Today (October 4th) is the special day we set aside to honor Saint Francis. Several years ago I traveled to Assisi. I knelt and prayed at his tomb. I had felt his presence every moment of my pilgrimage in Assisi, but even more profoundly while at his burial place. I asked Francis to help me – to show me a way to honor and help our animal friends. I could’ve sworn I heard Francis say, “Let’s do this!” as I got up and set out to make a difference. Not long after my “visit” with Francis, my dog, Wili, was diagnosed with cancer, miraculously survived for 18 months rather than the 3 he was given, and Wili and I set out on our 5,000 mile Last Howlelujah Tour to share his story and raise funds for animals. After Wili died, I founded The Howlelujah Foundation, a non-profit in his honor, to help animals even more. I believe Saint Francis has been involved in all of these developments. Someday, I will travel back to Italy and walk the entire Way of Saint Francis – more than 500 kilometers from Florence to Rome – in tribute and memory of Wili. I know that I will spend an extra day in Gubbio – for it was through an encounter with a large and vicious wolf there that Francis showed us just how powerful God’s love is when we live it and share it without fear or reservation.
The Wolf of Gubbio was terrifying and terrorizing; the largest and fiercest that anyone had ever encountered. It began by attacking and eating the livestock on the outskirts of town – that was bad enough – but then the wolf shifted its appetites to the townsfolk. Everyone lived in paralyzing fear and no one seemed to be able to battle or subdue the wolf, regardless of the weapons at their sides. Enter Saint Francis!
Francis told the townspeople that he would venture into the countryside, find the wolf, and have a “come to Jesus” moment with him. Everyone feared for Francis’ safety. Francis approached the wolf, and sure enough, the wolf assumed attack posture, and started growling in a threatening manner. Francis spoke to the wolf and made the sign of the cross; a symbol of sacrificial love that never does harm, but only heals and makes whole. Francis called him “Brother Wolf” (the townspeople had called the wolf many names, but “Brother” had not been one of them). Hearing Francis refer to him as his “brother” caused the wolf to back down and pay attention. Francis did not let the wolf off the hook – he recounted his evil deeds, how he had devoured animals and even people. He did not gloss over the atrocities he had committed; he held him accountable. That’s where most of us would stop, but Francis kept going. He told the wolf that he understood why he had committed these violent acts – he had done so simply because he was hungry. A wolf’s gotta eat, right? So, Francis, seeking to get to the root cause of his sinful behavior, promised the wolf that if he would live in peace, the townspeople would feed him – the wolf would never go hungry again. He also promised him that unlike the present time in which the people and the dogs would chase him “neither man nor dog” would pursue him again. The wolf put his paw in Saint Francis palm and bowed down before him. Even without a leash, Francis led him into the town, where the townspeople audibly gasped in disbelief. The wolf became the town mascot and went door to door every day. Every person in town fed him, pet him, and allowed him to come inside their homes and play with their children. He became the most beloved creature ever known to Gubbio. A miracle had happened. It happened because Francis treated the wolf as a beloved creature of God, calling him brother. It happened because Francis held him accountable but also helped him understand the cause of his symptoms and promised to meet his needs so he would not have to engage in wrongdoing, murder and mayhem, and all could live in harmony.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a touching story, and we have much to learn from it, but it likely never happened.” Well, back in 1872, during extensive renovations of the Church of Saint Francis of Peace in Gubbio, the skeleton of a large wolf was discovered under a church wall. The skeleton was reburied under the altar of the church – where it belonged. Miracles happen when God’s saints seek to share God’s love with all God’s creatures. They happened with Saint Francis. They can still happen with us – if we are willing to love as God has loved us.
William Miller is an Episcopal priest, writer and animal advocate living near New Orleans. He is the author of “The Gospel According to Sam: Animal Stories for the Soul,” and “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth about Lager, Loving and Living.” His latest book, “The Last Howlelujah: Tails from the Trail,” will be released in 2020.