Pope Francis' Namesake Was Patron Saint Of Animals, Ecology

Saint Francis of Assisi is the namesake of the new pope, Francis. To learn about the life of Saint Francis and his legacy in the Catholic Church, Melissa Block talks with with Father Jeremy Harrington. He's guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

According to the Vatican, Pope Francis takes its name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of animals and ecology, and the patron saint of Italy.

To learn more about that inspiration, I'm joined by Father Jeremy Harrington, who is the guardian at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land here in Washington, D.C.

Father, thanks for coming in.

THE REV. JEREMY HARRINGTON: I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: Let's go back first, going back some 800 years - we're in the late 12th century - and talk about the early life of Francis, which is very different from how we think of St. Francis in his simple robes and surrounded by animals. It sounds like he had a period of wine, women and song early on.

HARRINGTON: Yeah, he was a rich young man and the leader of the youth in Assisi. And, it's interesting, when you're there today, there are young people with guitars and so forth in the summer. And you can imagine that St. Francis is there.

BLOCK: That would've been him.

HARRINGTON: That would've been him, you know, partying and having a good time. And since his father had money, he could pay the bills for the parties and so forth; so very interested in being a knight.

BLOCK: Francis was then taken prisoner, right, in a war between Assisi and Perugia. And there's a dramatic transformation - he renounce his wealth, he renounces his family. What happened to turn him around?

HARRINGTON: Well, the experience, I think, of being imprisoned and to lose some of his romanticism of being a soldier and being a knight, and he just had to find himself. He had many religious experiences of God, but also experiences of seeing people really in need, like the lepers that nobody was taking care of.

So, he saw he wanted to go in a different direction with his life. And so, he left the prestige and wealth of Assisi and went to live with the ordinary people, with the poor. And, in his terms, it was living the Gospel.

BLOCK: What were some of the characteristics of the Franciscan order as he started it?

HARRINGTON: Poverty, a great poverty - he didn't want to have to own anything. There were people who were very critical of the church, some leaving the church, angry at the wealthy lifestyle. And Francis wanted to be the opposite of that.

BLOCK: When we see images of St. Francis, he's often surrounded by animals. Are there legends associated with that?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, a number of legends, probably a simple one is the wolf of Gubbio. Gubbio is a little town near Assisi. And this wolf was terrorizing the people coming in. And...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRINGTON: ...the image that I like is a painting with France's sitting down on the ground with the wolf. And found out that the wolf had a thorn in this paw and took the thorn out. And then he said: Now, Brother Wolf, if the people promise that they'll feed you, then you'll promise that you won't...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRINGTON: ...do them any harm. So that's one example. But he loved birds and he would talk to the birds. And he saw creation, both natural things but animals, all as signs of God's goodness and God's love.

BLOCK: Father Jeremy, you're wearing a brown cassock with a white robe belt and sandals; very evident in your dress that you are imitating Francis in a very direct way in what you wear, right?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, Francis wore the peasants' garb, which was the tunic and then the rope around the waist. And so that was the simple garb and we still wear that as an imitation of Francis.

BLOCK: How momentous an occasion is this for you, as a Franciscan, that the new pope has chosen the name Pope Francis, even though he himself is not a Franciscan? He is a Jesuit but he has chosen the name.

HARRINGTON: It's very momentous.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRINGTON: Very moving and that he so chose, although he's a Jesuit - and there are famous Jesuits, like St. Francis Xavier - that he chose St. Francis of Assisi. So it's thrilling to us that he did.

BLOCK: I've been really curious about this, thinking about the new pope. Would this be a moment when you would expect to see icons, statues, paintings of St. Francis start flying off the shelves; that people will, now that there is a Pope Francis, they will want even more to have that?

HARRINGTON: Well, I think so, although you see a lot of those pictures and the statues of St. Francis. People have France's in their birdbath and in art. And yeah, there's a lot. Go to any museum and there are wonderful pictures of Francis. But I'm sure if I were running a religious goods store, I would stock up...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRINGTON: ...with Francis.

BLOCK: Could be a boom time.

HARRINGTON: Yes, right.

BLOCK: Father Jeremy, again, thanks for coming in.

HARRINGTON: It's my joy...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRINGTON: (unintelligible) St. Francis.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's Father Jeremy Harrington, he's the guardian at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land here in Washington.

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