St. Francis of Assisi - A Saint for Environmentalists (Rev. Carmen Retzlaff)
On October 4, or the Sunday closest to that date, many churches around the world hold a Blessing of the Animals. These blessings are held primarily at Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches, which venerate or honor saints, but can be increasingly found in other protestant churches.
October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, born 1182 in Assisi, Umbria, died October 3, 1226. He is known for his vows of poverty, life of simplicity, charity toward the poor, and love of God’s creation. His followers founded the religious orders of the Franciscans and Poor Claires. He was canonized by the Roman Catholic church in 1228.
In his famous Canticle of the Sun, Francis prays that God be praised through all creatures, including Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the stars, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and our sister Mother Earth. Legends of his life include a time when he and his followers stopped while he preached to the birds, and his conversation with and conversion of a vicious wolf outside the city of Gubbio. He loved and cared for flowers and rocks. Francis is often portrayed with a bird in his hand or a wolf at his side. St. Francis statues can be found in gardens all over the world.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology and urged Christians to follow his example of caring for the environment. In 2015, Pope Francis began his papal encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” with references to Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun.
At Blessings of the Animals on St. Francis’ Day in churches you will see cats and dogs, gerbils and turtles, and more pets, and, if you are in a rural area, larger animals and livestock. Animals are brought forward inside or outside a church for a blessing from the priest or pastor. Songs and poems by, attributed to, or inspired by St. Francis are used in worship and blessings.
At New Life Lutheran in Dripping Springs, Texas, our outdoor sanctuary always welcomes animal companions, and wild creatures always worship with us. We bless pets brought to worship that day, and say a prayer of thanks for the deer and other animals who share our worship space and the birds who join our songs. We read St. Francis’ own sermon to the birds that day, and give thanks for the witness and example of this saint who loved and cared for creation and taught us to do the same.
To see a Flickr photo gallery from New Life Lutheran's 2014 St. Francis Day celebration, go here.
Cover image: The oldest known image of St. Francis is in the Subiaco monastery of St. Benedict southeast of Rome, which Francis visited. It is a full-length fresco thought to have been painted by monks before 1224, possibly during his lifetime. (image - United States public domain)