In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared Francis of Assisi the patron saint of ecology. In contrast to humankind as having dominion over creation, “Francis taught that God created human beings as stewards for the rest of God’s creatures, and for the earth and the elements that sustain us all.” To clarify further, Francis did not see nature as God but instead taught that all of creation reflects the radiance of the Creator.
As recounted by Mirabai Starr, author and adjunct professor of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico, Francis’ bond with creation is illustrated in the story of the Wolf of Gubbio.
“It happened that a large and ferocious wolf was terrorizing inhabitants of this mountain town. Starving, at first, it slaughtered animals but then began attacking human beings. Afraid of being devoured, no townsfolk ventured past the city gates. When Francis was visiting Gubbio and saw the suffering of the people, he took it upon himself to confront the wolf.
That night as the townsfolk watched from the safety of the city wall, Francis ventured beyond the gates and into the surrounding forest. Almost immediately the wolf came charging out of the forest, its teeth bared. But Francis held up his hands in a gesture of peace, making the sign of the cross. At this, the wolf stopped in its tracks and closed its mouth. Invited to come closer, the wolf approached Francis and lay down at his feet.
Knowing that the wolf was suffering from hunger, Francis explained to the animal that it had no right to cause anguish amongst the citizens of the town. Offering to make peace between the predator and the people, Francis sought to convince the people to feed the wolf every day. In exchange, the wolf would never hurt anyone.
From that day forward, the wolf appeared in town every afternoon, stopping at a different house to be fed. The wolf was gentle and the humans courteous. When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio grieved.” Recalling the great love that Francis held for God’s good creation, the retelling of this story continues to this day.