Francis, Patron of Ecology — Fr. Seán McDonagh SSC
Tuesday October 4th is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. On November 29th 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis to be the Patron of Ecology. Three years later, on World Environment Day 1982, the Pope said that St. Francis’ love and care for creation was a challenge for contemporary Catholics. He called on Catholics “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.” Eight years later, on the occasion of the World Day of Peace, January 1st 1990, the Pope wrote that the poor man of Assisi “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation…” The Pope went on to make the point that St Francis “gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.” Pope John Paul II concluded that section of the document with these words, “It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created.”
Francis pushes the boundaries for us today to reconsider and broaden our understanding of the gospel question: Who is my neighbour? Because for him the concept of “neighbour” included, not only the human race, but the whole of creation. This fellowship approach to creatures contrasts with the stewardship which has been more dominant in the Christian tradition. The stewardship reaches its most beneficial and comprehensive expression in the Benedictine and Cistercians monasteries. In his monumental study on , Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, Dr. John Feehan writes that the greatest and most permanent influence on 12th century farming in Ireland was the arrival and rapid spread of the most progressive and organised farmers of medieval times, the Cistercians. Their respectful way of caring for creation is captured by the American writer and farmer Wendel Berry in the final paragraph of his book, The Gift of Good Land. “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skilfully and reverently it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want. ”
In recent years, some people have challenged the stewardship metaphor because it is excessively human-centred. They see in Francis someone who claimed kinship bonds with all creation. For Francis, the world was not made up of objects made to satisfy either human need or greed. Francis saw the world in terms of relationships of cooperation rather than competition. Francis’ example inspires us to approach nature with deep respect, admiration, sympathy and communion. His attitude of being-with all created things inspires us in our commitment to care for the Earth, to sustain and preserve what God has given us.
This is particularly important at a time when ecological damage, on many fronts, is happening right around the world. Some authors argue that the changes to the biosphere today are of such an order of magnitude that these changes are best described by using the language of geology, rather than the language of history. They have coined the word Anthropocene to graphically illustrate these massive changes. On October 4th this year, we should call to mind that Francis’ example encourages us as individual Catholics and as the wider Church community to take a stand in the face of the unjust and unequal distribution of the earth’s resources and the destruction of the living world. Much of what is happening today on land and in the oceans is nothing short of plunder. This plunder of the lands of indigenous people in the Philippines, Latin America and Papua New Guinea by mining corporations is trespassing not only on human rights but on the rights of other creatures to exist and fulfill their purpose in God’s plan.