Today’s feast of Saint Francis of Assisi is often marked with a blessing of pets that tends to draw a crowd. A statue of Saint Francis can be found in many people’s gardens, even those who would not necessarily describe themselves as religious. What is it that is so compelling about this thirteenth-century figure?
In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis gives us his own response:
“I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his open heartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (Laudato Si’, 10).
This description of Saint Francis reveals that he was much more than someone who loved animals. The harmony and peace that characterized his relationship with God, with fellow human beings, and with all of creation was rooted in an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of humanity and our common home. He would call creatures, no matter how small, “brother” or “sister”, not out of a naïve romanticism or a wrongly ordered affection, but out of a conviction that the beauty and goodness of all created things directs us to the infinite beauty and goodness of the Creator. Pope Francis said that Saint Francis viewed the world as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise” (Laudato Si’, 12) and that “whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise” (Laudato Si’, 11).
More than simply being a nature lover, Saint Francis understood his call to care for creation as a living out of the stewardship to which we are all called. The reverence and wonder and awe with which he approached nature affected all of his choices. Without “fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (Laudato Si’, 11).
It is for this reason that Saint Francis chose a life of poverty and dependence on the good will of others. His entire way of life was a refusal to use and control resources or people. It was a recognition that we receive all things as a gift, and that, when we take on the attitude of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters” set on satisfying our desires, those who suffer are usually the poor and the most vulnerable. Laudato Si’ offers the examples of food waste while many go hungry, fishing communities harmed by the pollution of water and depletion of fishing reserves, the change in sea levels forcing impoverished coastal populations to migrate, as well as “the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources” (Laudato Si’, 48).
In response, and in imitation of Saint Francis, we are invited “to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, 49). When we counter the “throwaway culture” (Laudato Si’, 16) with a “concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” as Saint Francis did, it has far-reaching effects on everyone who shares our common home (Laudato Si’, 10).
Today, let us pray for Saint Francis’ intercession, that like him, we may recognize the inseparable bond between ourselves and all of humanity, especially the poor, and the bond between ourselves and all of creation. May our attitudes and choices reflect this recognition and offer worthy praise to our Lord and Creator!