A message from Father Nick 85

As we confront the modern threat of climate change, we might find inspiration in one of our greatest saints. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) lived in very different circumstances from our own, yet his love for every aspect of creation has made him patron saint of the environment. Looking at Francis we notice two essential facts.

Francis’ life was completely Christ-centred: love for Christ irradiated all his thoughts and feelings. It was Francis, of course, who “invented” the Crib and who shared in the pain of his master’s crucifixion, even to the point of stigmata. For Francis, creation had a special beauty because it reflected his master’s love.

But secondly, his master’s love overcame all boundaries. In Assisi, there remains a small collection of items associated with Francis. These are mainly threadbare articles of clothing, but among them is a small decorated horn, like a hunting horn, for sending out a summons. In a way, it sends out a summons to us still.

In 1219, following a general chapter, the Franciscan order began a mission in pagan lands. Francis went too, perhaps half seeking martyrdom. At that time Pope Innocent III had launched a fifth crusade, and a crusading army, led by Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, was encamped outside Damietta in Egypt. Francis made his way there and for several months carried out an apostolate among the crusaders. But his aim was much bigger: to end the bloodshed and convert the sultan to Christianity.

When Francis announced that he was set on crossing enemy lines, the cardinal tried to dissuade him before washing his hands of the consequences. “I shall not be the one,” he said, “to send you to your certain death.” Francis approached the enemy camp with a greeting he said was revealed to him by the Lord: “May the Lord give you peace.” It was a contradiction of all the crusaders’ aims, but the sultan recognised in his words a closeness to the Muslim greeting, “As-salaam aleikum” – Peace be with you.

In fact, Sultan Malik al-Kamil was a man of integrity who wanted peace too. Nephew of the great Saladin, he had been knighted as an eleven-year-old boy by Richard the Lionheart – the Crusades were never entirely straightforward! For several days he treated Francis as an honoured guest and even allowed him to speak to his soldiers. When Francis left, the sultan offered him gifts, but Francis would take only two – a meal shared between them, as a hugely symbolic gesture, and a horn used to call the faithful to prayer. Francis had been deeply impressed by Muslim prayerfulness.

It was after this encounter, when Francis was nearing the end of his life, that he composed his most famous prayer, the Canticle of the Creatures, a hymn praising God for his beautiful, functioning world. Despite Francis’ love for Christ, the canticle does not mention Christ by name. Rather, it invokes the Creator honoured by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, and sings about an environment we share.

And all the elements which have become a threat are brought together in perfect, God-willed harmony: Brother Sun and Brother Wind; Sister Water; Brother Fire – the world that God intended us to care for. Francis’ sense of wonder adds a new dimension to our practical concerns. May he also help us with his prayers.