This post was guest written by my son Michael Diller, who recently graduated from Vassar College. Michael's thesis on St. Francis of Assisi and other medieval Church thinkers won the Sophia H. Chen Zen Memorial Prize for the best thesis in the History Department.
Pope Francis' recent Encyclical on climate change has rightly received broad attention worldwide for its forceful message that action on climate change is necessary to protect the world's poor. But little has been written about the important Medieval Church figure who provides both the title and much of the inspiration for the Encyclical (which is a papal letter to Catholics and all people of goodwill worldwide). That is St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th century friar and preacher whose name and style Pope Francis adopted when he became Pontiff. St. Francis' song "Canticle of the Creatures," praising God for the beauty of nature, provides the title of the Encyclical - "Laudato Si" - meaning "praised be to you" in St. Francis' native Umbrian. And St. Francis is also the direct source for much of the Encyclical's spirit and message.
Who really was St. Francis of Assisi? While Pope Francis has earned a reputation as a reformer and catalyst of change, St. Francis is often remembered as one of the most mild-mannered of saints, known and loved chiefly for his humility, love of animals and people, and his simple lifestyle. Yet St. Francis was in many ways a radical advocate of social change, one who both inspired and would have applauded Pope Francis' bold stance on the global threat of climate change. As Pope Francis writes in the Encyclical, St. Francis was:
the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God's creation and for the poor and outcast. . . .He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis' world in many ways resonates with ours today. He was born into the rapidly changing society of late twelfth century Italy, when growing international trade and travel was in the process of dislocating old social orders. Francis, the son of a rich merchant, grew up in the fast-paced and profit obsessed city of Assisi. As a young man, he lived a life of indolence, drinking and carousing with the bourgeois sons of Assisi's traders. But as he reached adulthood Francis grew disenchanted with this lifestyle, and eventually renounced all his possessions in favor of a life of penitence, horrifying his family. Francis began to dress in nothing but rags, devoting his time to restoring the dilapidated churches of Assisi and preaching. His striking asceticism, rejection of material possessions and embrace of nature, soon earned him followers, first in Assisi and then throughout Europe, who adopted his lifestyle. He went on to form the Poor Clares and the Franciscan Order of Friars, founded on the same principles of simplicity that St. Frances embraced, both of which still flourish today.
This brief account of Francis' life necessarily passes over the many challenges he faced in establishing his order. But one facet of Francis' story which is easily forgotten today is the boldness of his message in his lifetime. Saint Francis was truly committed to humility--he did not believe in criticizing those around him. However, his rejection of material property as sinful stood deeply at odds with the stance of the Medieval Church, which was one of the largest landowners in Europe. Francis believed in working within the system, he sought to combat greed and hatred not by rejecting the Medieval Church establishment, but through the example of his leadership. Francis believed in a holistic solution to the social ills of his day. His love for animals and nature symbolized a larger belief that a truly good society must harmonize with nature to be saved. In short, Saint Francis would view the social and economic inequalities of our day with horror, and he would have seen these problems as deeply connected to climate change and other environmental issues. As Pope Francis describes in the Encyclical, "the poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled."
In drawing upon the works and life of his namesake St. Francis of Assisi for both the title and the message of his climate encyclical, Pope Francis sends the message that social justice, the eradication of poverty and inequality and the struggle to curb climate change are deeply connected goals. Those in positions of power throughout the world should heed the Encyclical's call to action on curbing climate change.