USCCB Communications has even brought the tradition into the digital realm this year by gathering photos of pets from fans of the Conference's Facebook page and turning them into an online photo album and video slideshow. As the blessing of animals -- not to mention his ubiquitous presence in countless backyard birdbaths -- attests, Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment, is also one of the most popular, beloved saints in history.
The influence of Francis is everywhere. The order he founded has branches and communities all over the globe (including one for laypeople). The bishops of the United States have two Capuchin archbishops among them. Churches, hospitals, charitable organizations and universities bear his name.
Sayings are associated with the saint, such as, "Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words." While we don't know if Francis actually said this, his lifestyle certainly reflects it, as does the the story of his preaching to the birds. From a communication standpoint, one has to wonder if this makes him the first saint ever to "tweet."
St. Francis also worked with live animals when he initiated the tradition of the Christmas creche in the village of Greccio around the year 1220. Not everyone knows that such a holiday staple as the manger scene has ties to Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis is also associated with peacemaking. The popular "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" prayer has long been attributed to him. Another famous animal-related incident involves St. Francis taming a wolf that had been terrorizing the nearby village of Gubbio. On a human scale, he reached out to a sultan whose armies were besieging the Egyptian city of Damietta, which seemingly makes him a pioneer in interreligious dialogue as well.
Pope John Paul II followed this lead when representatives of different religions gathered in Assisi for a day of prayer for peace on October 27, 1986. Holding this meeting in the hometown of Francis testified to the saint's legacy. In a nod to the significance of this event, Pope Benedict XVI plans to mark its 25th anniversary with a similar gathering.
One quality that made St. Francis a peacemaker might have been his ability to recognize God in everyone and everything around him. This is highlighted beautifully in his "Canticle of the Sun," in which he praises God through the wonders of creation, personifying different aspects of nature as "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon," "Brother Wind," and so on. It's no wonder he's patron saint of the environment.
This part of his legacy also lives on in the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, who's made care for creation a notable part of his pontificate. It also lives on, one could argue, in the crowds of people with dogs on leashes, cats in carriers or even farm animals gathered outside of church on Sunday. Pets are one way that people can care for and feel close to God's creation.
So, whether as nature lover, prophet of peace, or starter of Christmas traditions, St. Francis remains immensely popular. Perhaps the honest simplicity with which he answered the Gospel call to leave everything and follow Christ is refreshing to people. Perhaps his focus on living in poverty resonates with Christians in a consumerist-materialist culture. Or maybe by identifying himself with the poor, Francis simply brings many Christians to a feeling of closeness to Christ, who also identified himself as among the "least of these."
Whatever the case, this weekend, a great many Catholics will also identify St. Francis with the furriest and most cuddly of these.