UPDATE: Shortly after posting this story, we learned that Pope Francis, in his first press conference a day after taking on his new role, took special notice of a service dog in the audience. The Washington Post reported that the pope leaned down to bless a golden retriever accompanying a visually-impaired reporter at the event. The gesture drew amused chuckles from the crowd. For animal lovers it was a important sign of humanity from a spiritual leader whose influence touches all corners of the globe.
With the news that the new pontiff, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergogli, would be known as Pope Francis we wondered if he had chosen the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Or had he taken the name of the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier?
Yesterday the new pope divulged that he had in fact chosen the saint, saying Francis was a man of peace and explaining that he wished for a church that was both poor and "for the poor."
Might this also mean that Pope Francis will be the voice for the voiceless in nature?
St. Francis' legacy is deeply rooted in his connection with the environment and nature, which he believed was a mirror of God. In 1979 Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint of ecology.
He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and was knownto preach to the birds. The statue above, sculpted byJohann Baptist Moroder-Lusenberg for the Parish Church of Urtijëi, in South Tyrol in northern Italy, depicts Francis with a rabbit and a bird at his feet.
There is the famous legend of St. Francis and the wolf - how he resolved tensions between residents of an Italian city and a wolf that was tormenting animals and people, described here on Wikipedia:
Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis. "Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil," said Francis. "All these people accuse you and curse you...But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people." Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.
Pope John Paul II described Francis as a friend of the poor who was loved by all God's creatures:
"Saint Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honor and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples."
More from NPR here on the relationship between St. Francis and nature.