- Summary: a Christian feast day commemorating the beloved saint and religious founder St Francis of Assisi
- 2018 Date: 4th October
- Celebrated by: Christians (predominantly Roman Catholics, Anglicans and some Protestants), animal rights activists, many other individuals
- Linked Holidays: World Animal Day (international), feast days of Christian saints
Background and Theological Significance
The Feast of St Francis of Assisi (also called St Francis’ Day or Francistide) is the annual commemoration in the Christian liturgical year of the life and death of the great thirteenth-century saint and religious figure St Francis of Assisi. Often considered the most beloved and renowned of all Christian saints, Francis was born as Giovanni di Bernardone in about the year 1182 CE in the town of Assisi in central Italy. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who referred to his son as ‘Francesco’, a name which eventually stuck. As a young man he enjoyed a life of privilege and wealth, although from an early age he demonstrated a deep compassion towards those at the margins of society. After spending time as a soldier, Francis began to turn away from his former pleasures and seek after a more spiritual way of life. He believed that he received a vision of the Crucified Christ in a small ruined chapel called San Damiano, in which Christ told him to ‘rebuild my church which you see falling down’. When he took cloth from his father’s business to fund the rebuilding of San Damiano, it resulted in a rift during which Francis publicly renounced his father and his inheritance. Living the life of a beggar, he was inspired by a Gospel reading describing Christ’s commissioning of the disciples (Matthew 10) to preach the Gospel message to the peasants in the Umbrian countryside. He was soon joined by other followers who formed a community of brothers committed to lives of poverty and simplicity. This order was later recognised by Pope Innocent III as the Order of Friars Minor, which would eventually spread to become one of the most prominent religious orders in the world. Amongst those inspired by Francis was St Clare, who founded a similar order for women that would become known as the Order of St Clare. Many tales are told concerning St Francis, often describing his compassion for social outcasts such as lepers, and his affection for animals and the natural world. Toward the end of his life he turned more to contemplation and solitude, and two years before his death he is believed to have received the stigmata, the imprints of the wounds of Christ on his own body. He died on the evening of 3rd October 1226 CE, and according to tradition blessed his faithful donkey for its service as he lay on his deathbed.
St Francis of Assisi has inspired a following throughout the eight centuries since his death that extends well beyond his own Roman Catholic Church. He is widely regarded as the patron saint of animals and the environment due to the many accounts of his delight in the wonders of creation. The Feast of St Francis is an important celebration in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches but is also commemorated by people of all faiths and none as a time to celebrate the many positive aspects of Francis’ spirituality and legacy. A notable connection with St Francis’ Day is World Animal Day, a secular day of animal awareness that is observed on 4th October in recognition of St Francis.
Francis of Assisi was canonised as a saint less than two years after his death, and his tomb and the many churches he founded became major sites of pilgrimage. The Franciscan Order spread around the world, keeping at its heart the poverty and compassion of its founder. A famous meeting between Francis and the Sultan of Egypt is often viewed as an early example of interreligious dialogue and may help to explain why the Franciscans were allowed to remain in the Holy Land as the Christian Custodians after other orders were expelled. Although the Order of Friars Minor remains a Roman Catholic order, the Anglo-Catholic revival in the nineteenth-century saw Franciscan orders established within the Anglican Church, with the most prominent being the Society of St Francis.
The Feast Day of St Francis is commemorated each year on 4th October, the day of (or the day following) the death of Francis in 1226 CE. The Feast Day is kept by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as by many Anglican and Lutheran Churches around the world. Francis is not venerated by the Orthodox Churches, and indeed many Orthodox Christians find his emotional and experiential Christianity to be inconsistent with the teachings of their Church. However, it is exactly this (admittedly often overexaggerated) style of spirituality that has earned St Francis a place in the hearts of so many people from all religious traditions and none throughout the centuries. The popularity of the saint from Assisi continues to this day, and indeed the current Pope Francis chose his pontifical name in honour of St Francis.
St Francis’ Day is observed as a Feast Day in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. It is common in churches to celebrate either 4th October or the nearest Sunday as a service of thanksgiving for animals, and often people bring their pets or farm animals to church to receive a special blessing. Many popular hymns are based on prayers attributed to St Francis, including ‘All Creatures of our God and King’, and these are often sung in his memory. 4th October is a particularly important date for members of Franciscan orders worldwide and is often a time to remember and re-commit to their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
Although the Feast of St Francis is primarily a liturgical observance for a canonised saint, it is also a time to celebrate the beauty and harmony of the environment. Observances such as World Animal Day show how religious traditions at their best can influence and enrich cultures in a positive way. The Feast of St Francis is a time to celebrate a man who was devoted to the Christian faith, but whose way of life has inspired people from many different walks of life throughout the centuries.
Sister Avril Pauline Landay TSSF
Franciscans celebrate Francis’ life and death, his total love of Christ Whose face he saw in all that lived: people, Tuscany’s woods, sunny meadows, and icy winter snows, taunting children, and starving, marginalised poor, with whom he totally identified because they showed him the poor Christ Who became as they were, sons of His Father. The dirty, shoeless Francis is as alive to me now as he ever was when as a child I’d put Anemones by his statue, remove the little Crucifix from his hand to kiss, and replace in his plaster fingers. Francis’ body bore Christ’s wounds. Like him, I love the Cross, where Jesus won His glorious battle for our salvation and eternal life for all Creation.
The Feast of St Francis on 4th October remains a day of joyous thankfulness for the passionate Italian who expressed my joy, my love of God and His life in His creation, His Son, and in me. Each year, I draw a mite closer to Francis and Jesus, and see there is further, wider, deeper to go. Perhaps eternity continues that exciting pursuit.
Sister Avril is a Tertiary (member of the Third Order) of the Society of St Francis, an order of Anglican Franciscans.