‘Saints and Beasts’ IV

‘Saints and Beasts’ IV St Francis preaching virtue to the wolf of Gubbio.
Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio

St Francis of Assisi, canonised in 1228, a mere century after his death, must be one of the most universally venerated saints in the world, a man widely respected beyond the Christian community. This is partly due to his special relationship with birds and animals.

In The Little Flowers of St Francis a later writer assembled and arranged traditional stories about Francis of Assisi. The twenty first chapter of this compendium of piety related the story of St Francis and how he dealt with the wolf of Gubbio, a small town in Perugia in the foothills of the Apennines.

With efforts being made across Europe from Ireland and Scotland to the Alps and Pyrenees, the interaction of people and wolves has come into focus in these troubled days. But first the story itself (edited here for length).

At the time when St Francis was living in the city of Gubbio, a large wolf appeared in the neighbourhood, so terrible and so fierce, that all the people were in great alarm, and used to go about armed, as if going to battle.

St Francis, feeling great compassion for the people of Gubbio, resolved to go and meet the wolf, though all advised him not to do so.

Making the sign of the holy cross, and putting all his confidence in God, he went forth from the city, taking his brethren with him; but these fearing to go any further, St Francis bent his steps alone toward the spot where the wolf was known to be, while many people followed at a distance, and witnessed the miracle.

The wolf, seeing all this multitude, ran towards St Francis with his jaws wide open. As he approached, the saint, making the sign of the cross, cried out: “Come hither, Brother Wolf; I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.”

Sign of the cross

Marvellous to tell, no sooner had St Francis made the sign of the cross, than the terrible wolf, closing his jaws, stopped running, and coming up to St Francis, lay down at his feet as meekly as a lamb. And the saint thus addressed him: “Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, so no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee anymore.”

Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what St Francis said.

On this St Francis added: “As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”


Then the wolf, bowing his head, made a sign that he consented. Said St Francis again: “Brother wolf, wilt thou pledge thy faith that I may trust to this thy promise?” and putting out his hand he received the pledge of the wolf; for the latter lifted up his paw and placed it familiarly in the hand of St Francis, giving him thereby the only pledge which was in his power. Then said St Francis, addressing him again: “Brother wolf, I command thee, in the name of Christ, to follow me immediately, without hesitation or doubting, that we may go together to ratify this peace which we have concluded in the name of God”; and the wolf, obeying him, walked by his side as meekly as a lamb, to the great astonishment of all the people.

The saint also spoke to the people.

The sermon being ended, St Francis added these words: “Listen my brethren: the wolf who is here before you has promised and pledged his faith that he consents to make peace with you all, and no more to offend you in aught, and you must promise to give him each day his necessary food; to which, if you consent, I promise in his name that he will most faithfully observe the compact.” Then all the people promised with one voice to feed the wolf to the end of his days; and St Francis, addressing the latter, said again: “And thou, brother wolf, dost thou promise to keep the compact, and never again to offend either man or beast, or any other creature?”

And the wolf knelt down, bowing his head, and, by the motions of his tail and of his ears, endeavoured to show that he was willing, so far as was in his power, to hold to the compact.

The wolf lived two years at Gubbio; he went familiarly from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with great pleasure, and no dog barked at him as he went about.

At last, after two years, he died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of St Francis.

This remains one of the most popular tales about St Francis, especially in the city of Gubbio itself.

As for the historic Brother Wolf of Gubbio, when renovations were being made in 1872 to the church of St Francesco della Pace, which tradition associated with the wolf, in the grounds a grave containing the bones of a wolf were discovered. Later the remains, which were thought by local people to be those of Brother Wolf himself, were reburied inside the church. Or so it is claimed in Gubbio.


A sermon to the wild Hogs of Eritrea

St Francis is the widely venerated patron saint of ecology, and is connected with many Catholic and indeed Christian groups engaged with animal welfare. But the strange influence of St Francis over animals are echoed in other stories, such as one related by the Sicilian nobleman Alberto Denti, later Duke of Pirajno, which echoes the story of the wolf of Gubbio in a strange way.

He had gone to Africa as the personal doctor of the Duke of Aosta, the member of the royal family who was Italian Viceroy of the new Italian empire in the continent. His best known book is A Cure for Serpents (1955), which is still in print, but the following anecdote comes from another book A Grave for a Dolphin (1956).

A tale he tells in a chapter of the latter book echoes strangely with what had been written about St Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. It is too long to give in full, but here is a précis.

Dr Denti also served in Eritrea in East Africa, where his book A Grave for a Dolphin was set. In this he recounted his remarkable encounters with the “Big Father” of Barentu, the Prior of the Capuchin mission there in the territory of the Kunama people.

When he first heard of the prior’s ability to communicate with animals, he was not on perfectly friendly terms with the priest. But he had heard from the local people about how he had once dealt with a ravaging leopard, merely by telling it in plain language to behave himself.

“Once, coming away from the river on my way to Agordat,” Dr Denti writes, “my car developed gear trouble and I had to spend a night in a hamlet buried in a grove of doum-palms. Squatting round the fire, the natives told me about a leopard that until a few months before had terrified the district, killing goats and cows, prowling at night in the villages where the people, hearing it snarl and sniff in the dark, trembled behind their bolted doors. Luckily the Big Father had ordered the brute to go away and since then the beast had never been seen again.”

Later he became friendly with the “Big Priest”, and on one occasion the holy man explained about his influence over animals. A little later, visiting the mission, Dr Denti asked the prior why no preparations had been made to scare off the hordes of wild wart hogs from the mission’s own fields.

Such precautions were not needed the prior explained, as he had himself spoken to the wart hogs. He told them directly just how many poor people depended on the crops of those fields. The hogs, he said, had promised to leave them alone.

The prior later took Dr Denti out with him into the forest to his next annual meeting with the hogs.

While the two men waited the hogs began to arrive from the depths of the wild forest. Then the Prior spoke to them, not in Latin or any language of exorcism, but in the casual local language. The Prior spoke firmly to the horde of wild hogs, who listened quietly and attentively. The gathering broke up at dawn, and the two men returned to the mission for early Mass. Dr Denti sat puzzled in his seat, wondering about what he had seen and heard. It was all was so very strange for a scientist to accept, though the poet in him understood.

But there was a finale.

“In harvest-time I visited the Mission’s fields: not a single cob had been stolen.

“’Hadn’t the hogs been kind?’ said the monks, piling on my plate the dark slices of that sort of puff-paste the natives call andjera. My stare of amazement made them smile: ‘oh, it was all so simple’.”

And then they reminded him then of just how St Francis had dealt with the Wolf of Gubbio.

(A Grave for a Dolphin (1956), ch. 4: “A sermon on wart-hogs”.)


A Patron Saint for the Great Forest

Kindness to animals is all very well, and is often a fitful emotion. The only true way to show kindness to birds and beasts is to preserve their homes in the wilderness, whether in the mountains and prairies or in the great forests that ought really to cover as much of the world as creation intended. They prefer to cosset domesticated dogs and cats, but not wild wolves or wart hogs that they fear.

In response to the signs of the times, the Church has now found a patron for the wilderness.

This is St Kateri Tekakwitha, the first saint of Native American, or rather (to use the term preferred in Canada) First Nations origin. Born in 1656, she died at the St Francis Xavier Mission in Sault St Louis, New France, the present day Kahnawake in Québec, just south of the St Lawrence River. St Kateri is now associated with the developing spirituality of ecology.

Pious life

Her pious life was first recorded by Jesuits at the mission in Québec where she passed away. Slowly a devotion to her emerged over the course of the next two centuries. In the early accounts it was her piety and her perpetual virginity that was admired and emphasised. So much so that many miracles were attributed to her intercession, leading to her beatification in 1980. Eventually in October 2012 she was canonised in a ceremony at the Vatican, perhaps because the US and Canadian Catholics both claim her as “one of our own”.

But her association with the great forests which were the homeland of the First Nations that are such a feature of Canada made her a natural choice, one which appealed also to more conservative Catholics in both countries.

She is currently known as “a patron of ecology and ecologists, of the environment, environmentalism, environmentalists, exiles, orphans, those ridiculed for their faith and for World Youth Day.” Her feast day is in high summer in the northern hemisphere, when we need to recall too that half the globe is in deepest winter, a reminder of the natural cycles of life we too often forget about.

Yet, as one of her biographers remarked, St Kaleri “often went to the woods alone to speak to God and listen to him in her heart and in the voice of nature”.

She is, it seems, very much a saint for today, with an appeal to a spectrum of Catholics with a wide variety of views. She can hopefully serve to bring together many kinds of people, whatever their nation.