The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi – who is largely considered the patron saint of animals, creation and ecology – is quickly approaching. Within the Franciscan world, the feast (or more accurately, the solemnity) is a two-day affair. October 3, known as the Transitus, is a commemoration of Francis’s death – his transition from this life to the next. October 4 is his feast day proper.
Here at Siena College where I currently teach, the weekend closest to the Feast of St. Francis is parents’ weekend, that time early in the Fall when families return to visit their college students and participate in a variety of on-campus events. This afternoon one can find an event that is most commonly associated with the Feast of St. Francis: the blessing of the animals. It’s a rich tradition that, done well, reminds us of our interdependence as members of creation, while also drawing out attention to the care and concern one shows for another species.
But what does this have to do with St. Francis? In his actual writings, by which I mean not simply the early sources about St. Francis, but those 30 or so short texts that he is attributed with composing, the Saint from Assisi doesn’t really talk about animals. When he does speak of creation, he does so with more general terms. I believe it makes perfect sense to look at what St. Francis wrote about creation and apply it to our animal sisters and brothers. However, the question I offer is what would Francis say about the animals and what blessing them might mean for us humans?
To answer this, one need only to look at St. Francis’s most famous text, the “Canticle of the Creatures.” He is mostly focused on the natural elements, mentioning only one type of animal in the poem – the human. When humanity enters the text is important and the key to understanding what the animals and the rest of creation can teach us about being human beings.
St. Francis writes in the first 10 verses of the text about the sun, moon, stars, water, earth, wind, fire in fraternal terms. During this reflection, he says that each of these aspects of creation (and collectively, all of creation) praises God by doing what they are created to do. Fire praises God by providing heat and light. The sun praises God by bringing the day. Each element of creation, including the animal world, lives out its identity authentically by doing what it is God created that dimension of creation to be. When we get to human beings, St. Francis tells us that we praise God when we forgive others for love of God and endure peace. That, according to St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures” is what it means to praise God as a human being.
When we bring our beloved pets to be blessed this weekend, may we see in their simple adherence to the life God intended for them a model of right relationship and identity. May we praise God by being the forgiving, loving peacemakers we were created to be in a world so desperately in need of God’s peace.