October brings the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi – a favorite saint of young children, and for good reason: St. Francis is known for his love for animals and his spirit of peace. Born in Assisi, Italy in about the year 1187, Francis was the son of a wealthy apparel merchant. He always had a great deal of compassion for the poor, and that compassion was demonstrated in increasingly radical ways as Francis and his friends (including St. Clare of Assisi) began to sell their material possessions and give to the poor. This behavior was not well understood by Francis’ parents, who had hoped for him to enter the family business or some other “respectable” career. One day, while he was at the Chapel of San Damiano, which was in ruins, Francis had a vision of Jesus on the cross saying, “Francis, rebuild my Church.” He initially understood this to mean that Christ wished him to repair the old chapel, but God had greater plans for him. Francis was destined to start a religious order based on giving up worldly possessions, serving the poor and preaching the love of God. Through this order, and subsequent orders of women religious and secular Franciscans, God brought new life into a struggling Church. Several orders of Franciscans are still active all over the world today.
In addition to his compassion for the poor, Francis is known to have had great respect for all living things, considering all creatures on earth to be brothers and sisters. He is said to have had a special gift for communicating with animals. One legend states that after a series of wolf attacks in the village of Gubbio, Francis was called to the town and, upon meeting the wolf, convinced him to stay away.
There are a number of ways we can celebrate the life of St. Francis in the early childhood classroom:
Invite the children to bring a photograph of his or her pet (or draw a picture in class). During circle time, encourage each child to talk about their pets.
Have a “Bring Your Stuffed Animal Day,” on which children are invited to bring a favorite stuffed animal. Tell the Creation story, with particular attention to God’s creation of the animals. Allowing the children to bring their stuffed animals to the front of the room at the appropriate times.
Say a special prayer, asking God’s blessing on all the pets of the children in your group. If you are the DRE at your parish, talk with your pastor about hosting a “Blessing of the Animals” on a Saturday in October, inviting families to bring pets to an outside area on your parish property and praying a special prayer for their protection.
Read a story, or watch a cartoon movie about the life or St. Francis. Emphasize his compassion for the poor, his desire to do what God asked him, and his kindness towards animals. Ask the children to discuss or demonstrate what they can do to be kind to others like St. Francis was. For example, How should we treat our pets at home? How should we treat our brothers and sisters when they want a turn with a toy we are using? What should we do when someone falls down on the playground? (Note: try to act out as many of these situations as possible, as young children have some difficulty discussing the hypothetical. Role play will help make the lesson more concrete.)