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A New Francis of Assisi?

The world could use a pope who is a tribune of Earth

I don’t go much in for Vatican Watching (all that particulate matter from the smoke signals, you know), but I’ll admit that I felt a little thrill of hope when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Pope Francis.

St FrancisPhoto by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and the
environmentalist icon of the Catholic Church.

Whole forests have been lost already to detailing Bergolio’s plain lifestyle, his commitment to the poor, the importance of him being the first pope from the Americas, and the first from the Jesuit order. Most interesting, for me at least, is that Bergolio decided to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and (for lack of a better description) the environmentalist icon of the Catholic Church. 

I’m not a Catholic. And I haven’t practiced the mainline Protestantism I learned in Sunday school for at least 20 years. But I was educated by the Jesuits, and I’ve always had a deep respect for them. They taught me the importance of open inquiry and they sparked in me a passion for social justice* that continues to this day. To crib a line from that well known atheist, Bill Maher: “I’m not a Christian, but I’ve read his book, and it’s really good.”

Over at The Guardian, John Vidal has a piece that quotes a fellow from the Catholic development agency Cafod wondering which Francis will show up: the nature-loving Francis of Assisi known for his common touch, or Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit order better known for his doctrinal evangelism.

I devoutly hope it’s the first one — because God knows we need another influential voice speaking about the moral responsibility for protecting the planet.

As the ecological crisis has become more obvious, faith leaders have stepped up their Earth ministry. Bartholome I, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, has been a passionate spokesman for environmental protection, preaching that: “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.” Rowan Williams made the environment one of his top issues during his 10-year tenure as head of the Anglican church. And here in the US, the Evangelical Environmental Network has sought to inspire people of faith to “mobilize for God’s creation.”

During his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI put solar panels on the Vatican and urged young Catholics to be “guardians of life and creation.”  Pope John Paul II was an even stronger environmentalist. In a visionary 1990 message he called the ecological crisis “a moral problem.”

A pontiff who takes the name Francis is likely to take that message a step further. A Catholic Church with a Franciscan mission could help move millions of people toward a new reverence for natural systems. And a pope who broadcasts a righteous simplicity would serve as an ideological counterweight to free market fundamentalism. If he follows in the spirit of his first namesake, Pope Francis could help check the consumerism that is devouring the planet.

Lord knows that at this point such a thing would be nothing short of a miracle.


* Unfortunately, the Church’s commitment for social justice infamously does not extend to gays and lesbians. By all accounts, Pope Francis is just as conservative and closed-minded on that issue as was his predecessor, the Breshnev-like Pope Benedict. Hopefully Pope Francis will see the light and come to recognize that all people are equal, regardless of who and how they love.





Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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Social justice increasingly means access to clean water, food security, and a raft of other important things with a green cast. The new pope could certainly argue for these social goods from his new pulpit and make quite an impression globally.

By Erik Hoffner on Fri, March 15, 2013 at 11:18 am

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