Saint Francis’ real sermon to the birds

Francis of Assisi was not a hippie avant la lettre, who – after smoking too much weed – mistook some birds for people and started to preach to them. He also was no ecologist avant la lettre, propagating nature as a value a se. Just re-read his famous ‘canticle of the sun’, in which he praises God through nature (instrumental). Anachronisms like these obscure the unique greatness of the real Francesco.

This certainly goes for his famous sermon to the birds. If he did something like this, real people must have been the ‘intended hearers’. This became clear to me when I discovered that there is another ‘version’ of the sermon to the birds, in which it does not take place in Umbria, on a sunny day, as told by his hagiographer Thomas of Celano (calling him a biographer is naive – he was a spindoctor), but in the Flores Historiarum (‘The Flowers of History’) written by one of Francesco’s early companions, Roger of Wendower, who already in 1220 had left the continent for England. Francesco was still alive and not yet a saint. Living in St. Alban’s Roger compiled the Flores, which subsequently was included in the Chronica Maiora (a complete ‘History of The World’) by Matthew the Parisian. Below the page with the story. Preceding the sermon to the ‘animals and the birds’, Roger tells the famous story of the meeting between Francesco and Pope Innocentius III, in which the Pope first rejects the filthy bunch (“Get out, you smell like pigs, go and preach to the pigs”) but after one night’s sleep realizes the enormous potential of this life-style and allows Francesco to found the order of the fratres minores… Leaving the Vatican, so Roger of Wendower informs us, Francesco began to evangelize Italy, beginning in the streets of Rome… And there it happens [continue reading below the image]

Matthew Paris, Chronica Maiora II – Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 016, fol 70v.

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“… But the Roman people, who are hostile to all that is good, so scorned the preaching of this man of God that they would not listen to him or even be present at his holy exhortations. Finally, after they had refused to accept his preaching for very many days, Francis severely rebuked their hardness of heart: “I grieve very much,” he said, “over your unhappy condition, because you are spurning not only me, the servant of Christ, but you are also despising him in me, since I am announcing the Good News of the Redeemer of the world to you. So now I am leaving Rome, invoking upon your desolation the testimony of him who is the faithful witness in heaven; and to your shame I am going to preach the Good News of Christ to the wild animals and the birds of the air, that they might listen to the healing words of God, obey them, and find peace.”
He then left the city, and on the outskirts he found crows sitting among the carrion, as well as kites and magpies and many other birds flying about in the air. He said to them: “I command you, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom the Jews crucified and whose preaching the miserable Romans have scorned, to come near to me and listen to the word of God, in the name of him who created you and preserved you in the ark of Noah from the waters of the flood.” As soon as he gave the command, that entire multitude of birds drew near and surrounded him; keeping quiet and ceasing all their chirping, those birds did not move from the spot for the space of half a day, but remained intent on the words of the man of God, never turning their gaze away from the face of the preacher.
This remarkable incident was soon discovered by the Roman citizens and by those entering and leaving the city, and when this was repeated for three days by the man of God when he called the birds together, the clergy, together with a crowd of people, went out and with great veneration led the man of God back into the city. And then by the oil of his supplicatory preaching, hearts that had been fruitless and consistently hardened were softened and changed for the better.”


Franciscus igitur per Italiam totem, et caeteras nationes, et praecipue in urbe Roma, cum officium praedicationis devotus impleret, populus Romanus, totius bonitatis inimicus, praedicationem viri Dei adeo despexit, quod nec ipsum audire, nec sanctis ejus voluerunt exhortationibus interesse. Tandem cum per dies plurimos praedicationem ejus despexit, Franciscus indurationem eorum graviter increpavit, “Doleo,” inquit, “multum super miseria vestra, quod non solum me Christi famulum spernitis, verum et illum in me despicitis, quoniam Redemptorem mundi evangelizavi vobis; et nunc recedens ab urbe testimonium illius invoco super desolatione vestra, qui est testis in caelo fidelis, atque in confusionem vestram vado evangelizare Christum brutis animalibus et volatilibus caeli, ut audientes salutifera Dei verba obediant et adquiescant.” 
Sicque ab urbe exiens invenit sedentes in suburbio in morticiniis corvos, milvos et picas, aliasque aves multas in aere volitantes, et dixit eis; “Praecipio vobis in nomine Jesu Christi, quem crucifixerunt Judaei, cujus praedicationem miseri despexerunt Romani, quatenus ad me accedentes audiatis verbum Dei, in nomine ejus qui vos creavit et in arca Noe ab aquis diluvii liberavit.” Et continuo ad imperium ejus universa illa avium multitudo illuc accedens circumdedit eum,et facto silentio, omnique garritu deposito, per dimidium diei spatium verbis viri Dei intendentes de loco non sunt motae, sed semper intuebantur faciem praedicantis.
Haec autem res admirabilis cum a civibus Romanis simul et ab intrantibus urbem et exeuntibus comperta fuisset, et per triduum a viro Dei idipsum avibus convocatis replicatum exstitisset, exierunt de civitate clerus cum populo multo introducentes hominem Dei cum veneratione magna in urbem, quorum deinceps corda infructuosa et pertinaciter obdurata oleo praedicationis emolliens in melius commutavit.