The Feast of St. Francis: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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Perhaps it’s the novelty of bringing pets to church, but the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4th, is surprisingly popular amongst Anglicans. Indeed, it is as ubiquitous as statues of that “Little Poor Man of Assisi” in gardens. Francis, in fact, has maintained astonishing popularity across many Christian traditions and beyond for over 800 years.

But why commemorate Francis? The ACNA calendar rightly calls him a “Reformer of the Church.” Although he lived in Italy three centuries before the Reformation, the founder of the Franciscan Order revitalized the heart of the Church. He has much to teach us even today from his life of simplicity, care for the poor, and ability to wonder at God through the natural world. 

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Who was Francis?

St. Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, Italy. However, early in life, the family began calling him Francesco (which we anglicize as Francis). Francis came from a prosperous merchant family, and his early years were marked by indulgence, revelry, theatrics, and song. He aspired to become a knight, dreaming of chivalry and fame. However, his life took a dramatic turn when he joined Assisi’s military expedition in 1202. During a battle, he was captured and imprisoned for a year, and this period of captivity, marked by suffering and isolation, sowed the seeds of his spiritual transformation.

Spiritual Awakening

Upon his release, Francis returned to Assisi. He began to experience a deep spiritual calling and a newfound empathy for the poor and marginalized. One pivotal moment came when he encountered a leper while riding through the countryside. Overcoming his initial revulsion, Francis dismounted, embraced and kissed the leper, and gave him alms. 

Francis’ spiritual awakening continued as he spent time in prayer and solitude. One day, while praying in the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, he heard a voice from the crucifix above the altar say, “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” Mistaking this as Christ’s command to repair San Damiano, he sold cloth from his father’s storehouse, hoping to use the money to repair the church. However, the priest overseeing the church refused the money.

When confronted by his father for trying to give away family money, Francis—in front of the local bishop—stripped off his clothes and presented them to his father, dramatically relinquishing everything he had given him, including his family name and inheritance (Matt. 10:37). Biographer Julien Green describes the moment like this:

Without a word he tore off his clothes in hot haste and threw them, one item after another, at his father’s feet—everything including his breeches… Now he was as naked as on the day he was born. Naked today for his second birth.

Francis thereafter forsook wealth and earthly ambitions (Matthew 6:24) and devoted himself to a life of extreme simplicity.

Establishing the Franciscan Order

Francis’ commitment to humility and simplicity attracted like-minded individuals, and in 1209, he founded the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans. The order’s members embraced a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and they sought to emulate Francis’ dedication to serving the poor and living in harmony with creation. Francis eventually sought official recognition of the order from Pope Innocent III. The pontiff became a fervent friend and supporter of Francis and the order.

Francis’ love for all of God’s creation extended beyond human beings to include animals and nature itself. He is famously known for preaching to birds and taming a fierce wolf that terrorized the town of Gubbio. His “Canticle of the Sun,” a hymn of praise for the beauty of creation, reflects his wonder of God’s reflection in the natural world. He begins with the sun and moon:

Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures;
especially Brother Sun, who is the day, and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
and bears a likeness to You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

In 1211, a young noblewoman named Claire heard Francis preach and wished to lead the same life. On March 28th, 2012, she left her home and was received by Francis. She began a Second Order of Franciscans known as the Poor Claires.

St. Francis and the Sultan

Throughout his life, and despite ever-growing health problems, Francis embarked on journeys, spreading his message of peace and reconciliation. He ventured to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, hoping to convert the Muslim Sultan to Christianity through dialogue rather than force (Matt. 5:43-48). While unsuccessful in his conversion efforts, Francis’ courage in the face of danger and his commitment to nonviolence left a lasting impression.

Later Years, Stigmata, and Death

In 1224, while praying on Mount La Verna in preparation for Michaelmas, Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on his hands, feet, and side. This mystical experience deepened his spiritual connection with Christ and solidified his reputation as a living saint.

St. Francis of Assisi died on October 3rd, 1226, at the age of 44, while singing Psalm 142. His legacy endures through the Franciscan order and the countless individuals inspired by his radical example of devotion and compassion. Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis as a saint in 1228, and the Church celebrates his feast day on October 4th each year.

Learning from St. Francis

Asceticism (poverty, chastity, obedience)

Francis’ asceticism was inspired by Jesus’ commissioning of his apostles in Matthew 10:5–42. From that, he rooted the Franciscan order in the disciplines of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Franciscan Rule offers timeless lessons on detachment from materialism, the pursuit of purity in heart and devotion, and the importance of humble obedience. 

The Diaconate

As an ordained deacon, Francis provides a model for the diaconate inside and outside the church walls. He was often found sweeping church buildings, procuring sacred vessels for the sacraments, baking altar bread, and serving the sick and poor. The mission of the diaconate is well summarized in Francis’ famous remark,

We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.

Nature

Francis’ relationship with nature was deeply profound and spiritual, earning him the title “Patron Saint of Ecology.” He viewed all of nature as a reflection of God and referred to the elements—sun, moon, wind, and fire—as his brothers and sisters (Genesis 2:5–15). He would preach to birds and animals, considering them fellow creatures of God worthy of respect and care. His most famous work, the “Canticle of the Sun,” praises God through various elements of nature, showcasing his deep appreciation for all creation.

Art & Beauty

Francis, a natural performer long before his spiritual conversion, encouraged artists to create religious imagery to deepen faith. He often employed visual representations like the nativity scene to make the Gospel message accessible to all. While using art to convey spiritual truths, he championed simplicity and humility in artistic expression, ensuring that beauty was a conduit connecting people with God. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun” and its modern hymn derivative, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” stand as lasting examples of Francis’ creativity in praise of God.

Peace

Francis provides a model of peaceful intervention in conflict. His diplomatic and evangelistic efforts with the Sultan exemplify his commitment to love and pray for both neighbor and enemy in imitation of Christ (Matthew 5:44). In Francis’ own words,

Where there is love and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation.

Anglicans and St. Francis

Franciscans in England

The first Franciscan friars arrived in England in the 1220s. Their arrival coincided with a growing interest in religious reform and a desire for a more humble and simple expression of Christianity. They quickly established friaries in various parts of England, which served as centers of worship, learning, and charitable work. Notable friaries were located in London and Oxford.

Franciscans, particularly at Oxford University, played a significant role in developing Scholastic philosophy and theology. Prominent Franciscan scholars like John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham made important contributions to medieval philosophy.

Anglican Franciscan Orders

Anglican Franciscan orders trace their roots to the 19th-century Oxford Movement, which sought to revive elements of Catholic spirituality within the Anglican Church. Inspired by the Franciscan way of life, Anglicans began forming their own Franciscan communities. 

One of the earliest Anglican Franciscan orders is the Society of St. Francis (SSF), founded in 1934. The SSF follows the Rule of St. Francis and emphasizes a commitment to poverty, humility, and service. Its sister order, the Community of St. Clare (OSC), established in 1988, focuses on prayer and contemplative life. Other orders have arisen, and individuals within the Anglican tradition also seek to live out Franciscan principles in their everyday lives.

Living Nativity Scene

If you’ve ever seen a living nativity staged, you have St. Francis to thank. In 1223, in the town of Greccio, Francis secured a cave from a local landowner and produced the first living nativity scene. Townspeople portrayed Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and Wise Men, with an ox and a donkey representing the animals present at Jesus’ birth. Hay covered the cave floor, and a wooden manger stood at the center. On Christmas Eve, townspeople gathered as Francis staged the scene, delivering a sermon about Jesus’ birth and assisting a priest who celebrated the mass.

Francis aimed to evoke wonder, humility, and devotion in those who witnessed the living nativity scene. Artistic depictions of the nativity existed in Christian traditions before Francis. His innovation lay in blending live theater, devotion, and simplicity to create a powerful representation of the nativity story.

Blessing of the Animals

Many Anglican churches invite people to bring animals (pets and farm animals alike) to church on the Feast of Francis or another day in October. They often share stories of Francis, read related scriptures, and then offer a blessing of the animals. It is both fitting and often necessary to hold such gatherings out of doors.

Works About St. Francis

Francis has inspired endless works of art over the years, spanning paints, books, music, theater, and film. We couldn’t possibly cover all of them; however, here are some of our favorites based on Francis’ life.

Books

Many books have been written on the life and teachings of Francis. His first significant biography was by his friend and fellow Franciscan, St. Bonaventure. The famous British writer G.K. Chesterton wrote a popular biography of Francis in 1923. Of later biographies, perhaps none is a better combination of comprehensiveness and literary excellence than God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi by Julien Green.

Films:

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), directed by Roberto Rossellini, offers an impressionistic account of Francis through selected episodes of his early monastic life. In many ways, the film should not work: it lacks narrative structure, features slow-moving cinematography, and only casts one professional actor (Aldo Fabrizi). However, the result is Franciscan simplicity on film: a focus on the present rather than the narrative art from past to future; long-shots that force the viewer to take in the natural world as much as the human figures; and a cast of monks whose authentic devotion shines forth on the screen. The result, for the patient viewer, is one of the most transporting works in cinema history.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), directed by Franco Zefferelli, focuses primarily on the time between Francis’ return from war, through his conversion, and into the early days of the Franciscan order. Strong acting and iconic visuals filmed on location in Italy carry the film, keeping our attention through a gentle pace that nonetheless fits Francis. The film climaxes with a powerful meeting between Francis (Graham Faulkner) and Pope Innocent III (the legendary Sir Alec Guinness). A soundtrack of songs by Scottish folk-pop singer Donovan makes for a beautiful, if somewhat heavy-handed, attempt to parallel the saint’s lifestyle and values with those of the flower children of the 1960s.


Image: Saint Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera (1642).

Author

Jacob Davis

The Rev. Jacob Davis is the editor of Anglican Compass. He is a priest in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as assisting clergy at Grace Anglican Church.

View more from Jacob Davis

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