Francis of Assisi: Evangelist and environmentalist

One of the most revered figures in the history of Christianity, St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) lived a life that embodied some of the most deeply held values that we associate with the faith today. In the centuries since his death, successive generations of Christians have discovered their most cherished spiritual qualities reflected in Francis.

In recent decades, Francis has perhaps been most widely associated with the care of creation and the environment. In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology. His association with the blessing of animals was popularized in 1985 by the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, with many congregations following its lead in blessing pets on Francis’s feast day. So closely is Francis identified with the environment that the annual Season of Creation celebrated by Christians around the world culminates on Oct. 4 with the Feast of St. Francis.

While the most common perception of Francis today evoke the fifth Mark of Mission—“to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” —his earliest claim to fame reflects the first two: “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom” and “to teach, baptize and nurture new believers.”

Francis “is first and foremost about evangelism,” says the Rev. Canon Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller, Huron-Lawson chair of moral and pastoral theology at Huron University College. “He’s about preaching the gospel, and preaching the gospel from a position of humility and poverty. […] Those are the things the Franciscans themselves remember, but that gets obscured.”

The Ven. Dr. Lynne McNaughton, Deputy Prolocutor for the Council of General Synod and rector of St. Clement’s Anglican Church in North Vancouver, led two pilgrimages to Assisi in 2009 and 2017, travelling to Francis’s home city with approximately 30 fellow Canadian pilgrims.

Echoing Larson-Miller’s view on the saint’s contributions to evangelism, McNaughton noted that Francis “went from town to town proclaiming the gospel.”

“Maybe it doesn’t sound as radical [today] as it would have been then,” she added. “But remember that most monastic orders of the time were Benedectine, which is a vow of stability. You stayed in one community for life. And Francis was a pretty restless soul.

“He loved to travel, meaning mostly by foot […] in a day and age when […] people weren’t used to hearing preaching at that level. He and his brothers preached the gospel. And they preached it by living it, not just the words.”

Originally from a wealthy merchant family, Francis took literally the exhortation of Jesus to his disciples to go out and preach the gospel and to relieve themselves of their possessions. The son of a cloth merchant, he gave away expensive cloth to the poor and, when publicly reprimanded by the local bishop, removed his clothes in the public square and gave everything back to his father.

“Most of us don’t have that dramatic a call to poverty,” McNaughton said. “But he embraced poverty as something joyful. He found a huge freedom in that.”

Though possibly ordained as a deacon, Francis was never ordained a priest. He went directly to the masses and found innovative methods for spreading the Good News among the people.

“I always think it’s so fascinating that he kept trying to find different ways to preach the gospel,” Larson-Miller said. “It’s to Francis that we owe the presepio, the crèche, at Christmas—the nativity scene, if you will—because for him it was a way of preaching to people who were illiterate and uneducated.

“He’s thinking in his mind, ‘OK, what’s going to make sense to them?’ So he develops the rosary as a prayer technique. He develops the crèche. He probably has some contribution to what are known as the Stations of the Cross, which are all kinesthetic ways for people to hear the gospel preached, not just with their ears.”

Peace and reconciliation are also values associated with Francis. In 1219, he travelled to Egypt in the midst of the Fifth Crusade and met with Sultan Al-Kamil, preaching the gospel.

Though Francis’s efforts to convert the sultan were unsuccessful, McNaughton suggested that in light of the friendly conversation between the two—a highly unusual occurrence at this time of bloody religious wars between Christians and Muslims—Francis might perhaps be considered “the patron saint of interfaith dialogue”.

The identification of Francis with nature and the environment stems in part from legendary stories of his evangelism as recounted in the Fioretti (“Little Flowers”), such as when he preaches to the birds—the source of many statues that depict Francis holding a bird in his hand.

As the composer of the Canticle of the Sun (aka the Laudes Creaturarum, or Praise of the Creatures), a religious poem later set to music, Francis described his faith in God for the gift of the earth and all its creatures. He thanked God for creations using terms of close relationships, such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, and Sister Water.

McNaughton recalled the example of one deacon in her home parish, who is of Cree background and ends all her prayers and sermons with “all my relations”. “That always reminds me of St. Francis,” McNaughton said, “speaking to the earth [as] Sister Earth.”

Such a close relationship with nature and creation, Larson-Miller noted, was something of a departure for medieval Christianity at the time of Francis.

“If you put him in his historical period in the 12th century, you’ve got a church that’s kind of turning away from anything that was good about the human body, anything that’s particularly good about creation, and turning more towards only what’s in heaven,” she said. “Only what is disembodied is good.

“And so here comes Francis, preaching really just the opposite and reminding people of what’s already there in Genesis—that God has created all things and created them good. I think what so grabs people’s attention today is that [notion of] all creation [being] with us. […] That’s not new with Francis; we have that in the early church. But in a sense, Francis brings that back in a century of his own life where it was not very prominent, and it grabs the attention of people today.”

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