There was once a young man called Francis who loved having a good time, dressing in fine clothes and drinking with his friends in the town of Assisi where he was born. As soon as he was old enough he decided that the life of a soldier was the life for him – going into battle on a fine horse with gleaming armour – wouldn’t that be exciting! He didn’t have to wait long for a chance. Assisi was at war with a neighbouring town so Francis rode off to battle. But instead of glory, Assisi was defeated and Francis captured and imprisoned in a cold, dirty prison, where he fell ill. Eventually his father paid his ransom, but that year had changed him.
He tried to go back to his old life, drinking with his friends and spending money like water, but somehow he found he couldn’t help noticing those who were cold, dirty and neglected, as he had been in that prison. He thought about Jesus who had loved everyone and he decided he would like to live like Jesus too. So he gave up the fine clothes and the old life and lived very simply, helping those who were poor and sick and telling them the stories about Jesus that had inspired him.
Once, it is said that, on his travels he came to a town called Gubbio, up in the mountains. It was surrounded by a high wall, with fields outside it. As Francis walked up to the town, he was puzzled. He would have expected to see lots of people working in the fields, but there was no one anywhere. He came to the gates of the city – they were shut tightly. What was going on? He knocked on the door. He heard it being unbolted, then opened just a crack. “Come in, come in, as quick as you can – you’re not safe out there…!” said the doorkeeper, pulling Francis inside.
“Whatever is the problem?” said Francis. “What’s the danger?” By this time a crowd had gathered.
“It’s the wolf,” they told him “a ferocious wolf, a huge wolf, a wolf with great sharp teeth and strong, strong legs! He’s been terrorizing us, killing our sheep and cows, causing mayhem. They were afraid for their children, afraid for themselves.
Francis listened and then said, “Hmm, I can see this is a real problem. I will have to go to talk to Brother Wolf.” “No, no,” they all cried – you will be killed.” But Francis insisted. He walked out of the gates, and all the people peered over the walls and out of the windows, trembling with fear for him, sure he would be torn apart. Francis strode across the fields towards the woods around the town. All of a sudden, from the shelter of the trees, out ran the wolf, heading straight for Francis on his strong, strong legs, with his great jaws open, his sharp teeth gleaming, and his tongue lolloping out of his mouth. He got closer and closer. The townspeople were sure this was the end. But Francis calmly raised his hand and made the sign of the cross, and as soon as he did so, the wolf stopped, right at Francis feet. He sat stock still, closed his mouth, and looked up at Francis.
“Brother Wolf, “ said Francis “what’s this I hear about you terrifying these good people? I know you are just doing what a wolf does, but it can’t go on. I will make a bargain with you. If these people promise to feed you every day, will you promise not to harm them or their livestock ever again?”
The wolf nodded his great grey head.”Let us shake upon our promise,” said Francis, and the wolf lifted up his paw to put it into Francis’ hand. Then they walked together back to the town. The people weren’t sure they could trust the promise of a wolf at first, but reluctantly agreed to the bargain, and every day they fed the wolf. And the wolf did them no harm. In fact, the story says, he became so tame that he wandered from house to house and the children played with him like a pet. And when he eventually died, the people of Gubbio wept for their friend the wolf.
It’s a good story – a story that reminds us that making peace takes courage, courage to go to those you disagree with, and courage to respect them for themselves too. As we share the peace, we commit ourselves not just to saying the words, but to listening to one another and respecting each other too.
I suppose you could illustrate this with a picture of a wolf, but to be honest, the wolf in the children's imaginations will be a far more vivid one...!
Practice telling the story so that there is a moment of suspense as the wolf comes charging towards Francis, and a silence as he makes the sign of the cross. I have never found a group of children (or adults) who don't love and respond to this story.