Maybe it’s just that social media has made it easier to know about what is happening in parishes across the country, but it seems like St. Francis Day is celebrated more widely than it used to be. Parishes bless pets on or near October 4, and people remember some of Francis’s words or share images of St. Francis with their friends.
Once we get past the sentimental side of St. Francis, we see a saint who showed great compassion to poor people, giving up his own privileges to live in solidarity with the poor. While it is nearly as easy to romanticize or sentimentalize his poverty and his compassion for the poor as it is his compassion for animals, when we set aside the sentimental side, his story is very striking. Francis took Jesus’s teachings seriously, and his life shows us what following Jesus can look like.
Francis’s compassion flowed out of his love for Christ. Francis did not neglect worship, and his attention to the words of Christ in the Gospel guided his heart and his mind, but he also did not neglect action in the world. As Francis understood as a deacon, when the Gospel works long enough on someone’s heart and mind, the natural result is compassion that extends in an ever-widening circle.
The great work for Christians today is to extend that circle of compassion not only in wider and wider circles in our present world, but also to extend that circle to future generations. Compassion says that if we see the potential for living things to suffer now or 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now, we should do whatever we can to alleviate
We are told that St. Francis preached to the birds, and he is often depicted as a friend to the birds. The reality this St. Francis Day is that climate change is endangering the birds. Climate change is threatening all living things, but we are so paralyzed by this that this evening’s debate for vice-presidential candidates did not include a single question about dealing with climate change or its effects. We spend much of our lives acting as if nothing is happening.
Bill McKibben recently wrote Recalculating the Climate Math, which very clearly explains why we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground and rapidly develop clean energy sources. Using new information from Oil Change International, McKibben’s essay argues that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C. “we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted”.
We are nowhere near doing that. We may admire St. Francis’s compassion for the birds and for the people who stand to suffer first and worst from climate change, but our compassion is not yet great enough to overcome the fear of change that keeps us from doing what we must to address climate change in any meaningful way or even to talk about it very often.
Perhaps next St. Francis Day our churches could honor Francis by hosting serious discussions about climate change and its impacts, or by encouraging parishioners to advocate for action on climate. If we can find as much compassion for people suffering the effects of climate change and for the birds and wild animals and plants as we have for our domestic pets, we all might stand a chance of surviving this century.