Saint Francis of Assisi, the first environmentalist

Why did Saint Francis of Assisi love nature and animals so much? What is the link between Franciscan poverty and concern for Creation?

Dominique Lang, Assumptionist and journalist from Pèlerin, recalls the story of Francis, whom we celebrate on October 4, and his influence on the concerns of the last three popes…

Why is Saint Francis of Assisi sometimes said to be the first environmentalist saint?

John Paul II was the first to have this audacity. Archbishop of Krakow in the difficult years when Solidarnosc was opposed to the Polish communist regime, Karol Wojtyla was very close to a branch of the Franciscan family, the Capuchins, very involved in the struggles of the time, together with Solidarnosc. In addition to social rights, one of his concerns was the state of the Polish countryside, the Vistula river, completely polluted by Polish industry, the state in which the communist regime had left the environment of his country. When Karol Wojtyla became pope in 1978, he went on a pilgrimage to Assisi. Six months later, he issued a bull declaring Francis of Assisi patron saint of ecologists.

Of course, we know Francis’ famous canticle in which he greets the sun, the earth, the animals… Is the bond with nature an integral part of your spirituality?

Obviously, it would be anachronistic to say that Francis was an “ecologist”, since this word dates from the 19th century. But I think his personal conversion took him out of his parents’ environment, out of the business world, out of the “petty bourgeoisie” of his small Italian town. When he realized the nonsense in which he lived, eating, drinking, consuming without knowing where he was going, he decided to take his Christian faith into his hands and be consistent. After shedding his bourgeois garb, the first encounter he has on his path is with a leper. Doubt: will he dare to take him in his arms? He does it, and thus he feels free from all fear. By committing himself to radical poverty, he discovers a whole part of society that has been forgotten: the poor, the lepers, the children, who must be cared for. And that in this forgotten part is also the rest of Creation, which is used and exploited, like the beasts of burden, which are also creatures of God. Then we see that Francis begins to preach to the birds, to the fish, to the wolf of Gubbio, etc. Today it seems romantic to us, but it was a prophetic act.

Is being an environmentalist preaching to the whole earth, not just to people?

The Christian faith says that God comes not only to save humanity, but all of his creation. And it was Francis of Assisi who reminded us.

The current pope has taken the name Francis of Assisi. Does this indicate a program?

Yes. Pope Francis himself recounts that during the conclave, while the votes were being counted and it was beginning to look like Jorge Bergoglio would be elected, the cardinal sitting to his right, a Brazilian Franciscan, patted him on the elbow and said: ” Do not forget the poor”. This gave him the idea to take the name Francis.

But is forgetting the poor and forgetting creation the same thing?

Yes, because before Francis, the popes had done a lot of preparatory work, especially Benedict XVI with the encyclical Caritas in truth on social issues. Benedict XVI already said that the poor cannot be cared for if creation is not cared for, and conversely, nature cannot be cared for if the poorest are not cared for. Francisco’s “everything is connected” has already been announced. I believe that Francis was called to be pope to put into practice a certain number of intuitions that accumulated but that we were not capable of translating pastorally. Today, this pope puts us to work.

the encyclical Praise Si’ it also reminds us of Franciscan spirituality.

Of course, and with great force. The title picks up the beginning of the Canticle to the Creatures of Francis. When Francis of Assisi composes this canticle, he is practically at the end of his life. He was sick and saw death coming. He asks his brothers to get him out of the cabin where he was locked up because the state of his eyes made the light unbearable. He then proclaims this poem which is a great announcement of reconciliation with Creation.

Can we say that in this song he divinizes Creation?

It does not divinize, it fraternizes. She calls creatures previously considered insignificant brothers and sisters. They are creatures, she tells us, who have the same life as us, with another dignity, another place, another mission, but who are called to salvation like the rest of creation.

Some people were scandalized by the fact that, during the Amazon Synod, Inca statuettes representing Mother Earth were presented to Pope Francis. Exposed in Rome, they were stolen and thrown into the Tiber, and the pope was accused of reviving idols. What should we do with these controversies?

I think this is typical of modern social networks, which give importance to unimportant things. These objects were brought to the beginning of the synod by indigenous representatives from South America, who presented them as elements of their culture and accompanied them with portraits of men and women who died defending their land, Jesuits, Christians who were martyrs in that struggle. People sing and pray around these objects, without the slightest sign of religious syncretism and without mentioning that these statuettes represent a deity. Of course, they come from the indigenous cultural heritage and resemble the Pachamama of the Incas, but they represent pregnant women, kneeling. And two of these statuettes were placed in the Vatican gardens, facing each other, to evoke the Visitation. Suddenly, some conservative circles, wanting to show that Pope Francis is an idolater who is too far to the left and wants to change the faith, seized the opportunity and shouted scandal.

Being an environmentalist is not a syncretism…

Absolutely. Of course, there are all kinds of ecologies. But if one is a Christian and an environmentalist, ecology does not replace the Christian faith. It enriches it, it reminds us of certain fundamentals of biological, relational, social, environmental and cultural existence… Francis insists a lot on all the dimensions of an ecology that is not only human or environmental, but also forces us to live differently in our common home. This is not made up only of men and women, of animal or plant creatures, but of a set of relationships that allow us to be fully human beings. As humans who have received salvation through Christ, we have a special mission: to be the guardians of all this creation. One of Pope Francis’ first homilies on Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, greeted Joseph as guardian of Mary and guardian of Creation.

What does it mean for a Christian to live ecologically?

There are many ways of doing things, depending on our sensitivities, on our generations. You don’t get involved in the same way if you are 25 or 60 years old. We do not have the same relationship with consumption, with political or economic life. Therefore, it is not surprising that different ecologies exist. I would say that we all have a responsibility in the renewal of the generations that follow us. However, very often, in groups, the generations in charge are a little afraid of the prophetic or contestation phenomena that are coming, and dedicate themselves to stifling the renewal that is taking place at the base. But there is a process here, and Pope Francis is very insistent on this notion of process, where each generation could recognize that they have tried, and understand that the next generation can try differently, supporting it.

Saint Francis of Assisi, the first environmentalist