On Oct. 2, thousands of churches across the world celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis, patron saint of Ecology and Animals, with a decades-old tradition: the blessing of the pets. Beaming pet owners brought their dogs and cats and lizards to the altar to receive a prayer for joy and life in the name of St. Francis.
This practice is grounded in St. Francis’ characteristic love for animals, whom he considered family. But relegating St. Francis' legacy to a simple blessing of our pets falls far short of what his witness can offer us today. We cannot celebrate Francis without also celebrating his radical commitment to justice.
While St. Francis spent part of his life in the wilderness with animals, he spent the second half of his life in towns and villages living with and among the poor and vulnerable communities of 13th century Assisi. His commitment was not to just heal the plants and animals, but also to heal his fellow humans.
It is time for St. Francis, the patron saint of Ecology and Animals, to also become our patron saint of environmental justice.
The environmental community has long used St. Francis to inform their work for wilderness preservation and animal rights. In our current age of the Sixth Extinction — unprecedented habitat loss and climate change — a commitment to these problems remains critical. But there are important issues that also go beyond this traditional understanding of “environmentalism.”
Francis’ life shows us that were he with us today, he would likely be less concerned with the blessings of pets and more concerned with the racism and classism of our environmental problems.
His feast day comes on the heels of a report released in September by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that revealed that the EPA has a long history of not enforcing its anti-discrimination policies.
According to the report:
“[The] EPA does not take action when faced with environmental justice concerns until forced to do so … When they do act, they make easy choices and outsource any environmental justice responsibilities onto others.”
Environmental concerns, like coal ash, lead contamination, and urban air pollution, impact low-income and minority communities much more deeply than other communities. From Flint, Mich., to Standing Rock Reservation, we need not look far to see how race and class play a role in environmental tragedies. Pollution, too, is segregated.
The USCCR report shows that, while many, including the EPA, are working to protect the trees and animals, too few are committed to justice and too few held accountable for how low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by pollution, landfill, and contaminated water.
Francis’ life exhibited a commitment to heal the injustices of his time. After his enlightenment experience, he took to the streets before he took to the wilderness, living in solidarity with the lepers and beggars. Francis’ time spent in nature was crucial — it rooted him in a connection to all other living beings. His grounding in all of life enabled him to more fully live with and love those facing illness and injustice. The beauty of creation reveals God’s intention to create a full, flourishing world. This flourishing of all beings informed Francis’ work for shalom and should more fully inform our work today.
St. Francis would likely smile at the dogs and cats and lizards walking to the altar to be blessed once a year. But his legacy leaves us much more to learn. The great injustices of our time are not faced by our pets, but by our fellow humans living in areas wrought with environmental destruction.
This year, let’s celebrate Francis’ legacy and become an instrument of peace: Where there is despair let’s sow hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.