The cathedral of Assisi 2011 © Medieval Histories

Environmental Tsunami

Come June Pope Francis will publish an encyclical on the future challenges of climate changes, environment degradations and the care we have for Earth and Creation

A Papal Encyclical is in it strictest sense a letter sent by the Pope and addressed to the Catholic Church in general and the Bishops in particular. Whatever the more detailed contents of the coming letter the aim is clear: with more than 1.2 billion members the time has come to start a church-led tsunami of people crusading against the global powers and people stalling a cap on the emission of CO2. The point will no doubt be a call to politicians, lobbyists and global companies to find a solution at UN in September and in Paris in December. However, there is also no doubt that a major inspiration will be the spiritual but also very practical crusade, which was led by St. Francis of Assisi, whose name was chosen by the incumbent Pope in order to remind himself and us of the plight of the poor – those who are already suffering immensely, while their homes are flooded but also future generations, who will have to stake out their lives in an increasing inhospitable world characterised by deforestation, desertification and creaturely extinction.

St. Francis 1181 – 1226

Saint Francis preaches to the birds - Cathedral of Assisi
Saint Francis preaches to the birds. Cathedral of Assisi 1288 – 1297

But who was Il Poverello – the poor one? What were his visions? Was he really the first environmentalist of our modern age? These are not easy questions to answer.

The basic facts of his life were as follows: he was born in a small town in Umbria as son of a merchant dealing in cloth and silk. In his youth Francis lived a life typical of a wealthy youngster bent on having a good time and following his chivalric ideals as a soldier in the war between Assisi and Perugia. Gradually, however, he began to see the world in a new light and he lost his taste for the joys of a wealthy and complacent life. As part of this conversion he went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he joined the poor in begging at the entrance to St. Peter’s. On his return he began preaching in the streets of Assisi, slowly gathering an entourage of followers and friends. In 2010 the Pope authorized his Order of Friars Minor and later he was instrumental in founding the Order of Poor Clares as well as the Third order, home for lay followers and sympathisers. In 1224 he received the stigmata, the first time this type of miracle was recognised. After his death in 1226, he was immediately beatified by the crowds. This was followed in 1228, when he was proclaimed saint by Pope Gregory IX, who instigated the building of the spectacular Basilica in Assisi as well as formulating the official request one of his companions, Thomas de Celano, to write his vita (biography).

The Franciscan Question

Francis of Assisi -manuscript BNF 2015 TM 686 ff 79v-80We possess of course a number of texts from the hand of Francis, which outlines his general worldview as well as serve as witness to his way of life. Most of what we know, however, stems from a series of various biographical texts written in the 13th century, when his companions had to struggle in order to find a way between the Scylla of following a charismatic leader with obviously radical leanings and the Charybdis of instigating some order and proper organisation into the Order of the Friars Minor.

The proper understanding of these diverse texts – and not least who wrote which at what point – might seem a moot point. Why should we bother about this in the 21st century? Let the historians struggle with these questions, while we move on.

True saints, however, have a special quality. They are, in fact, timeless witnesses to how we may or may not solve peculiar ethical dilemmas. As such it does indeed matter, who Francis was and what he really believed in, a conundrum, which has for more than a 100 years been termed the “Franciscan Question”.

It is a safe bet, this question is occupying at least part of the panel of theologians and scientists working under the auspices of Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is preparing the groundings of the encyclical. At its core must be the question of what really secured the remarkable success of the Franciscan movement, which so profoundly invigorated the spiritual life in the 13th and 14th century? Was it the leadership of a singularly charismatic leader – Francis – and his band of brothers, who secured this success? Or was it the plodding effort of the countless friars who travelled through Europe, caring for souls in the burgeoning urban landscapes of the later Middle Ages? And if Francis was the necessary prerequisite – which not all contemporaries agreed upon – wherein consisted his particular charism?

A Historical Quest

The good news is that decades of careful sifting of the available texts have brought us nearer an understanding of what his earlier followers really felt they had experienced. Part of this endeavour has been led by the Jaques Dalarun, historian and Director at CNRS in Paris, who has published a series of detailed studies concerning this “Franciscan Question”. Quite recently a quite remarkable luck presented him – and us – with a newfound text, which can be dated to around 1232 – 39 (and probably from the early period). According to a recent presentation at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris this text was discovered in a slight manuscript coming up for sale in Paris and was only recently acquired by BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France). Come early spring, it will be published in Latin with French, Italian and English translations.

Thus the text is not yet available. However, according to interviews by Dalarun, we will be treated to a very detailed and concise history of some of the key events in the life of Francis and how he used his remarkable sensualism and keen sense of empathy to feel the very concrete needs of the impoverished, the ill and the forsaken – whether persons or animals. Perhaps it is no mistake that he was created patron saint for ecology and environment in 1979?

Lots of inspiration here for a Pope bent on starting a moral tsunami against the evils of our time.


Very Early Life of St. Francis of Assisi Discovered


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