Presented by the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center
"My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator."
Francis of Assisi is honored by the Catholic Church as the patron saint of people who promote ecology. Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria in 1181 or 1182. His father was a prosperous merchant, and Francis planned to follow him in his trade, although he also had dreams of being a troubadour or a knight. In 1201 he took part in an attack on Perugia, was taken hostage, and remained a captive there for a year. As a result of his captivity and a severe illness his mind began to turn to religion, but around 1205 he enlisted in another military expedition, to Apulia. However, he had a dream in which God called him to his service, and he returned to Assisi and began to care for the sick. In 1206, he had a vision in which Christ called him to repair His Church. Francis interpreted this as a command to repair the church of San Damiano, near Assisi. He resolved to become a hermit, and devoted himself to repairing the church. His father, angry and embarrassed by Francis' behavior, imprisoned him and brought him before the bishop as disobedient. Francis abandoned all his rights and possessions, including his clothes. Two years later he felt himself called to preach, and was soon joined by companions. When they numbered eleven he gave them a short Rule and received approval from Pope Innocent III for the brotherhood, which Francis called the Friars Minor.
The friars traveled throughout central Italy and beyond, preaching for people to turn from the world to Christ. In his life and preaching, Francis emphasized simplicity and poverty, relying on God's providence rather than worldly goods. The brothers worked or begged for what they needed to live, and any surplus was given to the poor. Francis turned his skills as a troubadour to the writing of prayers and hymns.
In 1212 Saint Clara Sciffi, a girl from a noble family of Assisi, left her family to join Francis. With his encouragement she founded a sisterhood at San Damiano, the Poor Ladies, later the Poor Clares.
One of Francis's most famous sermons is one he gave to a flock of birds. One day while Francis and some friars were traveling along the road, Francis looked up and saw the trees full of birds. Francis "left his companions in the road and ran eagerly toward the birds" and "humbly begged them to listen to the word of God." One of the friars recorded the sermon, which overflows with Francis's love for creation and its Creator: "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."
Thomas of Celano records that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them touching and blessing them. This event was a turning point of sorts for Francis. "He began to blame himself for negligence in not having preached to the birds before" and "from that day on, he solicitously admonished the birds, all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator."
In time the brotherhood became more organized. As large numbers of people, attracted to the preaching and example of Francis, joined him, Francis had to delegate responsibility to others. Eventually he wrote a more detailed Rule, which was further revised by the new leaders of the Franciscans. He gave up leadership of the Order and went to the mountains to live in secluded prayer. There he received the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ. He returned to visit the Franciscans, and Clara and her sisters, and a few of his followers remained with him. He died at the Porziuncula on October 3, 1226.
Francis called for simplicity of life, poverty, and humility before God. He worked to care for the poor, and one of his first actions after his conversion was to care for lepers. Thousands were drawn to his sincerity, piety, and joy. In all his actions, Francis sought to follow fully and literally the way of life demonstrated by Christ in the Gospels. His respect and appreciation for creation was so profound because it always led him to the Creator.
For Francis, the Eucharist became the deepest source of support for his desire for cosmic peace and reconciliation. Just two years before he died, St. Francis said: "I beseech all of you, by whatever charity I can, that you show reverence and all honor to the most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, because (in Him) all things, whether on earth or in heaven have been pacified and reconciled with Almighty God".
Every year on the Sunday nearest his October 4 feast day, Catholic and other Christian churches around the world host services where animals are blessed. These services are a powerful way to celebrate both Francis's and God's compassionate concern for all creatures.
Francis is well known for the "Canticle of Brother Sun." Written late in the saint's life, when blindness had limited his sight of the outside world, the canticle shows that his imagination was alive with love for creation. Visit our Prayers I section to read this wonderful prayer.
Saint Francis of Assisi consented to being ordained to the Diaconate but not to the Priesthood. Probably no saint has affected so many in so many different ways as the gentle Saint of Assisi who, born to wealth, devoted his life to poverty, concern for the poor and the sick, and so delighted in God's works as revealed in nature.
"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."
-St. Francis of Assisi
From St. Bonaventure
"Francis sought occasion to love God in everything. He delighted in all the works of God's hands and from the vision of joy on earth his mind soared aloft to the life-giving source and cause of all. In everything beautiful, he saw him who is beauty itself, and he followed his Beloved everywhere by his likeness imprinted on creation; of all creation he made a ladder by which he might mount up and embrace him who is all-desirable. By the power of his extraordinary faith he tasted the Goodness which is the source of all in each and every created thing, as in so many rivulets. He seemed to perceive a divine harmony in the interplay of powers and faculties given by God to his creatures and like the prophet David he exhorted them all to praise God."
--Major Life of St. Francis
"His attitude towards creation was simple and direct, as simple as the gaze of a dove; as he considered the universe, in his pure, spiritual vision, he referred every created thing to the Creator of all. He saw God in everything, and loved and praised him in all creation. By God's generosity and goodness, he possessed God in everything and everything in God. The realization that everything comes from the same source made him call all created things -- no matter how insignificant -- his brothers and sisters, because they had the same origins as he."
--Minor Life of St. Francis
From Thomas of Celano
"For who could ever give expression to the very great affection he bore for all things that are God's? Who would be able to narrate the sweetness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom of their Creator, his power and his goodness? Indeed, he was very often filled with a wonderful and ineffable joy from this consideration while he looked upon the sun, while he beheld the moon, and while he gazed upon the stars and the firmament. O simple piety and pious simplicity! Toward little worms even he glowed with a very great love, for he had read this saying about the Savior: I am a worm, not a man. Therefore he picked them up from the road and placed them in a safe place, lest they be crushed by the feet of the passersby. What shall I say of the lower creatures, when he would see to it that the bees would be provided with honey in the winter, or the best wine, lest they should die from the cold? He used to praise in public the perfection of their works and the excellence of their skill, for the glory of God, with such encomiums that would often spend a whole day in praising them and the rest of creatures.... This man, filled with the spirit of God, never ceased to glorify, praise, and bless the Creator and Ruler of all things in all the elements and creatures."
"How great a gladness do you think the beauty of the flowers brought to his mind when he saw the shape of their beauty and perceived the odor of their sweetness? ...When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God. "
--The First Life of St. Francis.
Illustration by John August Swanson.
From Pope John Paul II
Francis and Clare not only became brother and sister to every human being but to all animate and inanimate creatures. In contemplating nature, when Francis discovers that everything speaks to him of God, his eyes are filled with joy and he exclaims in the Canticle of Brother Sun: everything "... from you Most High, bears significance" (FF 263).
Dear young people, may you too learn to look at your neighbor and at creation with God's eyes. Mainly respect its summit, which is the human person. At the school of such excellent teachers, learn the careful and attentive use of goods. Do your utmost to see that they are better distributed and shared, with full respect for the rights of every person. In reading the great book of creation, may your spirit open to grateful praise to the Creator."
~ Address "Young People to Assisi," August 26, 2001.
In 1979, I proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi as the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology. He offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. As a friend of the poor who was loved by God's creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation - animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon - to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi 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.
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.
~ from Blessed Pope John Paul II, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, Message for World Day of Peace, 1 January, 1990
From Sister Marjorie Keenan, RSHM
St. Francis of Assisi fully understood this mysterious relationship between the world and the person seized by God's love. At times, Francis could perhaps seem to us to be too simple, too naive, to content our complicated modern minds. We pass far too quickly over his suffering, his hard and penitential life, his long hours of contemplation, his courage in face of the challenges of his time. What was the fruit of this life entirely given to God? A man that the animals considered their friend; a man who considered the sun and the moon as members of his family; a mendicant monk who gave all to the poor and who called death his sister. Francis dared to plumb the depths of the mystery of creation: everything was created for the glory of God; everything should render God this glory.
From Pope Benedict XVI
There is a story that goes as follows: Francis told the brother responsible for the garden never to plant the whole area with vegetables but to leave part of the garden for flowers, so that at every season of the year it may produce our sisters, the flowers, out of love for she who is called "the flower of the field and the lily of the valley" (Song 2:1). In the same way Francis wanted there always to be a particularly beautiful flower bed, so that, at all times, people would be moved by the sight of flowers to praise God...
We cannot take this story and simply leave the religious element to one side as the relic of a bygone era, while appreciating its refusal of mean utility and its appreciation of the wealth of species. This would in no way correspond to what Francis did and intended. Above all, however, this story contains none of the bitterness that is directed against human beings (for their alleged interference in nature) such as one detects in so many conservationist manifestos today. When man himself is out of joint and can no longer affirm himself, nature cannot flourish. On the contrary: man must first be in harmony with himself; only then can he enter into harmony with creation and it with him. And this is only possible if he is in harmony with the Creator who designed both nature and us. Respect for man and respect for nature go together, but ultimately both can flourish and find their true measure only, if, in man and nature, we respect the Creator and his creation. The two only harmonize in relationship with the Creator. We shall assuredly never find the lost equilibrium if we refuse to press forward and discover this relationship. Let Francis of Assisi, then, make us reflect; let him set us on the right path.
~ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Seek that Which is Above: Meditations Through the Year. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 176.
From Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O' Connor, Retired Archbishop of Westminster
"Saint Francis of Assisi arranged with a friend in a village in central Italy to stage the first live crib, and it was Francis who first gave pride of place to the ox and the ass, convinced that if such animals had been there in the stable in Bethlehem, they would somehow be aware that it was a privilege to warm the air the infant Jesus would breath. There are well-known episodes in the life of Francis that show he was convinced that the birth of Christ affected the whole of creation. He felt it was his duty to preach the Gospel not only to people, but also to birds and other creatures. His insight is behind the Franciscan tradition of care for nature, and is what we might call the seed of a medieval program of Christian ecology."
~ Excerpt from his Homily for Christmas 2007
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