Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
With these words Saint Francis of Assisi begins his famous paean to the natural world, the Canticle of the Sun. He rejoices in “Brother Sun”, “Sister Moon” in fire and water, and all of the Earth’s splendor, seeing in them a reflection of the majesty of their maker. Though he rejected the comforts of the wealth and luxury into which he was born, Francis was more than content with the portion he allotted himself. The image of this lowly man in his patched brown robe, holding a bird or greeting a deer in the woods, is universally recognizable in everything from stained-glass windows to garden statues.
Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’, takes its title (which translates as Praised Be) from the Canticle of the Sun. Like the saint’s hymn, this letter reminds us to honor God by marveling at His wonderful creations. But in it the Holy Father also decries the pain we inflict on “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us”, through waste and indifference. He exhorts us to remember God as our creator, without whom we would both have and be nothing, and to stop the subjugation of the Earth’s vitality to arbitrary human desires. In light of the threats facing the world (and particularly its poor) due to rampant deforestation, pollution, and climate change, Pope Francis has declared today, September 1st, as a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. He asks us to come together in our universal vocation to be stewards of the environment. In this he unites the Catholic Church with its Orthodox neighbors, who established Sept 1st as a day to celebrate creation in 1989.
Both Pope Francis and his namesake have a broad appeal due to their evident humility and jovial demeanors. Francis of Assisi may be the most recognizable saint to non-Catholics aside from Mary herself, and the tales of his joyful paucity, care for the needy, and communion with nature (particularly animals) are well-loved. And our current pontiff has proven himself to be a skilled communicator of good news, winning the respect and affection of world leaders (ecumenical and secular) and lapsed Catholics alike. But to think of either of these men as simply pleasant – to reduce them to mere feel-good stories – is to ignore the truly radical character of their messages. Neither Saint Francis nor Pope Francis should be someone it is entirely comfortable to look up to, because the example of their lives challenges us to drastically alter our own.
The Poor Man of Assisi was of course a convivial figure, an advocate for the hungry, and a friend to the animals. But he also burned with an all-consuming love for God which totally razed the structures of the normal life he once lived. Not content to give occasional alms or pay lip service to the plight of the poor, he could not stand to take more than the bare necessities for himself in order that everything possible was given to them. Despite his father’s beatings, his neighbors’ mockery, and the loss of his noble status, Francis not only accepted his austere lifestyle as a necessity, he spoke of “Lady Poverty” as “a fairer bride” than any of his friends had ever seen. He was a stigmatist – the first we know of, in fact – and a zealous preacher of repentance. He nursed lepers who were exiled from society, and had ecstatic visions of the heavens. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, just as Francis “did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ”. He showed both “a hunger for a happy life, and a thirst for a heroic death”. This wild mix of firebrand and comforter, of leader and servant, is the result of Francis’ unqualified commitment to his passionate desire for God. He hurled himself into the imitation of Christ with such force that he could hold nothing back. That kind of fearless extremity can be terrifying if we truly take Saint Francis as a model for our lives. If we give ourselves over to his brand of fervor, we won’t be able to fit God neatly into the little spaces we carve out of our lives for Him. He will instead pull us powerfully into His orbit, remaking our lives in the image of His Son’s. When we see a garden statue of that tonsured man feeding the birds, it should cause us to sharply examine how much freedom we allow God to shape our lives to His will.
The current Pope, likewise, is an ameliorative figure to many people who had felt alienated by the Church in the past, but he is also much more than that. For every lovely photo of him smiling with a dove, or calling his local newspaper vendor to have a chat, there comes also a strong and unflinching message to plutocrats, tyrants, and exploiters of the vulnerable: turn away from your sins or lose your soul. He has railed against an unbridled, self-serving global economy which benefits most those who need the least. He speaks directly to the wealthy who devour the environment and make excuses for why the hungry deserve to stay that way. As he put it, “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger.” He laments that, having forgotten that we are not our own creators, we allow ourselves to think of whole swathes of the human race as disposable – migrants, prisoners, the poor, the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled. And he confronts us each with our duty to subjugate our selfish desires to the good of humanity. His words are driven not by a set ideology or politics; they are the natural byproduct of his fervent love of Christ. For Pope Francis, love is not a vague, nebulous emotion; it is concrete action in the service of those we love. Just as he calls priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”, he cajoles each of us to put our concern for others into practice, to meet the vulnerable on their own level. We may feel great affection for his modesty and charm, but if his words don’t shake us to our foundation, we aren’t really listening.
It may feel rather harsh, to take these two happy figures and realize how rightly uncomfortable they ought to make us, even if we know that discomfort will lead us closer to God. But although the example they set may be intimidating, it is matched in magnitude by God’s mercy. This, too, can be made small, unobtrusive, and lukewarm in our minds. When we ask for God’s forgiveness, it’s easy to imagine Him forgiving with a slight shrug, a raised eyebrow, or a terse impatience with our constant failings. This fits into our routines as well; it diminishes God’s love to a size we think we can handle, or perhaps one we think we deserve. But that is why we must model ourselves after God, instead of the other way around. God forgives us with an explosion of mercy, thundering toward us with such velocity that it shatters the walls we erect within ourselves. Each time we ask for pardon, He is overjoyed to have us back, shouting our name and racing to embrace us once more. His is a mercy which, as Pope Francis put it, “can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones.” When we settle for less than full zeal for God, we fail to notice His zeal for us. On this global Day of Prayer, as we examine what we can do to protect God’s creation, let us also thank Him for His boundless love of us, and live by the examples of the Francises, both Pope and Saint.