by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
This coming Wednesday, October 4 , feast of St. Francis of Assisi, will be a memorable day in the life of the Catholic Church. It marks the closure of the Season of Creation 2023 and the promulgation of a follow up letter to the encyclical “Laudato si” by Pope Francis.
In addition to what people who read that encyclical believe, that the pope had covered in great detail the life and death issues facing our Common Home, this letter will break even newer ground. For example, the Holy Father will describe threats to the environment as “a senseless war…a terrible world war against” Mother Earth.
On that same day, October 4, the final phase of Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality will begin. The prayer for this event says it simply: “We stand before you Holy Spirit as we gather in your name… Teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it.”
The closure of the Season of Creation and opening of the Synod are inspired appropriately by the Patron Saint of Ecology and recently named Patron of the Synod, St. Francis of Assisi. The imagery here is unmistakable. The saint is universally acknowledged as the exemplar of relationship with and love for God’s Creation.
The tendency, however, might be to leave these references to il Poverello at an ahistorical level of popular religiosity. This unique person of the 13th century is too often identified, superficially, with “tripping through the tulips” a la Franco Zeffirelli’s movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” But the true Francis of Assisi is ever so much more real. His life directly challenges our current ecological crises.
Saint Francis, with all his endearing virtues, was also a strong and challenging person. From the beginning of his Order he insisted to the pope in Rome that his way of life would not model itself on any existing religious orders. He was implacable in his embrace of poverty and demanded it of those who would join him. He went so far as to interfere physically in the reconstruction of the chapel where he had felt God’s call, a chapel which he deemed too elegant. He journeyed to Egypt in a bold attempt to halt a Christian crusade. And when the armies of the pope refused his plea for peace, he crossed to the Muslim side to present his case. His feeling that the Order was sliding away from his ideal of poverty tempted him to leave it.
In addition, this “poor little man from Assisi” had a clear self-identity; he had an ego (it has been said that people who do great things must possess large egos). He knew the reputation he had gained in the medieval Church. In the spring of 1215 he wrote one of several letters to “all Christian religious people: clergy, laity, men and women, and to all who live in the whole world.” The letter understandably reflects the piety of that era but very the fact that Francis wrote it and others like it says volumes about the man’s character.
Extrapolating this understanding of St. Francis, this very human person, to the current historical moment and the state of the planet, we can venture some observations in the form of specific questions for the saint:
- What would he say about the millions of “brother trees” being killed by corporations for profit in Amazonia?
- How would he see the disappearance of 509 “sister glaciers” in the past, short half-century?
- What would be his reaction to the fact that three species of “brother and sister” animal life are lost every day?
Similar questions to this lover of God’s creation keep presenting themselves. His answer might well be what he said to his followers toward the end of his life: “I have done what was mine to do, may you do what is yours.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.