The Example of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
In 1979 Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi as the patron of ecology. Three years later, on March 28, 1982, World Ecology Day, the Pope wrote that St. Francis ought to be an example for Catholics today. The Pope challenged Catholics, not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.
Francis recognized the presence of God in creation and so, unlike some other saints, he had a very positive attitude towards nature. He valued the material world and often sought refuge in beautiful places. Francis saw every creature in the world as a mirror of God’s presence and, if approached correctly, a step leading to God.
St. Bonaventure captures this when he writes that, in beautiful things he saw Beauty itself and through His vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. Francis does not look at the natural world from a utilitarian perspective, as providing food, clothing and shelter for humans.
Rather, there is a sense of joy, wonder, praise and gratitude for the gift of life. One of the great legacies of Francis is that he expanded the concept of “neighbor” to include, not only the human race, but the whole of creation. In my book, To Care for the Earth, I call this the fellowship approach to creatures and contrast it with the stewardship which is found in other Christian traditions.
In Francis there is no wish to dominate or transform nature to make it more friendly towards humans. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis shows a kinship with and deep insight into the heart of all creation – animate and inanimate – which, with the exception of the Celtic saints, is probably unique in the whole European tradition. His first biographer, Celano, wrote that Francis could discern the secrets of the heart of creatures, like someone who has passed into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This is evident in Francis’ sermon to the birds which, for many people today, would seem strange, to say the least. It exemplifies his loving and caring attitude to all creatures and demonstrates that the obedience of creatures to Francis is a sign of his obedience to Christ and of his holiness.
Francis, though born into a wealthy merchant family, lived lightly on the earth. His teaching and lifestyle were a radical critique of the merchant class which was emerging during his life. Francis has much to teach us today when so many people are obsessed with accumulating wealth to the detriment of the poor and the earth itself. Francis felt that reverence for, and intimacy with all life precluded any need to own things.
For Francis, a true follower of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, should only take from the earth what was necessary to sustain life. Francis’ love for the natural world has captured the imagination of many people beyond the realm of Catholicism or Christianity. Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, is a modern presentation of Europe’s fascination with this simple and extraordinary person. While the picture of Francis it portrays lacks an accurate appreciation of Francis’ overwhelming passion for God, it sensitively captures his love of creation.
The memory of Francis in our world today encourages many people to reject violence and become pacifists and promoters of social justice. It also inspires naturalists, ecologists and many sensitive people to preserve nature untamed by human hand. An untamed environment, whether it is a vast ocean, a rainforest or a desert, points to the ultimate mystery at the heart of the world which continually calls human beings to a deeper communion with God, fellow humans and the earth. Francis, the saint for all seasons, is particularly important today and so is a happy choice as the patron of ecologists.
Fr. Sean McDonagh lives and works in Ireland.