Heroes of Sustainability: St. Francis of Assisi

“My hero is St. Francis of Assisi because he understood the connection between spirituality and the environment. He understood the way God communicates to us most forcefully is through the fishes and the birds and the trees and that it is a sin to destroy those things.” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

As the patron saint of ecology and animals, St. Francis of Assisi was an environmentalist ahead of his time. He saw himself as part of the world’s ecosystem, equal with all other creatures, whom he referred to as his “brothers” and “sisters.”

Francis was born into privilege around 1181, living a relatively carefree life in Italy until he was taken as a prisoner in a military expedition against Perugia in 1201 and held captive for a year. A few years later, he suffered a serious illness and then enlisted in the army, and returned home after having a strange vision.

Shortly after, he embarked on a life of poverty against the wishes of his father, a wealthy cloth merchant. Although he chose not to be ordained as a priest, he eventually founded a new religious order, the Franciscan order.

A Respect for All Creatures
His connection to nature and the earth was one of the things for which Francis is most remembered. In one story, he was traveling with companions when they found a tree-lined road with a number of birds. He preached to the birds, touching their heads with his tunic. “At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way,” wrote Thomas of Celano. “They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”

In another story, he came upon a village that was being tormented by a wolf that was killing both animals and humans. Francis went and talked to the wolf, ordered him not to hurt anyone, and made a deal with the townspeople that they would feed the wolf so long as he would stop committing crimes against them. The animal moved its body and nodded its head in agreement, and for two more years until the wolf died of old age, they all coexisted peacefully.

The Sacredness of Life
During World Environment Day in 1982, Pope John Paul II asked Catholics to remember St. Francis of Assisi and “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.”

He later wrote of the saint: “In 1979, I proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi as the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology. … As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation — animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon — to give honor and praise to the Lord.”

Francis showed through actions and not just words that all of nature is worth preserving. As German writer-philosopher Max Scheler said: “Where the modern cynic sees something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists, St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”

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