Saints serve as models for Catholic ecological movement

St. Francis of Assisi's famous sermon to the birds is captured in this icon. (Image: courtesy of the Order of Friars Minor)Each year, just five days before Earth Day, the Church in Canada celebrates the feast day of the patroness of the environment. In fact, long before the start of the green movement, the Church had named two patron saints of ecology.

The first, Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), is well known as a peacemaker and for his great love of nature as God's creation. The second lived and died right in our backyard: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680).

Sister Moon, Brother Wind

Saint Francis once famously said: "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."

The Italian friar had great compassion for all creatures. He respected and appreciated creation profoundly because it led him to the Creator. He captured this sentiment in his well-known prayer, Canticle of the Sun.

One days, while walking along a road with some friars, Francis looked up and saw trees full of birds. 

Suddenly, he ran toward the birds and said: "My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part."

The birds then stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them, touching and blessing them. After that point, he admonished all animals and reptiles, and even creatures that have no feeling, to praise and love their Creator," wrote Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan friar and the saint's first biographer.

The Voice in NatureBlessed Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as the Lily of the Mohawks, in this painting by Marlene McCaulet (Image: courtesy of Saint Francis Xavier Mission)

Blessed Kateri was born in Ossernenon (near present-day Auriesville, N.Y.) and embraced Christianity at the age of 20. As a result of her baptism, she became the village outcast and fled to Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Sault Saint-Louis, southwest of Montreal (the present-day Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve).

Kateri often went into the woods to pray to God and to listen to him in "the voice of nature".  Her favourite devotion was to fashion crosses out of sticks of wood and place them throughout the forest as stations that reminded her to spend more time in prayer.

According to the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center, Kateri made a chapel in the forest by carving a cross in the bark of a tree and spent time in prayer before this cross, kneeling in the snow.

Kateri embraced the Christian faith all the while retaining the ecological values that are inherent to Native spirituality. She understood nature as God's creation, worthy of respect and proper care.

"When John Paul II addressed us (the Native people of Canada) in 1984, he told  us to return to our ways, to our stewardship of Mother Earth -- this was the same spirituality of Blessed Kateri -- and to bring these values back to the Church," said Deacon Ron Boyer, vice-postulator for the cause for the canonization of Kateri.

"The importance of creation is in the Gospel," said Boyer. "She was living the call in Scripture. She saw the regard for nature in Native Spirituality as complementary to the Church."

"Many of her people did not want to join the Christian religion because they thought the religion would throw off their way of life," said Boyer. "But Kateri integrated the two."

Kateri died at the age of 24. Her tomb is in the church of Saint Francis Xavier Mission. She was beatified in 1980. Her feast day is celebrated on April 17 in Canada and on July 14 in the United States.

by Laura Ieraci

For information on Saint Francis Xavier Mission, go to: http://www.lily-of-the-mohawks.com/churchfort.htm

The Blessed Kateri Conservation Center works to promote ecology, environmental justice and sustainable development in light of Sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching. Go to: http://conservation.catholic.org/

Go back