Although I am not a Catholic, I was overwhelmed when, last Wednesday afternoon, a friend texted me the words, “New Pope elected!” Immediately, I went onto the Italian Radio and Television website, and remained glued to it for several hours. The excitement of the crowd in Piazza San Pietro was palpable – and contagious – even through the 13 inch screen of my laptop. Let us admit it. The Anglican Church may have – in my opinion – some of the best choral singing around, but few can produce a sense of solemnity or a lavish historical occasion like the Vatican. I was born in Rome and I have always taken the splendour and ornate architecture of the city somewhat for granted. However, now that I have spent nearly three decades in more, shall we say austere surroundings, there are times when the sight of the Baroque Cupola – only ever centred on manufactured-for-gullible-tourists souvenirs – and the perfect anatomy of the marble bodies that preside over magnificent fountains, bring on a sense of longing for a less Puritan lifestyle.
I wanted to cheer and jump around the room, when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran emerged at the window and announced, “Habemus Papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.”
As a teenager, I visited Assisi on more than one occasion before the earthquake that destroyed so much of this beautiful Mediaeval city. On one of those trips, I bought a postcard, elaborately decorated, of what remains one of my favourite poems, St Francis’s Cantico delle Creature, or Canticle of the Creatures. We studied it at school in our Italian literature class. At the age of six, when I was off school, my mother once parked me with some friends in a Rome film studio and I sat in the cutting room, watching Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon – a biopic of St Francis of Assisi – being fast-forwarded (the friar on the donkey trotted faster), rewound (the friar on the donkey galloped backwards) and being cut (film strips on the floor). Years later, at an age when I should have known better, I committed the socially unforgivable faux pas telling one of the members of the cast I had just been introduced to, “Oh, I saw you in that film when I was a little girl!”
Cardinal Bergoglio’s decision to be named after a saint who despised riches, is welcome at a time when money is the idol the Western world worships. His humility of manner inspires trust. Of course, like any other man in his position, he will not – cannot – single-handedly change the world. He will make mistakes and probably put a few noses out of joint. However, Pope Francis is starting out from a point where many of us are disposed to like him, are full of hope for his pontificate, and wish him well.
Much has been heard in the Media, this week, about his humility, his defence of the poor, and his approachable manner. It is early days yet but, speaking for myself, I long to hear Papa Francesco’s view on animal welfare.
The saint in whose footsteps he chooses to follow was also a great defender of animals. To my knowledge, the Church has never openly spoken out against cruelty against animals even though one of its most prominent saints believed that they are our fellow-creatures – God’s creatures.
“If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
For thousands of years, we have treated animals like inferior creatures whose sole purpose is to feed, clothe, entertain, transport and serve us. We feel very clever when we teach animals tricks but how many of us learn the lessons imparted to us by animals?
It is not my intention in this blog to advocate being a vegetarian. Or not to wear leather. I once had the honour of meeting the owner of an abattoir, who treated animals with such high esteem and gratitude for providing him and his family with their livelihood, that – in spite of our differences – I developed much respect for him. After years of using synthetic shoes and bags (which cannot be recycled) I have started opting for leather. I hope that someday, when I am wealthy enough, I can have shoes and bags made of wool and natural fabrics. What I personally believe, is that, someday, humans will thrive, prosper and be healthy without the need to spill the innocent blood of creatures whose permission nobody asked before using them for our convenience. Creatures who, unlike humans, never kill for sport. Creatures who, in spite of what we do to them, continue to forgive us and give us unconditional love. And yet we still do not feel shame. Until we evolve sufficiently to create this ideal world, we can only do what we can, how we can, and with what we have at our disposal. But, I think, the time has come to start to pick up one brick at a time, and start building a new world where compassion and respect are no longer virtues but natural, common characteristics.
Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Perhaps the animal rights argument could be approached from a less emotional perspective than it usually is. Perhaps we should be kind to animals not just out of pity for weaker, defenceless beings, but because our dignity and self-respect demands it. Because, if we were cruel to animals – for no matter what reason – we would feel somehow diminished in our own eyes.
I like this quotation by Abraham Lincoln: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.” In other words, do we want to achieve whatever we achieve with blood on our hands? The blood of creatures who did not choose to spill it for us?
The Church advocates compassion. True compassion should extend to all our fellow-creatures. If we do not respect animals, how can we fully respect our fellow-humans or even ourselves?
Lincoln also said, “I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”
So my own wish for the new Pontiff, is that he may find it in himself to help people learn to be kinder to animals. He has chosen the name Papa Francesco, after the man who said,
“Not to hurt our humble brethren [animals] is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.”
I believe, it would make us into better creatures.