Was St. Francis a vegetarian?

By: Br. MJ Groark

I decided to try out a meatless diet for Lent of 2015. I had been toying with the idea for a while, which was mainly rooted in personal ethical concerns. However, I also knew that Pope Francis was about to release his encyclical Laudato Sí, and I had done a lot of research in order to prepare for this document. I decided that I would try out a vegetarian diet only for Lent, and then reassess how it worked out for my life, my spirituality, and my community. I remember telling myself, “OK MJ, no pressure. If that spicy chicken sandwich is just too tempting, go for it. It’s just for Lent.” What I realized is that removing meat from my diet was the easiest thing I have ever done, and it has had tremendous benefits for my health and spirituality.

I remember when I was first considering this move, and I talked to my mother about it, as any good friar would do. She asked me a question that has been stuck in my head ever since. My mom asked, “Was St. Francis a vegetarian?” After consultation with our local Franciscan scholar, Bill Hugo, we decided that Francis was most certainly not a vegetarian. Francis begged for everything, and encouraged his brothers to do the same in a sprit of humble gratefulness for everything they were given to eat. This is the same Francis who was known to smear the walls with meat to celebrate the great feast of Christmas. No way was this guy a vegetarian. But... then we see Francis evolve. Always a man of conversion and who was always reacting to new insights, crafts a lovely hymn of creation in which the created order is now family, brother and sister. So I have to ask myself, what if Francis were alive today? Considering what we know about creation and the environment today, would Francis still opt for meat? Who knows? Maybe, maybe not. I would venture to say that he would encourage us, his brothers, to find a balanced path.

So what does this balanced path look like in actuality for me? I have now had experiences living outside of the United States for extended periods of time. Living with other cultures has given me a new way of understanding food. When I was in Mexico, meat was not served on a daily basis. Meat was seen as something for “los ricos.” This was an eye opening revelation. They definitely ate meat, but it was significantly less than I was used to seeing being consumed here in the states. It allowed me to reflect on the question, who am I in solidarity with? How are the decisions I make reflecting a modern Franciscan vision? As our JPIC handbook states, “As Pope Francis says, we need an ecological conversion in which the effects of our encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in our relationship with the world around us. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue. In our relationships with others and with creation itself, our lifestyle should be characterized by minority. Voluntary detachment from things, simplicity of life, and joy for the gift of life are Franciscan attitudes of reverence for creation and of concern for the common good.”

I currently live with the Hispanic parish community at St. Clare of Montefalco. Part of this relationship means that we are often gifted food from people, and many times we are invited to peoples homes for meals. You better believe that I am eating whatever is placed in front of me! Charity must always take precedence over personal activism or discipline. That being said, most people here know that I am attempting to maintain a meatless diet, and while they might not understand this decision (and often poke fun at me) it has given me opportunities to speak to a modern Franciscan view of creation and my place within it. Within community life, Page 2 of 4 it has been a simple exercise. I simply eat around the meat. Nothing “special” needs to be made. My community has been very open to the idea of buying and consuming less meat. We have even begun looking back into our tradition, and now Friday’s throughout the year are a day of abstaining from meat. A bit of wisdom from the past made fresh for today with new insights about the effects of a domination model of creation. I am very grateful for my brothers for being so accommodating in these efforts. Again, it’s not an all or nothing reality, but a balanced path. A cutting back of the meat consumption with the intentional attitude has helped me live a healthier model of stewardship of creation, and has deepened my spirituality as a follower of St. Francis in the 21st century.

Pope Francis has elegantly moved us to evolve in our understanding of an antiquated model of relationship to the created world. No longer can we employ a dominion model of human behavior, but rather a model of mutual coexistence, marked by responsible stewardship. Does another creature need to die in order that I can live through another meal? I am not convinced. We can easily view this as another opportunity for polarization, or maybe this can be an opportunity for us to evolve our personal and collective spiritualities to respond to one of the most serious concerns for our times. No amount of LED light bulbs or bike rides (as good as these decisions are) can compare to the ecological benefit of simply adapting our diets to include less meat. Is this something we can be open to? I think Francis would be open to this invitation.