Saint Francis of Assisi is well known as the patron saint of ecology, a position recently highlighted by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. According to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, members of the Third Order are called upon to discern carefully their material needs, to respect and protect the environment, and to integrate their lives with the Gospel, and in so doing follow the example of our holy Father, St. Francis. How this is to be done in practice varies from person to person, and according to local political, economic, and ecological conditions. In the Czech Republic, environmental awareness is not very high, but nevertheless Czech tertiaries generally lead environmentally friendly lives, and some make environmental protection an important part of their faithful witness to Christ and the living out of their Franciscan vocation.
The history of the environment in the Czech Republic over the last 25 years has mainly been a positive story of improvement. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic faced serious environmental problems as a legacy of communism. Acid rain, dying forests, industrial waste, air and water pollution, and energy inefficiency had negative effects on human health and nature.
Especially since the Czech accession to the European Union in 2004, the national government has made big investments in cleaning up waste and modernizing environmental policy and practices. For example, one condition of EU membership was the construction of new landfills and cleanup of old waste dumps, as well as the installation of new waste-water treatment plants in many towns. This had the effect of reducing land and water pollution. Many rivers that were once dead now have revitalized populations of fish, otters, and other wildlife.
Another indicator of the success in cleaning up the ecological problems of communism is the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the early 1990s. Within a few years after 1990, life expectancy rose by up to five years.
Today, many believe the most important environmental issues have to do with transportation, urban air quality, and management of protected areas (such as national parks). Because the Czech Republic is located in the center of Europe, there is a great deal of international tractor trailer traffic, which causes air pollution and noise, and degrades infrastructure. Cities are expanding, and more and more Czechs use private transportation by automobile in their daily lives, resulting in more air pollution and the construction of more roads. And there are debates about how to protect natural areas and whether to expand protected areas around the country.
In terms of general public attitudes, while for years many Czechs have expressed concern about environmental issues in opinion polls, by many measures “environmental awareness” remains low compared to western nations. Consequently, public policy for environmental protection is relatively undeveloped.
In terms of real environmental impacts, however, Czechs produce less waste and use less electricity per capita than in most other developed countries. This is due in part to the Czechs’ lower material standard of living. A typical middle class income is around $15,000 per year, which is much lower than in western Europe and the USA. In other words, simpler lifestyles result in lower ecological impact. Less consumption leads to less pollution produced in manufacturing and in waste disposal. Czechs drive cars less and use public transportation more than in the USA, for example.
Most Czech Franciscans I know—of the first, second, and third orders—do not explicitly refer to ecology in their daily lives. They are not self-proclaimed environmental activists. However, their efforts to follow the Franciscan principle of poverty lead many to pursue a relatively simple lifestyle, which has direct benefits for the environment. Just as Czechs in general have simpler lifestyles than many other Europeans (due mainly to limited income), Czech Franciscans often lead simpler lives than the general population.
This phenomenon of eco-friendly lifestyles despite lack of formal environmental education or training is consistent with research in Sweden in the 1990s, which showed that although the younger generation had more knowledge of environmental problems (gained from “ecological education” at school), the older generation still had a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. The grandparents did not know so much about climate change or the ozone hole, but having lived through the Great Depression they had strong values of saving and frugality. The young people, although educated about environmental problems and trained in recycling, tended to consume more, such as McDonald’s hamburgers, fashionable clothes, tourist travel, and music players and CDs. Thus, “environmental awareness” is not necessarily the most important thing when it comes to helping nature.
While there is no official environmental “policy” or activity organized by Czech Secular Franciscans—either at the national or the local levels—many of our brothers and sisters, in trying to live according to the Gospel, effectively help the environment. One of the greatest witnesses to the Gospel made by many Czech Secular Franciscans is voluntary simplicity and generosity in the giving of time and talents in service to their communities, which also has environmental benefits. Some specific examples of their stewardship and concern for God’s creation include:
· In the city of Pilsen, Sister Jana Antonie cares for abandoned cats. She regularly feeds them, and helps abandoned animals find new owners.
· Brother Oldřich Prokop, a retired forester, has dedicated himself to maintaining the land. At home he grows new trees from cuttings and plants the new young trees in the landscape north of Pilsen.
· Brother Pavel Václav is a beekeeper and organizes training for children. He served as chairman of a local branch of the Czech Union for Nature Conservation and for 20 years he led a section of the Young Nature Conservationists.
· The author of this article and his family have long chosen not to have a car. The main inspirations for our “car-free” existence are to live simply, save money, and avoid environmental impacts. This involves some sacrifices in terms of convenience and mobility, but it’s not a serious problem.
In his recent encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis quotes St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” Secular Franciscans can take this encyclical as an exhortation to deepen their understanding of St. Francis’ relationship with nature, and as an inspiration to think about what we can do in our private lives and as politically and economically active citizens to live out the vocation to “respect all creatures, animate and inanimate,” and “strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship” (Secular Franciscan Rule 18). We may want to change our behavior that hurts the environment, and we may want to join with others (through politics or in non-governmental groups) to protect nature.
At the same time, we can remember that our primary calling as Christians is to strive to attain holiness, to live and share the Gospel. We should not divinize or worship nature itself, but rather respect and protect nature as God’s good creation, as a material reality that points to the eternal reality, and be grateful that God has placed it before us to use wisely and according to his law. It is worth noting that the “Canticle of the Creatures” concludes with St. Francis’ admonition: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin.” Our first priority is the salvation of souls. Relating responsibly and lovingly to creation is one aspect of the universal call to holiness of all Christians, articulated by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium (40).
St. Francis himself loved all creatures, but he was not a vegetarian. The beauty and wonder of nature leads us to the worship of God. God is the Creator and Lord of all; we serve and praise him with St. Francis through a right relationship with his creation. As Pope Francis says in the encyclical, “May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which St. Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied.”
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