A Pope for the Animals?
The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has taken the name Francis, after the patron saint of animals.
St. Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in Assisi, Italy, in 1182. He came from a wealthy merchant family, but after a stint in the military, during which he was captured and held prisoner for a year, he had a vision that caused him to give up his secular life and become a nurse to lepers.
When he was 27 years old, Francis founded an order of “lesser brothers” who, like himself, would choose never to be ordained as priests. Instead, they led lives of poverty, caring for the poor. Francis died in 1226, and was pronounced a saint two years later.
Francis is best known today for his relationship with animals. One of the stories often told about him is that one day he and some companions came upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees.
Francis told his companions: "Wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters, the birds."
The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them, saying:
"My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you... you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests.
And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore... always seek to praise God."
Another story has it that on his deathbed, Francis thanked his donkey for carrying and helping him through his life ... and that the donkey wept.
The Roman Catholic church has not been known for compassion toward nonhumans. Quite the opposite.
But Bergoglio's taking the name of the patron saint of animals cannot help but raise the possibility that the new pope will include our nonhuman brothers and sisters in his work and his prayers.