Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and at churches around the country they will celebrate the blessing of animals. What many people do not know about me is that in the year between college and seminary, I was among the first group of Franciscan Volunteers in Baltimore. We lived in a former convent, worked at various ministries around the city helping the poor, and studied the life and theology of St. Francis. While I ultimately chose to become a diocesan priest and dedicate my ministry to my native Virginia, St. Francis remains central to my spirituality. Some people will I am sure take offense at my next statement but, here goes. I think the blessing of pets is a shameful reduction of St. Francis.
Francis came along at a time when the Church was in need of what we would today call a New Evangelization. While religious of his day took vows of individual poverty, but many monasteries had built up great wealth and power. Francis introduces radical poverty. He and St. Dominic would found the two mendicant orders, orders that would own nothing either individually or corporately. They would be totally dependent on charity, a sign of total dependence on God At the heart of his message is a simple truth. We will take no material thing from this world.
The constant works of charity of St. Francis are not simply done out of love of neighbor but a profound sense of a need to repent for sin. These core concepts of poverty, dependence, and repentance are not attractive in our culture. Neither is reflection on our own mortality.
If we read the writing of St. Francis we find a man profoundly aware of his sinfulness, his brokenness, his utter dependence on God. Some of his reflections on the beatitudes show us the rest of the story,
The truly pure of heart are those who despise the things of earth and seek the things of heaven, and who never cease to adore and behold the Lord God living and true with a pure heart and soul.
St. Francis was called by God to rebuild His Church, and he did it not by reducing the gospel to palatable platitudes, but by calling people to embrace the truly radical way of life he saw in the scriptures.
Having your puppy blessed today may be a fine first step. But if we truly want to honor St. Francis this day, let us all take time to pray and ask the Lord to show each of how we might embrace poverty, simplicity of life. How might we divest ourselves of the earthly and fix our eyes on the heavenly? Today is good day to go through some of the stuff we have but do not need, pack up a box and give it to your favorite charity. Give to the man begging on the corner, who might be Christ. Let us honor Francis, by imitating Francis.