Environmental theology before Pope Francis

The terrible events in Paris a few days ago now overshadow the upcoming conference on climate change in that city. Nonetheless, the problem of climate change is not going away, and we can still hope for some fruitful if somber discussion. In that context, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ will call for renewed attention. It’s an influential statement and a thoughtful, nuanced document.

But some of what he had to say was not really new. Protestant theologians were discussing similar issues back in the 1960s, often in similar terms. Read more about that conversation in this blog post for the University of North Carolina Press.

The blessing of the animals: why?

Blessings of the animals have become a tradition in many churches. A generation of young adults has grown up with them. And yet this tradition is relatively new. It does have some earlier antecedents, but in its current form, and as a Protestant practice, it’s only thirty years old or so. I’ve wondered why it caught on so quickly, why Protestants find it a good idea, and what kind of “cultural work” it does. Here is a short column that considers these questions. For more, see the book, of course.

Francis in the garden


St. Francis is often sighted in garden centers, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a book signing at one of them. My friend who owns a New Jersey garden center, Perennial Favorites, agreed. It was a beautiful day and we had a great crowd.

St. Francis garden statuary is largely a creation of the twentieth century, born of a historical matrix of landscape, housing patterns, spirituality, garden design, art, wealth, and social concerns. While it’s easy to dismiss garden statuary as a cliché, my research indicates that it has much deeper and more diverse meanings. It can be an expression of intention, a wish or a hope, an opening into a wider world, or a focal point for quiet meditation – itself a countercultural act in our increasingly noisy and hurried society. And for many people, as my friend pointed out, the garden statue is simply a reminder of a favorite spiritual hero or a person who was attuned to nature.

Saint Francis and Pope Francis

Pope Francis stands close to a crowd and reaches out. We see hands and faces with many different skin colors.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As I reflect on the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States – already vastly publicized and widely discussed – I wonder where Saint Francis was sighted.

When Pope Francis chose his name, the eminent Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that no previous pope had “dared to take the name of Francis” (italics mine). I’ve thought about this myself in the past — the fact that the name of this beloved figure is so conspicuously missing from the papal rolls. But it’s not really surprising. The name implies a very high standard: absolute poverty, cold and hunger, exposure to disease. What Pope would sleep in a stable or a ruined church, get his food by begging, and spend his days hanging out with lepers and preaching in the streets? To be Francis is to turn away from any kind of predictable life or institutional support. You can’t really be a Pope that way. You might be the head of a church, if you could get people to follow you, but you wouldn’t be an administrator or a head of state or an international spokesman. You wouldn’t direct a bank or a group of museums.

There is, of course, the example of the Third Order. Like Third Order Franciscans, a pope could be someone who lives “in the world,” but who lives simply and serves others, and who engages in a regular life of prayer and spiritual devotion. Then, too, life in the other Franciscan orders has evolved toward a more stable pattern since the time of their founder. But Pope Francis doesn’t belong formally to any of these communities.

What he has done is to move the needle. Pope Francis doesn’t pretend to be imitating Francis of Assisi in every particular. But in many of the things he does, he moves one step closer to St. Francis’s example, and he does it publicly and conspicuously. Pope Francis still uses a car, but he downsizes it. He still wears clean clothes, but they’re simpler. He speaks to the United Nations, but he also, as we all know, goes to the prisoners and the people in shelters and the children.

In a way, he does what a lot of us do. I’ve often been bemused by the ambivalence of people’s reactions to Francis of Assisi. Of the many people who love and admire him, very few really do give everything up to follow him. Nor do I think that’s strictly necessary – I’ve reflected on this question at some length in the book. On the other hand, I also don’t think admirers of Francis should willfully ignore his difficult side and the challenges he presents.

Most of us fall into the realm of compromise. A person who admires Francis as an early environmentalist, for example, is probably also recycling and composting, and maybe wearing secondhand clothing or doing a little lobbying, even if he/she has to say “Well, yes, I do still heat my house in the winter.” A person who admires Francis’s poverty might be an anti-capitalist politician or an underpaid social worker, but might resist living on the streets. In the course of my research, I found a lot of historical figures who walked consciously in that middle ground, such as Vida Scudder and Laurence Housman. Many others walked it unconsciously and unintentionally.

Pope Francis, it seems to me, does it intentionally. He accepts the office of the papacy, but he doesn’t accept the way it’s always been done, or the way it’s been done recently. In this way he offers hope to those who are not radicals, and, at the same time, a reproof to those who might like to shrug and say there’s nothing we can do. Granted, we always need purists and absolutists to show us the way. But it’s also useful to think that we ordinary sinners can do something, even if we can’t or won’t do everything.

The blessing season

It’s the season for blessings of the animals – the time around the feast day of St. Francis, October 4. This is largely a Protestant tradition, and Protestants these days are holding other blessing services as well, for  bicycles, backpacks, chainsaws and more. But when did Protestants start blessing things? And why?

Read more about it here:


A chapel in Istanbul

A view of some of the reconstructed fresco fragments in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, 2015. Photo: Noah Manning.

A view of some of the reconstructed fresco fragments in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, 2015. Photo: Noah Manning.

A young relative recently visited Istanbul, where he saw, in the Archaeological Museums, the remains of a cycle of frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. The exhibit said that they came from a “St. Francis Chapel” and were the “earliest known examples of the life cycle of St. Francis,” dating from the mid-thirteenth century.

Since my work concerns modern versions of Francis, I hadn’t known about these, and I set out to learn more. The most useful source was Rosalind Brooke’s magisterial study, The Image of St. Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Brooke cites Striker and Kuban, Kalenderhane in Istanbul (Mainz: von Zabern, 1997), as an important source on the chapel.

Incidentally, the Web proved to be a welter of inaccurate, misleading, and contradictory claims. Even the respectable Frommer’s Guide site said that the frescoes dated from 1204, a time when Francis had not yet begun his ministry. (1204 was the date of the Fourth Crusade.)

Brooke thinks that these are, indeed, the oldest known frescoes depicting St. Francis, much earlier than those attributed to Giotto. While no direct evidence for their age survives, she builds a strong circumstantial case from architecture, archaeology, political shifts, Franciscan presence in Istanbul, and the few other contemporary examples of Francis imagery. On these grounds she concludes that the Franciscans acquired the building – parts of which date from the sixth century C.E. – in about 1231, and that the frescoes date from the early 1250s. (The cycle in the Lower Church in Assisi is just slightly later, probably about 1260-65 – although Brooke observes that “the evidence is not tidy.” The cycle associated with Giotto dates from the early fourteenth century.)

The little chapel was located off the diakonikon (something like a sacristy) of an early basilica which was later incorporated into a larger twelfth-century church. The chapel was apparently walled off some time after the Greeks reconquered Constantinople in 1261, while the diakonikon was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

In Brooke’s words:

[During archaeological excavations in 1966-67] a barrel vaulted hall was revealed, almost filled with black earth, owing to its use, since the seventeenth century, as a sewage settlement tank. Off this hall was discovered a small, hitherto unsuspected chapel. … On the semi-dome of the apse were several fragments of scenes, of which only one could be immediately identified. But it was conclusive; it was St. Francis preaching to the birds.

There followed years of painstaking collection and reconstruction of fresco fragments, presumably from amidst the now well-decayed sewage. Enough pieces survived to allow art historians to reconstruct the “program” of the chapel decoration, but not every single scene. At the center of the apse, they believe, was a fresco of St. Francis standing. Above him were the Virgin and Child with angels. Four, perhaps five, of the surrounding scenes probably depicted miracles; one may be a deathbed scene; and one, of course, is Francis preaching to the birds. Three remain completely unidentified.

At the entrance to the chapel are frescoes of two Greek church fathers, clearly made at the same time as the Francis scenes (“the fresco surfaces are continuous”). Brooke suggests that their presence reflects the efforts then in progress to reconcile the Roman and Byzantine branches of the church.

So the physical record here, in its many layers, remembers both reconciliation and conquest. The building retains the image of a moment in time – or a period in time – when reunion between the Eastern and Western churches was thought possible. Yet many other layers reflect repeated conquests and conflicts.

And here is the sermon to the birds again. Clearly this story, which is so beloved today, was also significant very early on. In the chapel, though, it isn’t associated with nature or animals or the environment. It appears instead among miracles – quite possibly to be understood as a miracle itself. Thus do meanings change with time and culture.

As a historian, I can’t make judgments about the cosmic significance of the story. If I could, I’d be tempted to see some larger message in the survival and visibility of this one beloved scene.

 Description of the exhibit, Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Photo: Noah Manning.

Description of the exhibit, Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Photo: Noah Manning.