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St. Francis of Assisi: Why He's the Patron of Ecology
Photo story by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
The saint who composed the Canticle of the Creatures, preached to the birds and prayed in the woods can teach us about caring for creation.
Seated on “Sister Earth,” near San Damiano, a bronze Francis contemplates “Brother Sun” as he looks out over the plain below Assisi toward Little Portion.

PERHAPS THE MOST popular sculptured image of Francis of Assisi is that of the bearded little man standing on a birdbath. This figure is so universal that you can find it as readily in an Episcopalian’s backyard or a Buddhist prayer garden as at a Franciscan retreat center.

To those who complain, “This birdbath art is too lowbrow and sentimental!” I say, “Relax, it’s not always inferior art. Besides, Francis belongs to the popular arts (e.g., key chains, fridge magnets and the like), as well as to the fine arts.”

To set Francis on a birdbath or in a flower garden or to depict him with birds circling his head is simply a popular way of saying, “This man had a special link with all God’s creatures, and it’s just like him to be standing there humbly among them.”

Francis was in awe of the swallow, the cricket and the wolf. “Where the modern cynic sees something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists,” observed the German writer-philosopher Max Scheler, “St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”

Another reason Francis should remain on the birdbath or in the garden is that his being there helps us recognize, as Francis himself did, that the world of God and the world of nature are one. Francis did not build an artificial wall between the natural world and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred.

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For Francis, every creature was sacred. The world in which he lived was not something evil to be rejected but a sacred ladder by which he could ascend to his Creator, as his biographer St. Bonaventure noted more than once.

Francis would say that the birds coming to the birdbath are holy; water is holy. Why shouldn’t Francis be there in the garden where he can be pelted by the rain or sleet, or kissed by “Brother Sun”?

As “Brother Sun” fades in the west, pilgrims in front of St. Clare’s basilica enjoy the rosy sky beyond the towers of St. Mary Major.

The bishops of the United States published a document in 1992 entitled Renewing the Earth. In it the bishops praised St. Francis while reminding their readers: “Safeguarding creation requires us to live responsibly in it, rather than managing creation as though we are outside it.” We should see ourselves, they added, as stewards within creation, not as separated from it. Francis was ahead of his time. He saw himself, like today’s environmentalists, as part of the ecosystem, not as a proud master over and above it.

St. Francis of Assisi addressed creatures as “sisters” and “brothers,” that is, as equals, not as subjects to be dominated. And that is why the humble figure of St. Francis standing on the birdbath or among the shrubs is so right for our day. He truly saw himself as a simple servant and caretaker of creation—little brother to the birds and the fish and the lowly ivy.

Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology in 1979. The pope cited him for being “an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation....

“St. Francis,” he added, “invited all creation—animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon— to give honor and praise to the Lord.”

Two pilgrims from Australia walk along a wooded path near the Carceri, where Francis and the early brothers often prayed in solitary caves hidden deep in the woods.

In his famous Canticle of the Creatures (sometimes known as the Canticle of Brother Sun), St. Francis did this in grand style. (See Canticle below.)

Father Jack took the photos for this story last fall during a three-week Franciscan Study Pilgrimage in and around Assisi.


Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He is also author of an Internet column, Friar Jack’s E-spirations, which can be accessed at www.friarjack.org. Father Jack’s most recent book is Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).

Canticle of the Creatures

All praise be yours, My Lord,
through all that you have made.
And first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day....

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright and precious and fair.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air....

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious and pure.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you brighten up the night....

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us...and produces various fruits
With colored flowers and herbs....

Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.

St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies,
edited by Marion A. Habig, ©1973 by Franciscan Herald Press

 

 


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