After 13 years of Catholic school and growing up in a Catholic Italian-American family in the Midwest, I had always felt pretty knowledgeable about the teachings, stories and history of Catholicism.
Then, I traveled to Italy and realized I know nothing.
On a recent trip in Umbria, I visited Spello, Perugia, Gubbio and Assisi. The latter of which is of course most famous as the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment and one of two patron saints of all of Italy. It’s an important city, and so is the saint.
We all know about St. Francis of Assisi. You know… saint, loved animals, lived in Assisi, mean dad.
Perhaps people most remember the chidren’s books of St. Francis frolicking with animals, like the Bible version of Snow White. (Or is that just me? Like I said, 13 years of Catholic school….) Turns out, there are many such stories that contribute to St. Francis’ reputation as a lover of animals and the patron saint of the environment.
Born in Assisi, Francis left Umbria to go on a pilgrimage to the Vatican city, a trip that inspired him to live the rest of his life in poverty. It was a life poor in wealth, but rich in spirit. He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and, of course, the Franciscan Order.
Obviously St. Francis is connected with Assisi, but I was surprised to find that the Saint also has a strong connection with Gubbio, both with history and folklore.
Gubbio is thick with religious and folkloric traditions (such as the race of Gubbio or the circling of the fountain). Many of these stories of St. Francis can be found in the Book of Fioretti, or Little Flowers, a post-mortem collection of legends and folklore.
I was surprised to find that one of the most famous of these stories was set in the very towns that I was touring, along the very same wall that still encircles Gubbio. I was less surprised to find out that it involved a wolf.
It was outside of this large stone wall that circles the town of Gubbio that the large wolf set up camp. Prowling the forests and fields around the fortressed town, the wolf had no fear. He ate livestock, attacked shepherds and farmers, and terrorized the townsfolk.
The town had never met against such a fierce predator, and tales of the farmers’ deaths were spread like brushfire by their families. Finally, a group of guards was sent to confront the wolf, ending the terror once and for all by killing the lone animal. Only one of those guards made it back to town. That’s when people truly began to panic.
St. Francis of Assisi was living in Gubbio at the time of the great wolf attacks and was strongly connected to the town. He had already established himself as a worker of God and as a lover of animals, considering them God on earth. Legend has it that he resolved to “talk” with the wolf himself, despite people’s fear that he would instantly be killed.
At dawn the gates of Gubbio were quickly closed behind St. Francis, as he went in search of the wolf. Nearing the forest’s edge, the wolf emerged, stalking Francis and circling closer and closer. He was a predator, and hungry. As with all animals, St. Francis felt a connection to the wolf and, making the sign of the cross, began to communicate with him.
Some stories say the man and the animal spoke to each other, others that the wolf simply understood and lay meekly at St. Francis’ feet. In any case, St. Francis was able to tame the terrible wolf of Gubbio, and brought him back into town. After seeing the scene with their own eyes, and hearing the incredible story of St. Francis, the townspeople agreed to feed the wolf instead of seeking revenge. The wolf was deemed theirs, a protector instead of a predator, and could not simply be sent to the rivaling towns Spoleto or Perugia like originally planned.
Though St. Francis went back to Assisi, the wolf stayed in Gubbio for years afterward until he died of old age. Instead of fear, the wolf reminded the people of the virtue of St. Francis, and the evil of hell that is greater than the jaws of a wolf.
Even if you are not religious, catholicism is a large part of Italian history and culture and an important aspect of the country. You won’t get far in Italy by ignoring the religion. Sure, the story of St. Francis and the wolf can easily be ignored, but it painted a picture of the past that was so visible while I was touring the towns. I saw statues and art of St. Francis and many references to the wolf. Without some background these references would have meant nothing to me, and an integral part of the city would have been lost.
The story of St. Francis and the wolf not only shined a light on the famous saint of Assisi, but also on the nearby town of Gubbio. We see the world through our own lens, one made up of the experiences, education and culture we have, but if we change that lens while we travel, whether from a different culture, background or even religion, we can experience our destination to the fullest.