I am often asked for tales and stories from my trip to Rome, now just less than a couple years ago, in the Church’s fight against Human Trafficking. One of my favorites took part as the Holy Father and Archbishop of Canterbury’s effort to pastor those of us engaged in silo ministries around the world. We were taken for a retreat to Assisi, to hear the stories of Clare and Francis, and to be reminded that our Lord has already conquered the world with His death, resurrection, and ascension. The timing was perfect as we had been engrossed in some of the horror stories from around the world and we had watched, in what remains to this day in my life, the worst example of human depravity. Francis and Justin thought the stories would nourish us. On this day when we remember Francis, it seems appropriate to share one.
People often wonder why Francis is pictured either with birds or with a huge wolf. Those who do a bit of digging learn about the Wolf of Gubbio. As with many tales, it is hard to separate what is true from what is the stuff of legends. Once a play is crafted around a story, much like a movie in our time, facts can be blurred or lost altogether. Who is to say that Brother Francis did not sit in the fields with birdseed scattered about and around him? Who is to say he was not an animal whisperer of sorts?
The basics of the story are pretty much the same. The village of Gubbio loses livestock and then humans to a huge wolf prowling its environs. The terror gets to the point that the village would shut down in terror whenever the wolf was thought or heard to be about. At some point, either Francis hears of the wolf and the accompanying terror or faithful villagers approach Brother Francis with the tales. After some prayer, Francis decides to go to the village and see what he can do, if anything, to help the situation.
Upon his arrival at the village square, Francis is told of the evils of the wolf—how livestock has been killed, how humans defending their herds have been killed, how children have been snatched at night, and even how militias sent after the wolf have all been killed. Francis determines to go and find the wolf. Depending up on the version of the story, Francis finds the wolf quickly or it takes some time, enough time that the people of Gubbio presume he has been devoured.
After sufficient time to increase the tension, Francis returns to the village with the enormous wolf walking beside him. Both walk to the center of the village, and Francis relates the bargain he has made with the wolf. For injury of whatever reason, the wolf is now living a solitary life. It has need of a pack. The pack provides comfort, strength, food, warmth, companionship, protection, and other such benefits. When attacking the livestock, the wolf was only hungry. When attacking the herders, the wolf felt it was only defending itself. Francis proposed to the wolf that the people of Gubbio would be the new pack of the wolf, and the wolf would be a defender of Gubbio. If rival villages or brigands attacked, the wolf would defend his new pack.
Despite the reasons that screamed that such an offer should be rejected—some had lost family members, others had lost livestock—Francis prevailed upon the people to accept the newest member of their village and for the wolf to accept the villagers as its new pack. Rival villages new to avoid Gubbio’s territory for fear of its beast. Brigands were said to have left the village alone for some years.
There are a number of gospel lessons to be told about this story. Francis and Justin had us hear it to remind us that God calls even the wolves of humanity to repentance and reconciliation. For a group of people who spend a great deal of our time dealing in the quagmire of human existence, who see human beings treated unconscionably, who see other “good” human beings think nothing of ignoring the pleas for help or even contributing to the circumstances that lead to such misery, the story was a powerful reminder of the reconciliation we are called to offer all of humanity, even the slavers. Perhaps, if we were to model the life of Brother Francis, some of the wolves would join us in the effort to end slavery . . . As I say, it was incredibly powerful and incredibly necessary at the time we heard it.
Obviously, on this day when we celebrate the life and witness of Saint Francis, the story still has much to teach us. What if we loved our enemies? What if we prayed for them? Served them? Incarnated Christ’s love in their lives? Would these evils plaguing us today be as prevalent? As a student of human thought and behavior, I have no doubt that evil would still exist—it will until His return and Final Judgement, but would issues of racism plague us as badly? Would the divisions in politics be so strident and so dehumanizing? Would we ignore the killing and maiming of children belonging to the “other”? Would we accept corporations preying and playing on the least among us? Would we accept systems and institutions as they are? Or would we insist that His values govern everywhere?
Obviously, to some, I have described a fanciful world. To others, I have simply described the new heaven and the new earth that is to come. So long as human beings are human beings, maybe this is the best that it gets. But I leave us all with one reality that Archbishop David shared with us when telling us the story of the Wolf of Gubbio in light of the fight against human trafficking. Our jobs as Christians, particularly those of us as Christian leaders and pastors, is to be reconcilers of humanity. We are called to call humanity to repentance before God and to repentance to one another. Slaves. Slavers. Users. And those indifferent to the plights of others. Whatever is true of the story and whatever is myth is for others to figure out. But we were left with a challenging image. A few years ago, when the church in Gubbio was restored, the altar had to be moved and refinished. Upon lifting it out of its foundation there were found the bones of a large wolf. What must have moved through those people and that wolf nearly 800 years ago to cause them to bury that wolf under the altar of their church? Their dreaded enemy, the terror in the night, was entombed in an incredible place of honor, forever with his pack.