In the popular mind, St. Francis is most closely associated with nature, so it’s fitting that Francis has come to play a part in the observance of Earth Day. John McConnell, the founder of Earth Day, speaks of his being (at least partially) inspired by St. Francis in his 2006 “St. Francis and the Birth of Earth Day.” Within the Roman Catholic tradition, Francis is honored as the patron of animals and the environment because of his deep love for all things that come from God. While it is true that Francis loved the natural world, his was not a secularized, materialistic love. His concern for the environment (a phrase that didn’t exist 800 years ago) was not about dwindling natural resources, peak oil, the pollution of the seas and skies, nor even about betraying the stewardship that humanity should practice over the natural world. Francis’ love of the natural world was an extension of his love for all things that come from God.
Francis’ love was a radical love; his fervor for the Lord was expressed in his fervent love of the world around him–plants, animals, the earth, and (of course) people. After all, how can one love God and not love that which He created? Francis was one of those rare individuals who saw the Creator in the Creation, who felt the presence of the transcendent, eternal One in the His corporeal and temporal creatures.
Francis’ transformation from the spoiled rich kid who wanted to be a knight to the saint that we know was sealed with a kiss–his kissing a leper to be exact:
Now, as he was riding one day over the plain of Assisi he met a leper, whose sudden appearance filled him with fear and horror; but forthwith calling to mind the resolution which he had make to follow after perfection, and remembering that if he would be a soldier of Christ he must first overcome himself, he dismounted from his horse and went to meet the leper, that he might embrace him: and when the poor man stretched out his hand to receive an alms, he kissed it [as he would have kissed a priest’s hand] and filled it with money. (Bonaventure 4)
Francis saw, in the features of this poor man ravaged by disease, in the man’s status of social pariah and in his destitution, the image of Jesus. The conversion process that had begun in illness nearly two years prior in the spring of 1204 (Sabatier 11)–in which Francis, while setting off to war as a page to a certain knight, Walter of Assisi, was struck with a fever and heard the voice of the Lord ask, “Wherefore, then…dost thou leave the Lord for the servant, and the God of infinite riches for a poor mortal?” (Bonaventure 3)–was complete. Francis’ public ministry had truly began.
It made perfect sense to Francis that, since we all come from the same Creator, all people are in essence brothers and sisters. But Francis’ understanding of this shared fraternity was extended beyond the human to everything that God created. We are brothers & sisters not just with one another but with all of creation.
Perhaps the best-known (and best-loved) illustration of this is found in Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, more commonly called The Canticle of Brother Sun. Composed between 1223 and 1226–the last three years of his life–this poetic, spiritual masterpiece encapsulates Francis’ belief in the interconnectedness of all things:
… Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs3…
All praise goes through our brothers and sisters back to the source of all things–God–and all good, from He who is Good, flows through our brothers and sisters to us.
It is here that the popular image of Francis stops. At this point, the 13-century saint’s love for the natural order is relatively benign. Many of us–Catholic & Protestant; Christian & non-Christian; religious, “spiritual,” & secular–can embrace these beliefs because they speak to those good feelings we have when seeing the sun set, the birds chatter in the trees, the ebb & flow of the ocean, the majesty of a forest, the play of children, the sweetness of lovers. And because they’re feelings, they cost us little.
But Francis was so much more than the feel-good saint of birdbaths and garden statuary. Underlying the surface of Francis’ beliefs is the radical notion that our inter-relationships with all of God’s creation requires us to behave differently than we so often do. If all things come from God–making us the sisters & brothers of all things, animate & inanimate–then all things are sacred in and of themselves. How can we carelessly abuse those things which are sacred without disrespecting (blaspheming?) He who created and thereby sanctified them?
While Francis had a special place in his heart for nature, he lived out his ministry in service to people. If he saw the Creator in all things, he also saw the image of Christ in the women and men with whom he came into contact. Throughout his life, he strove to treat every person with the dignity they deserved, the dignity that comes from being a creature made in God’s image, the dignity that comes from the sacrifice of the Cross.
Those who were on the margins of society were special recipients of his love. Christ had lived & worked on the margins of his society; Francis, who strove to live by Christ’s example as perfectly as possible, would, too. Throughout his life, Francis embraced “Lady Poverty” as a chivalric knight dedicated himself to a noblewoman. Francis understood that the poor had a special place in Christ’s ministry; and he “frequently called to mind, with many tears, the poverty of Jesus Christ and His Mother” (Bonaventure 53). Francis found that the rejection of the material world and service to the poor and marginalized was the purest expression of Christ’s call to “follow me.”
Each year, Earth Day reminds us that we are an inseparable part of the natural world, and that we must care for our “Sister Mother Earth.” St. Francis teaches us that our care of the Earth is inextricably tied to our love of God, and our love for one-another. The abuse we’ve heaped upon the Earth mirrors the abuse we heap upon our brothers and sisters. We cannot have environmental justice without justice for all of God’s creation, humanity included.
The Catholic Climate Covenant grew out of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace message, Ecological Responsibility, and the subsequent American Catholic Bishop’s Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching. In the spirit of St. Francis, The Catholic Climate Covenant asks the question, “Who is under your carbon footprint?” Moreover, it asks Catholics (and non-Catholics, too) to take the “St. Francis Pledge,” to…
- PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.
- LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.
- ASSESS how we-as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations-contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc.
- ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.
- ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.
I can think of no better way to celebrate Earth Day than that.
 Bonaventure. The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi. 1988 ed. 1867. Charlotte,
North Carolina: Saint Benedict, 2010. Print.
 Sabatier, Paul. The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis. Ed. Jon M Sweeney. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2004. Print.
A beautiful, calligraphic rendering of The Canticle of the Sun by Frank Missant was published by Shambhala Press; it evidently is no longer in print, but copies are available through both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Francis and the Leper sculpture, The Sanctuary of Rivortorto, Assisi, Italy. Photo credits: Christopher John, SSF, 2007
Canticle of the Sun sculpture by Arturo Tomagnini (1927); St. Margaret Mary’s Church, Omaha, NE. Photo Credits: Larry Ferguson © 2011