Francis’ world was all about war.
The war between his father, a wealthy middle class cloth merchant climbing the social ladder, and Francis, with his natural impulse to generosity, giving away his father’s things to beggars on the street.
Constant war among the hilltown communes.
Struggles between the pope and the emperor. Conquest, invasion, pogroms.
And a church split into heretical movements, the most persistent of which denied the true humanity, the real human flesh, of the Savior.
Francis had gone to war before his conversion. He was not a good soldier. He was afraid, he was horrified, he got sick. After his conversion, he was determined to make peace. To reconcile enemies. To befriend everyone.
This was not, however, a mere psychological reaction against violence. Because by now he had read the gospels. And he had heard a voice tell him to mend the church. He thought it meant a chapel that had fallen into disrepair, and so he became a builder. But the charge went deeper: to mend the riven church, and to extend the mercy of mending to the whole world.
That’s why he gathered a company around him. That’s why he sent them to preach compassion. That’s why he is the patron saint of stowaways, having hidden on a boat going East where he hoped to convert the sultan and end the bloody horror of the Crusades. He did not succeed, but it is said that the sultan thought he was a lovely man, and made sure he got home safely.
He was not naïve. He knew what he was up against. But he believed in Jesus. And so he kept at it, even when in the last years of his short and painful life, his own brother Franciscans went to war with him about the most important thing of all—the vow to be poor, to own nothing, and thus to be free of the vested interests that come with possessions so that one could be an unencumbered maker of peace among all who called each other enemies.
It’s a battle Francis lost to semantics—the new rule was that the brothers would not own things, but they could make use of things. Before Francis was cold in his grave they began to build the great stone basilica where today his body lies.
“Make me an instrument of your peace,” Franciscans pray in his spirit.
“O send us an instrument of your peace,” prayed the good folk of Gubbio. And they really needed one.They had a wolf. Or better said, the wolf had them.
Along came Francis, filled with compassion for the terror of the people, and, please note, filled with compassion for the hunger of the wolf.
Here’s the story:
Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio
From I Fioretti [The Little Flowers of Saint Francis]
While Francis was living in Gubbio, a large wolf appeared in the neighborhood, terrible and fierce. He preyed on livestock, and he ate people too. And because he often lurked near town, everyone went about armed, as if going to battle. But all defense was useless. Anyone whom the wolf surprised alone was devoured. Because they were so afraid, the people did not dare venture outside the city walls.
Seeing this, Francis was moved with compassion. He decided to go and meet the wolf, although everyone begged him not to. Putting his confidence in God, he started out of the city, taking some of the brothers with him. But they held back at the gate, and so Francis went alone towards the place where the wolf was known to lurk, while people watched from a distance.
The wolf saw him coming, and he charged Francis with his jaws wide open. Francis cried out: “Come to me, brother wolf. But I command you, in the name of Christ, not to harm me nor anybody else.”
Immediately, the terrible wolf stopped in his tracks and closed his jaws. He approached Francis quietly, and curled up at his feet, meek as a lamb.
Then Francis said to him: “Brother wolf, you have done much harm in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God. You have destroyed livestock and people. You deserve to be hanged like a murderer. Everyone cries out against you, the dogs pursue you, all the inhabitants of this city are your enemies. But there can be peace, O brother wolf, if you stop harming them, and if they forgive you all you sins.”
The wolf listened to Francis. Then he bowed his head, and by that sign agreed.
Then Francis said: “Because you are willing to make peace, I promise you that you shall be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land as long as you live among them; you shall no longer suffer hunger, because I know it is hunger that makes you do so much evil. But if I can get the people to agree, you must promise for your part never again to attack any animal or human being. Do you promise?”
Then the wolf, bowing his head, consented.
“Brother wolf” Francis said, “Can I trust your promise?” And he extended his hand. The wolf lifted his right paw and placed it in Francis’ hand, giving him his pledge. Then Francis said: “Brother wolf, follow me now, without hesitation or doubting, that we may go together to ratify this peace which we have made in the name of God.”
And the wolf walked along by his side as meekly as a lamb.
All the inhabitants of Gubbio, men and women, small and great, young and old, flocked to the market-place to see Francis and the wolf. Francis said: “Listen, my sisters and brothers: this wolf has promised to make peace with you. Now you must promise to give him each day his necessary food; and if you consent, I promise in his name that he will most faithfully observe the agreement.”
Then they all promised to feed the wolf to the end of his days.
Then Francis, addressing the wolf, said again: “And you, brother Wolf, do you promise to keep the compact, and never again to offend man or beast, or any other creature?”
The wolf knelt down, bowed his head, lifted his paw, he placed it in Francis’ hand .
Then all the people lifted their voices to heaven, praising and blessing God.
The wolf lived two more years in Gubbio. Every day he went from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with pleasure, and no dog barked at him.
When the wolf died of old age, the people mourned his loss; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of Francis.