To mark Zero Waste Week, we are looking at the Medieval saint and patron saint of ecologists, whose influence is still so strong the current Pope chose his name to honour him. St Francis' influence on Pope Francis is evident also when one looks at his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si', whose title is taken from one of St Francis' own prayers.
St Francis was born in Assisi in late 1181 or early 1182, the son of a prosperous silk merchant and a French noble-woman. Various stories about his youth appear in the hagiography, remarking both on his lavish lifestyle and his sense that something was missing.
A year in captivity following a military campaign, during which he fell ill, led to a change in him. When he returned to his life of pleasure and re-enlisted in the army, he had a vision telling him military life was not for him. Upon his return to Assisi, he had lost the taste for the rest of his lifestyle too. In 1206 he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, praying for spiritual enlightenment, and (perhaps thanks to the anonymity provided by the city) gave everything he had away in alms and took on the dress and life of a beggar. His conversion to Lady Poverty was complete.
Returning to Assisi, he met a leper and instead of running away in self-preservation he ran to him and kissed him, before going back on his way. When the leper appeared to have vanished, he took it to be a vision of the Lord directing his future life. Shortly after, he would have the vision in San Damiano that would later lead to the rebuilding of this little country church as well as the Church through the Order of Friars Minors (better known as Franciscans), which was formally founded in 1210.
His love of the poor and marginalised was matched by his love for God's creation. Stories abound of miracles to do with the animals of the Italian countryside, like the famous wolf of Gubbio which terrified the city until he talked to it. For St Francis, nature was one sign of God's love overflowing into the world, a radical idea at a time when concern with sin was at a historic high.
It seems far less radical now, not only because the Pope has released a document on this very subject, but also because of the popularity of environmentalism in the secular sphere too: there is a hunger for better stewardship of our common home after decades of a lifestyle not dissimilar to St Francis' early years. Whether or not embraced in its totality, the Franciscan spirituality can teach us a lot about how to do that.
His Canticle of the Creatures, in which he addresses nature as brethren, has been romanticised in popular culture as well as popular piety in the Church, but it teaches us a key theological lesson to reorient our life. We are all creatures of the Creator, and all that we have belongs to Him. This theme of Creation praising the Lord is woven throughout the Psalms, which he loved. He also had a deep devotion to the Eucharist that fed his humility towards both men and nature and his zeal.
This holistic view of Creation and our duties to God with regards to it inspired Pope St John Paul II to formally declare him the patron saint of ecologists and challenge Catholics on World Environment Day 1982 to be better stewards of it, a theme that will be reinforced by both of his predecessors. With the environment making headlines day in, day out, there is no better time to grow closer to the example set by St Francis, whose feast day is the 4th of October.