St. Francis as Animal Activist

Having written about St. Francis of Assisi so many times, I puzzled about what to say about him today, on this feast day of his, that wouldn’t be repetitive of reflections I’ve already offered about him and his life. When I mentioned my quandry to my daughter, Elena, she thought a second and said, “If Francis were alive today, he’d be an animal activist.” Although I suspect that would not be the totality of Francis’ vocation in today’s world, there is a lot of truth to Elena’s observation.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. He gets that designation because he was a person who felt at one with all of creation. He was a protector and friend to animals; in one of the tales of Francis’ life, he pleads with the people of Gubbio to feed the dreaded wolf who had been killing and eating their flocks, because it was only through his hunger that “Brother Wolf” had wronged them. There are numerous other stories of Francis preaching to the birds, befriending a rabbit and returning to the water fish that had been caught. One of his most famous sermons was the one he addressed to birds. (“My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.”) For Francis, God was in everything and all of creation was a sign of God’s glory.

I think it is a safe bet that if Francis were alive today, he would be apalled at the abuse and neglect of animals, and it is no surprise that many animal hospitals and rescue homes for animals around the world bear his name. He’d be equally appaled at our misuse of our environment.

Francis’ love for all of creation should be an inspiration for all of us. As Albert Hasse, OFM put it

As the world continues to shrink to a global village, Francis becomes a symbol of the human heart that is open not just to our brothers and sisters in the flesh but also stretches to include the family of creation: the stars, the California redwoods, even the smallest of fish swimming in Sister Stream….

Whether it is the first chirp of a sparrow emerging from his egg or the stunned cry of an infant thrust from the warmth of the womb, each is a deliberate and essential note in the larger symphony of creation. We can only enjoy this music if we are hospitable: if we make space for all our brothers and sisters, both rational and irrational and if we allow them to be who they are. As a person gets closer and closer to home, the true self begins to recognize a welcoming song int he Canada geese, in the early afternoon rainbow, in the inactive volcano and in a confused foreigner asking for directions.

Happy feast of St. Francis of Assisi