By The Rev. Rick Wilson
Throughout history there are numerous examples of followers of Christ that inspire us. A widely and highly respected person is Francis of Assisi. He manifested a profound love for all creatures and the natural world, and because of that love he is identified by some as the Patron of ecology.
Born in 1171 CE, Francis experienced a series of transformations. He had a privileged life. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. As a young man, he showed an exuberant love of life and was a well-known leader among his peers with whom he partied. He was a soldier, but after experiencing imprisonment and a severe health crisis he had a change of heart and mind. He started giving away his father’s merchandise, which prompted his father to bring him before the bishop. Before any accusations were made, Francis, saying nothing, removed his clothes, gave them to his father, and said “Until now I have called you my father on earth. But henceforth I can truly say: Our Father who art in heaven.” The astonished bishop gave him a cloak, and Francis went off to the woods. So began Francis’ commitment to living a simple life of service. In that simplicity, he saw in the world of nature his brothers and sisters.
Augustine Thompson, O.P., within his work Francis of Assisi A New Biography, reveals how Francis’ life showed a love of the creation. “He loved living things; they moved him to prayer and most typically, to compassion, especially towards animals themselves. His first response to nature was to praise its Creator and love the creature. Animals were for him a gift. … what impressed [those who knew him personally] was his deep affinity for creatures, his habit of speaking to them with affection, and their attraction to him…. In a world where nature was typically exploited as a source of resources or feared as dangerous, those who knew him commented on Francis’s affection for animals and delight in creation.”1
What would Francis think of our current state of affairs regarding the care of the environment? Father Steve Keplinger, Rector of Grace St. Paul Episcopal Church, Tucson shared in his Season of Creation homily for October 3, 2021, “Since 1970, the average population of nearly 4400 mammals, amphibians, bird, fish, and reptiles has dropped by 68% according to the World Wildlife Fund. Nearly three quarters of wildlife…gone. The so-called red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that 500 species of land animals are presently on the brink of extinction and will likely be lost within the next 20 years. Without human encroachment, this type of loss would have naturally occurred over thousands of years. Habitat loss threatens 90% of migratory birds. The Great Barrier reef is 50% dead.” Francis weeps.
Near his death, Francis composed his work “Canticle of the Creatures” (also known as “Canticle of Brother Sun”). It reveals his understanding of creation as a unified whole – the gift of the Creator. That insight has been lost to many and never understood by others. Our earth and her children are letting us know that we are destroying more than we are protecting. God gave us all this magnificence to care for and we are failing. Why are we hesitant to do those things that can be of good to our environment? We have taken it for granted, caring nothing about what we leave to future generations. We need to be nature’s caregivers now.
One of Francis’ most powerful transformations was in his attitude towards people with leprosy. Being from a wealthy family, early in life he was cavalier about the world around him and enjoyed whatever he wanted. “Francis was averse to ugliness, whether physical or social. Pain, suffering, and physical deformity incited a visceral horror within him. … nothing was more revolting to him than the combination of those traits found in lepers.”2 After leaving his old life, Francis experienced life within a leper colony. He earned his keep by caring for lepers — cleaning their bodies, dressing their wounds, and treating them as human beings. From this experience, Francis encountered spiritual rebirth and healing.
Many of us are pretty cavalier in our daily lives. Human destruction of the natural world is a leprosy for us, something ugly which we want to avoid. But if we are truly following Christ by caring for the vulnerable, we need to do what we can to be caregivers of what God has gifted us. Our planet and her children — including us — need us to actively care. Francis of Assisi is a model for us.
1 Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 54, 55, 57.
2 Thompson, Francis, 9.
Fr. Rick Wilson is the Rector of St. Matthew’s in Tucson and is a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.