With all the talk in the media about the new pope’s adoption of the name Francis, after the patron saint of animals, the only mention I’ve heard of anything to do with animals (other than the human kind) was in a few humorous reports about how a seagull was seen perching on the “Holy Smokes” chimney that announced the election of the new pope.
Nothing from the religious commentators; nothing from the news media. One of the most famous and popular saints in history, known primarily for his concern for the animals. And no mention of the animals at all. Nor any mention of St. Francis in relation to them.
We have a new pope, round-the-clock news coverage, reporters and commentators all over the world talking about St. Francis of Assisi, and not a word about whether this might relate to how we live our lives in relation to our fellow animals.
What does this complete silence say about us?
Very simply that we humans are entirely self-obsessed.
A few hundred years ago we assumed that we were the physical center of the universe. Our telescopes may have proved that that’s not the case. But we still consider ourselves to be the absolute center of our moral, intellectual and spiritual universe.
Anyone looking at us from outside would see at a glance that, far from being the center of the universe and the pinnacle of evolution or creation, we humans are a remarkably unintelligent species, incapable of relating to each other or anything else, consumed with violence and constantly at war, fouling our own habitat, and riddled with anxiety and depression. Worse, we’ve already brought on a massive extinction of species and a change in climate that will affect all life for centuries, probably millennia, to come. And every day it gets worse.
Yesterday, the new spiritual leader of billions of humans reminded us of the one saint of his church who had dedicated his life to thinking not only about us humans, but about other animals, too.
You’d think this might be the big news of the day – especially at exactly the same time as a major international conference (CITES) is once again coming up largely empty-handed over whether and how to stem the horrific extinction of thousands of species.
If there is to be any redemption for humankind, it lies not in thinking about ourselves, but on what we can do to make peace, here on Earth, with our fellow animals and the world of nature.
But no. Today what we heard about most was how the new pope got on a bus with his colleagues and paid his hotel bill himself. All of which is memorable, indeed, but again, ultimately, all about us humans.
There have been a few mentions of the prophecies of another Catholic saint, Malachy, a 12th-Century Irish bishop who is reputedly the author of a series of prophecies about future popes. The writings consist of 112 short Latin phrases about popes, starting with St. Peter and concluding with a pontiff who is the last in the line, and whose election to the office signals the end times.
Pope Francis is that 112th pope.
Most Catholic intellectuals are familiar with the Malachy prophecies. Whether or not they mean anything is not the point, but what is certainly the case is that the new pope and his cardinals are aware of these writings and that what Malachy wrote would at least remind them that we humans are destroying our world, each other and our fellow animals.
For anyone who holds the faith of St. Francis, it would surely be impossible not to be considering that the only way forward for humankind would be to follow the example of the patron saint of animals, to make some effort to let go of our total obsession with ourselves, and, instead, to give some consideration to our responsibility toward the rest of creation.
If there is to be any redemption for humankind, it lies not in thinking about ourselves, our salvation, our place in heaven and our endless reflection on me, myself and I; but rather to consider what we can do to make peace, here on Earth, with our fellow animals and the world of nature; from which we work so hard and so helplessly to separate ourselves.