast day. Events begin in Golden Gate Park, where he meets a little boy named Johnny and his dog, Sunpatch. It is Sunpatch who tells the story. I had the little dog tell it, not simply to be cute but to suggest that the animal’s point of view is important.

Why is the dog named Sunpatch?

I chose to name the dog Sunpatch because of St. Francis’ famous poem “The Canticle of Brother Sun.” For St. Francis of Assisi, the sun was a symbol of God—the God who shines forth and radiates his goodness upon all. One of the first things Sunpatch says in the story is: “My golden hair shines like a patch of golden sunlight…and that’s how I got my name.” God’s goodness and love, we believe, does shine upon all people and all creatures. And that is why we always try to show all of them respect and love. This is just one example of the little hidden meanings that can be found in this story or parable.

Here’s another example. When Sunpatch sees St. Francis’ beard, he says that St. Francis “has fur on his face just like me.” Why does Sunpatch even notice Francis’ beard in the first place? Is it not because he is an animal? As an animal, Sunpatch senses, better than any human, that Francis is part of the animal kingdom. Sunpatch sees clearly that Francis’ facial hair, his eyes and ears are not that different from those of animals. Francis is not ashamed to have a beard that makes him look a bit like the animals. He sees dignity in animals, and he’s proud to be a brother of the animals in this way. Francis accepted his animal nature as a gift from God. Maybe that is why St. Francis could talk so well to the animals and preach to the birds.

St. Francis preaches to the birds

In this story, Francis preaches to a tree full of birds, just as he did in his own life story. “My dear sister and brother birds,” he says, “always praise and thank your loving creator. God gave you feathers and wings. You fly freely through the air over housetops and lakes. You sing cheerful songs and find food without having to work for a living. How God must love you!” Francis’ sermon to the birds helps us to have more love and respect for our pets and all God’s creatures.

St. Francis rides a cable car

After these activities in Golden Gate Park, St. Francis asks Sunpatch and his friend Johnny, to go with him on a taxi ride through the streets of San Francisco. They visit the old Mission of San Francisco, which was built by followers of St. Francis in 1776 and is the actual birthplace of the city of San Francisco.

Then Francis asks the boy and his dog to go with him on a cable-car ride in downtown San Francisco. The three jump on a cable car that begins climbing one of the big hills of San Francisco. The cable car is packed with people from many different countries. St. Francis shouts to the operator: “This is wonderful! What a hoot! Here we are, brothers and sisters from all around the world taking a happy ride together. Even Sunpatch is with us to represent the animals. The whole family of creation is here having fun. This is the way the journey of life is meant to be!”

Throughout the story, a little mouse keeps appearing somewhere on Francis’ brown habit. The illustrator of the book, Kathy Baron, is very clever with little details like that. Kathy lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband, two sons and two dogs.

Finally, the cable car begins climbing the biggest hill of all. At first, Sunpatch is afraid to look. But when it passes over the top of the hill, he opens his eyes and sees far below the blue water of the San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge off to the left.

Soon the taxi takes St. Francis, Sunpatch and Johnny back to Golden Gate Park. In the final picture of the book, St. Francis is waving goodbye to Johnny and his dog. There is a rabbit near his feet and two birds are fluttering near his hand. In this story, St. Francis shows himself a joyful and caring brother to all people and to all God’s creatures. May God help us do the same!

Because St. Francis’ feast is almost upon us, we are happy to tell you about our special offer regarding Friar Jack’s St. Francis in San Francisco. If you order the book, you will receive a special autographed copy and a free study guide by the author. The book makes a good birthday or Christmas gift. See advertisement at top right.

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “Catechism Quiz: Abortion and the Gift of Life.”

Dear Friar Jim: Father, we recently had a member of our church commit suicide. I thought that if a person committed such an act, the Church would not hold a Mass for them. In fact, there was a Mass for this member. Can you explain this to me? Rae

Dear Rae: It would have been surprising and very unusual for the church NOT to have a Mass for this poor soul. There is no question that we have no right to take our lives; life is a gift of God and we are merely stewards. But, and it is a very big but, everything depends on an individual’s personal guilt. If you consider why people—at least 99% of them—take their lives, it is because they are so distraught, so depressed, so mentally mixed up that they are unable to make a truly free decision. If a person left a note and said he was taking his life to prove there was no life after death, or to argue against the resurrection of the body or as a deliberate act against God, that would obviously be a whole different situation. But, as I'm sure you can imagine, people may take their lives to escape unbearable emotional or physical pain. In other words, they are not totally free in their action. We believe in a compassionate God, one who was so kind to the possessed, the downtrodden. Jesus is the good shepherd. In all of this, we believe that such a person would never be guilty of serious sin, only unfortunate misjudgment. I do hope this helps in understanding the Church's practice. Friar Jim

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St. Francis in San Francisco
Book by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.; illustrated by Kathy Baron

St. Francis in San FranciscoFriar Jack’s book teaches children about Francis’ love and respect for creatures and how he praised God through them. Ages 4-8. Web-only exclusive offer of a special autographed copy, as well as a free teacher’s guide. Click here for details.

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With spiritual insight and careful historical judgment, Englebert blends the many facets of St. Francis’ personality into a portrait of a saint who can inspire men and women today. A Servant Book.
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The Journey and the Dream
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