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Was St. Francis of Assisi An Eco-Warrior?

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With the newest papal encyclical due out soon, and with its purported title to be Laudato si’ [Praised Be You] from St. Francis of Assisi’s great prayer, The Canticle of the Sun, Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg takes a closer look at this saint.

St. Francis of Assisi loved God’s created world; of that there is no doubt. However, is he the patron saint of the eco-warrior crowd? Gregg says there are far too many myths that surround this great servant of God. For instance, many people attribute the Peace Prayer (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”) to St. Francis of Assisi. Not true.

It was written by Sebastian Temple, a twentieth century South African born composer. The prayer on which Temple based the hymn can’t be traced further back than a French magazine published in 1912.

The text to which I always turn whenever claims about Francis of Assisi are made is Augustine Thompson O.P’s meticulously researched Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). The real strength of this biography is the way it rigorously analyzes the documentary record and sources and shifts out what is reliable from that which is hearsay and legend.

What does Thompson’s biography reveal about this man?

Francis believed that he and his followers should engage in manual labor in order to procure necessities like food. Begging was always a secondary alternative (29). Another is that Francis thought that the Church’s sacramental life required careful preparation, use of the finest sacred vessels (32), and proper vestments (62). This is consistent with Francis’s conviction that one’s most direct contact with God was in the Mass, “not in nature or even in service to the poor” (61). While Francis is rightly called a peacemaker and one who loved the poor, Thompson stresses the saint’s “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms” (37). The word “poverty” itself appears rarely in Francis’s own writing (246). It seems Francis also thought that it was absolute rather than relative poverty which “always had a claim on compassion” (40).

Despite the fact that Francis is often depicted surrounded by birds, wolves and trees, Gregg reminds us that this man was not someone who worshiped nature. He worshiped God.

Appreciating and respecting the environment didn’t mean disdaining everything else—including human beings, human work, and human creativity—or forgetting that, as the Church Father, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, once wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive.

However much legend and mythology has blurred the real Francis of Assisi over time, the genuine drama of his life and the forces he unleashed in medieval Europe mean that he’s perhaps fated to have any number of ideological programs thrust upon him. In the end, however, we should remember that while Francis of Assisi continues to have many things to say to everyone today, at the core of all those things is the Catholic vision of God, man and the world.

A close and realistic view of the life of St. Francis of Assisi clearly shows him to be a man of God, with a passion for the Catholic faith in the service of Christ. To represent him as an ecological hipster is to do grave disservice to the life he led for Christ.

Read “Getting to Know the Real St. Francis” at Crisis Magazine.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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