All religious traditions have great truths that all people can share and appreciate. My tradition, which is Roman Catholic, has a tradition of study and veneration of men and women whose lives and example lead the believer to think he or she is as close to perfection as humanly possible. One of these examples is Francis of Assisi – a man who is proclaimed not only as a saint but also as one of the earliest Italian poets. Schoolchildren in Italy read his canticles as required study. The words used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” is attributed to Francis.
Many interfaith services use his prayer of peace. Mother Teresa asked when she accepted the Nobel Prize that the audience recite the prayer. The Iron Maiden, Margaret Thatcher, when she was appointed Prime Minister, paraphrased the prayer on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Desmond Tutu claims he recites the prayer frequently. President Clinton used the prayer when he greeted Pope John Paul II to address the United Nations in New York. When she became Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi included the prayer in her address.
Who was this man who is proclaimed the patron saint of Italy, animals, birds, ecologists, and merchants? Why do many Catholics and Protestants celebrate his feast day October 5 by blessing animals? He was the son of a rich merchant who enjoyed the pleasures of the world and flesh. He was a warrior who saw the brutality of conflict and was taken prisoner. He had a religious rebirth that challenged his birthright, comfortable society and the established church. He read scripture in his native language – which was considered dangerous by ecclesial authorities. He cared for the local lepers and renounced all worldly goods and lived among the poor. His belief was that charity alone was not sufficient and that love should guide us in all our actions. He made many trips to North Africa to convert Moslems and was so respected by the local sultan Melek-el-Kamel that he was released from prison and the order he established, the Franciscans, to this day are custodians of many Christian places of veneration in the Holy Land.
His life is so compelling that Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini collaborated on a film project of his life. Franco Zeffirelli, Liliana Cavani, and Michele Soavi also did films of various aspects of his life. In India in the Malayalam dialect a philosophical film of ideas was created based on Francis having a discussion with the main character. His poems and prayers have been set to music. Sylvester Stallone used the prayer in the film “Rambo” when the main character was blessed by a priest when he goes to Burma for humanitarian purposes. “Pulp Fiction,” another major Hollywood production, used the prayer of Francis. On Levenworth Street in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco there is the St. Anthony Dining Room for the unfortunate people of the district. In this place of human decay and hope there is a mural with the prayer of Francis which we all should attempt to live: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, and in pardoning that we are pardoned. “