An eco-patron at 35: Three St. Francis lessons for Catholic ecologists

On November 29th, 1979, Pope John Paul II was is in Istanbul building relations between Christianity and Islam. It’s also the date of record when he declared St. Francis of Assisi the patron of those who protect ecology.

35 years later, Pope Francis—the first pontiff named after St. Francis and the one who elevated John Paul II to sainthood—is himself in Turkey seeking to build bridges between Christianity and Muslims, a mission that St. Francis famously undertook in his lifetime, too. (Given all this overlap, one wonders if Pope Francis will use this anniversary to release his planned eco-encyclical—although that seems unlikely given that sources repeatedly maintain a 2015 release.)

The naming of St. Francis as patron of “cultivators” or “protectors” of ecology is a cause to celebrate—and many are. Catholic ecologists in particular should use the moment to consider three lessons from the life of our patron, Francis.

Conversion: Francis’s turning from an unruly life to the one we admire tells us something of what conversion is. And it demonstrates how one person’s choices can change the world.

Ecologists seek the conversion of cultures and individuals from a focus on consumption to lives of temperance. And John Paul II in 2001 famously called for our ecological conversion.

Let us reflect, then, on how Francis’s transformation is a model for us in two ways: conversion is not something we can impose on the world with laws and policies. Rather, it is something that we require in ourselves, every day. And if we get it right, we might inspire others.

The conversion of St. Francis also shows us the power of grace, which (like it or not) flows most especially from the presence of …

The Cross: If you’re unfamiliar with the history of St. Francis’s conversion, you’ll enjoy reading about it. Suffice to say that the Cross played a major role in the life of this most extraordinary man.

I’ve written before on the need to free St. Francis from the duty of keeping watch over flower gardens. For Francis of Assisi, the wounds of Christ were central to his mission on earth. And so his love for the Crucified One should be our love. After all, the conversion we seek in ourselves and in others can only come about with sacrifice, with a dying to ourselves.

Let us reflect, then, on how the Cross illuminates our lives. Do we encounter Christ Crucified in the lives of others and in our own journey of conversion? Are we trying to take a wide, easy path to becoming the saints that God wishes us to become?

Community: The communion of saints reminds us what God is up to. He is building a family and it is not our right to cause division within it. And yet division is all around us, especially of late in the Church and in the wider world. For ecologists, we cannot be blind to the growing discord that comes whenever science shows us something sad about humanity’s impact on creation.

St. Francis may not have intended to build a community. But his witness to the Gospel could have no other end. People sought out what he lived, and a community came into being. Today the Franciscans continue to bless the world with their presence as priests, religious, and those in lay orders.

As one influential Franciscan would write, the imprint of the Creator within creation is a means to know Him—that is, to know the God Who is love and relationship.

In the natural world, ecosystems are a way that creation expresses community. And so our activities should build up the community of the common good—to teach with patience, to endure harms with forgiveness, to be an instrument of His peace, as the prayer goes.

Let us reflect, then, on how we build community in our lives or how we instead embrace division. Chances are we’re very good at both.

This anniversary is a graced moment to consider what it means to be a Catholic ecologist. Clearly we are called to do more than what our secular counterparts do. Our engagement of the world must transcend politics, policy, and science. In addition to all that, we must by the grace of God live as St. Francis did: Be open to our own conversion. Carry our crosses and help others carry theirs. Build community even if we may wish to do otherwise.

The planet, its ecosystems, and our souls are depending on how well we undertake these three missions.

St. John Paul II and St. Francis, pray for us.

Photo: Statue of St. Francis in the Zilker Botanical Gardens, Austin, Texas. Flicker/sarowen

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.