Why is Francis of Assisi the patron saint of ecology?

francis of assisi

For Catholics, Oct. 4 is widely recognized as the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

Among the best-known and most venerated of the saints, Francis of Assisi has become synonymous in religion pop culture with brown habits, birdbaths and the blessing of animals on his feast day.

But beyond pets, Francis is also known as the patron saint of ecology.

What does that mean? Who made that decision? And why?

It’s the subject of our latest Burning Question here at EarthBeat. Let’s get to it.

So who was Francis of Assisi?

There’s so much to say, so we’ll just hit the highlights here.

Francis was born in the Italian town of Assisi sometime between 1181 and 1182.

He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and dreamed in his early life of becoming a knight. After he was taken captive during a battle with a neighbouring town in 1201, Francis became severely ill. During this time, his conversion began.

Several years later, as he was beginning a new military expedition, he had a dream in which God spoke to him, and he returned to Assisi to tend to the sick.

A year later, in 1206, he had another vision, in which Jesus directed him to rebuild his church. Francis first took this message to mean to repair the Church of San Damiano, outside Assisi, but later understood it as the wider church, and, some say, even creation itself.

From there, Francis fully committed himself to the church, abandoning his possessions and inheritance for a life of poverty and simplicity.

He went on to found the Order of Friars Minor (commonly known today as the Franciscans), along with co-founding the Order of St. Clare and the Third Order Secular and Third Order Regular.

He was known for his love of all creation (we’ll get into that more later), but also for his dedication to the poor, peace and interreligious dialogue, such as his encounter with the sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade.

Francis died in October 1226. Less than two years later, he was canonized a saint.

When was he named the patron saint of ecology?

Not that long ago, as it turns out.

On Nov. 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II issued a papal bull that declared St. Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology and of those who promote ecology.

In the bull, John Paul II wrote, “Among the holy and admirable men who have revered nature as a wonderful gift of God to the human race, St Francis of Assisi deserves special consideration.”

The pope went on to note Francis’ deep sense of the Creator at work in the world, and through it, the presence of the divine spirit. John Paul II mentioned too the “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis’ famous prayer poem that is one of the cornerstones of Franciscan spirituality.

(The canticle’s recurring refrain “Praised be you, my Lord,” or in Umbrian dialect of early Italian, “Laudato Si’, mi signore,” inspired the name of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment and human ecology, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” And it was Pope Francis who was the first to tap the Assisi saint as his papal namesake.)

Naming Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology came at the end of the 1970s, a decade that witnessed the birth of the modern environmental movement and began with the celebration of the first Earth Day, held in the United States. The confluence of these two events may be more coincidence than anything, as Earth Day didn’t become a global event until 1990.

What does it mean to be a patron saint of something?

In Catholic tradition, a patron saint is someone believed to have the ability to intercede with God on behalf of someone’s prayers. They are also titles that honour the life that a saint lived.

The practice of naming patron saints dates back centuries, to the earliest days of the Catholic Church. Today, it seems that there are patron saints for everything. Yes, there are patron saints for churches. There are patron saints for cities and countries (Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi, for example, are co-patron saints of Italy). And there are patron saints for almost every profession and circumstance.

St Isidore, patron saint of farmers.

St Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of bakers.

St Teresa of Avila, patron saint of headaches.

St Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists.

And some are patron saints of multiple things. That includes Clare of Assisi, Francis’ contemporary, who is the patron saint of eye disorders and good weather, but also of television.

So why was Francis of Assisi made the patron saint of ecology?

Let’s go back to “The Canticle of the Creatures,” which the saint composed near the end of his life. In it, Francis not only offers up praise to God for all of creation — naming “Sir Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon and Stars,” “Brother Wind” and “Sister Water” — but invites each to join him in praising God. Continue reading

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,