Poverty, Yes – But St Francis Also Loved Animals

Although I am not a Catholic, I was overwhelmed when, last Wednesday afternoon, a friend texted me the words, “New Pope elected!”  Immediately, I went onto the Italian Radio and Television website, and remained glued to it for several hours.  The excitement of the crowd in Piazza San Pietro was palpable – and contagious – even through the 13 inch screen of my laptop.  Let us admit it.  The Anglican Church may have – in my opinion – some of the best choral singing around, but few can produce a sense of solemnity or a lavish historical occasion like the Vatican.  I was born in Rome and I have always taken the splendour and ornate architecture of the city somewhat for granted.  However, now that I have spent nearly three decades in more, shall we say austere surroundings, there are times when the sight of the Baroque Cupola – only ever centred on manufactured-for-gullible-tourists souvenirs – and the perfect anatomy of the marble bodies that preside over magnificent fountains, bring on a sense of longing for a less Puritan lifestyle.

I wanted to cheer and jump around the room, when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran emerged at the window and announced, “Habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.”

Papa Francesco.

As a teenager, I visited Assisi on more than one occasion before the earthquake that destroyed so much of this beautiful Mediaeval city.  On one of those trips, I bought a postcard, elaborately decorated, of what remains one of my favourite poems, St Francis’s Cantico delle Creature, or  Canticle of the Creatures.  We studied it at school in our Italian literature class.  At the age of six, when I was off school, my mother once parked me with some friends in a Rome film studio and I sat in the cutting room, watching Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon – a biopic of St Francis of Assisi – being fast-forwarded (the friar on the donkey trotted faster), rewound (the friar on the donkey galloped backwards) and being cut (film strips on the floor).  Years later, at an age when I should have known better, I committed the socially unforgivable faux pas telling one of the members of the cast I had just been introduced to, “Oh, I saw you in that film when I was a little girl!”

Papa Francesco.

Cardinal Bergoglio’s decision to be named after a saint who despised riches, is welcome at a time when money is the idol the Western world worships.  His humility of manner inspires trust.  Of course, like any other man in his position, he will not – cannot – single-handedly change the world.  He will make mistakes and probably put a few noses out of joint.  However, Pope Francis is starting out from a point where many of us are disposed to like him, are full of hope for his pontificate, and wish him well.

Much has been heard in the Media, this week, about his humility, his defence of the poor, and his approachable manner.  It is early days yet but, speaking for myself, I long to hear Papa Francesco’s view on animal welfare.

The saint in whose footsteps he chooses to follow was also a great defender of animals.  To my knowledge, the Church has never openly spoken out against cruelty against animals even though one of its most prominent saints believed that they are our fellow-creatures – God’s creatures.

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

For thousands of years, we have treated animals like inferior creatures whose sole purpose is to feed, clothe, entertain, transport and serve us.  We feel very clever when we teach animals tricks but how many of us learn the lessons imparted to us by animals?

It is not my intention in this blog to advocate being a vegetarian.  Or not to wear leather.  I once had the honour of meeting the owner of an abattoir, who treated animals with such high esteem and gratitude for providing him and his family with their livelihood, that – in spite of our differences – I developed much respect for him.  After years of using synthetic shoes and bags (which cannot be recycled) I have started opting for leather.  I hope that someday, when I am wealthy enough, I can have shoes and bags made of wool and natural fabrics.  What I personally  believe, is that, someday, humans will thrive, prosper and be healthy without the need to spill the innocent blood of creatures whose permission nobody asked before using them for our convenience.  Creatures who, unlike humans, never kill for sport.  Creatures who, in spite of what we do to them, continue to forgive us and give us unconditional love.  And yet we still do not feel shame.  Until we evolve sufficiently to create this ideal world, we can only do what we can, how we can, and with what we have at our disposal.  But, I think, the time has come to start to pick up one brick at a time, and start building a new world where compassion and respect are no longer virtues but natural, common characteristics.

Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Perhaps the animal rights argument could be approached from a less emotional perspective than it usually is.  Perhaps we should be kind to animals not just out of pity for weaker, defenceless beings, but because our dignity and self-respect demands it.  Because, if we were cruel to animals – for no matter what reason – we would feel somehow diminished in our own eyes.

I like this quotation by Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.” In other words, do we want to achieve whatever we achieve with blood on our hands? The blood of creatures who did not choose to spill it for us?

The Church advocates compassion.  True compassion should extend to all our fellow-creatures.  If we do not respect animals, how can we fully respect our fellow-humans or even ourselves?

Lincoln also said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”

So my own wish for the new Pontiff, is that he may find it in himself to help people learn to be kinder to animals.  He has chosen the name Papa Francesco, after the man who said,  

“Not to hurt our humble brethren [animals] is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.”

I believe, it would make us into better creatures.

Scribe Doll


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8 Responses to Poverty, Yes – But St Francis Also Loved Animals

  1. Katherine, I enjoyed your post as well. The images and insights are beautiful. I also enjoyed the bit of humor about the friar traveling forward and back on the donkey. I laughed out loud at that, esp. because I’ve been watching foreign films this winter and finding myself frequently rewinding to catch a bit of dialogue that I missed. I just watched a 1949 French film on St. Vincent de Paul, and I rewound the good priest so that he was walking rapidly backward through the streets of 16th century France as well!

    Although I am no longer a Catholic, I am grateful that the new Pope has a passion for the poor. It seems that in our current economic climate the poor are squeezed even harder, and few seem to care.

    I have read that the new pope is very traditional where it comes to women, but I’m still hopeful that he might effect some much-needed change in the Vatican, esp. eschewing a lavish lifestyle when so many are suffering.

    I admire your passion for animals. My small dog, Keeva, is sleeping beside me as I type this. 🙂 I do admire what I know little I know about St. Francis and hope that your wish that the new Pope make a commitment to animal welfare is fulfilled.

    I learned when taking anthropology classes on Thailand that the Thais ask forgiveness of any animal they kill, including before eating the animal. My impression is that this is done sincerely with the acknowledgement that the animal, too, has a spirit.

    It would be better, of course, if more Thais were vegetarians, but my professor met villagers who were so poor that they ate forms of meat I’d rather not mention.

    I need to catch up on some of your posts, but I always enjoy them!


  2. Sue Cumisky says:

    That was a plea from the heart that I fully endorse. May Pope Francis bring much joy in his papacy and hope to all animals. We will have to do our bit too.

  3. I do enjoy your writing. I had to think very hard about why it was a faux pas! I went to see a Zeffirelli film once. It was when I was at school and our English Literature class was studying Romeo and Juliet! As it had only just been released I seem to remember we went up to London, but I can’t remember exactly where. I do remember we visited a department store with an unusual café on the same outing. Sue

  4. What a loving and sensitive post, Katia, and how full of good sense and background and quotable quotes! I’m very glad you feel the way you do, not only because it speaks well of you, but also because it speaks well of my instincts to trust your writing intuitions. While I would also like to see women brought more into the forefront of the church and wonder how Pope Francis will cope with this challenge, I am ready to give him good marks already, as you apparently are too, for the way he has started out so far, with the humblest creatures of creation, in chosing the name “Francis.”

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for your very kind words. I just love animals and feel an affinity with them. When I am with animals, things just feel like they make sense. Here’s wishing all the best to Pope Francis!

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