Shortly after the announcement "Habemus Papam" -- We Have a Pope! -- we learned that he was the first pope from Latin America and also the first Jesuit pope. We also learned that he took the name Francis in homage to St. Francis of Assisi, one of the two patron saints of Italy.
St. Francis is best known for being the peaceful voice of the voiceless and the protector of the poor and powerless. St. Francis not only lived amongst and tended to the poor, but also regularly demonstrated deep compassion by bringing animals into the flock, blessing them, and not eating them. As with the other patron saint of Italy, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis was a vegetarian.
Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Wikipedia
"Not to hurt our humble brethren, the animals, is our first duty to them", St. Francis preached, "but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have people who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity," he continued, "you will have people who will deal likewise with other people."
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires before being elevated to lead the Vatican and its over one billion followers, Pope Francis lived in a regular apartment, cooked his own meals, rode public buses, visited slums, and decried cuts to the poor. By taking on the venerated name of Francis, he will likely continue to advocate for the poor, though he and his Catholic followers -- about 40% of whom live in Latin America -- could consider expanding their circles of compassion to include animals, as St. Francis did.
In the spirit of social justice, Catholics could also learn much from fellow Catholic Cesar Chavez -- a tireless activist for some of the weakest amongst us -- who clearly saw the connections amongst human rights, worker rights, animal rights, and environmental rights. That is why Cesar Chavez was not only a union organizer of poor farm workers, but also a vegetarian.
Cesar Chavez by U.S. Postal Service
Although being best known for his efforts to unionize farm workers, he cared deeply for animals, like St. Francis did. "We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves", Chavez implored. "We know we cannot be kind to animals until we stop exploiting them -- exploiting animals in the name of science, exploiting animals in the name of sport, exploiting animals in the name of fashion, and yes, exploiting animals in the name of food."
Jesus said that whatever one does to the least of his brethren, "you have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40). In 1966, the official Vatican newspaper wrote that to "ill-treat animals, and make them suffer without reason, is an act of deplorable cruelty to be condemned from a Christian point of view." In 2000, that statement against animal cruelty was followed up with the Vatican citing the Catholic Catechism that it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly", linking that teaching to the unnecessary raising and killing of animals for human consumption.
As Jesus was being taken away to be tortured and executed, he reminded Peter and the rest of us to put away the sword (Matthew 26:52; cf. Rev. 13:10), as using violence begets more violence, in addition to the spiritual violence involved. If one bears the name of Christ or is otherwise inspired by Jesus, one of the greatest representatives of compassion and non-violence, then one should not be able to bear the torture and execution of animals simply to satisfy our selfish desires. I sincerely hope that Pope Francis and his followers will also pray with their forks and express compassion to animals, thereby benefitting their spirits, their health, the animals, and our environment.
Compassion, mercy, tenderness, kindness, love, reverence for life, peace, and justice should be everyday lived activities -- which include speaking, working, and eating -- instead of being beautiful but insufficient thoughts relegated to occasional rhetorical piety. There is no better time than now to start anew.
Dan Brook lives and loves in the City of St. Francis (San Francisco). His e-books are available at www.smashwords.com/profile/view/brook.