By John Di Leonardo
Long before discovering Jainism, I was raised Christian. As a child, I went to Sunday school, and in high school, I worked in the Church rectory, was appointed as a Eucharistic minister, and was active in my Church’s youth group. For my education, I went to a Catholic high school, a Franciscan college, and a Jesuit university. I even graduated two classes shy of a second undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. Even after departing from my Christian faith, the book that made me make the switch from vegetarian to vegan was a Christian one: Dominion: The Power of Man, the Power of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. For these reasons, I was heartbroken to learn that New York City’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine recently paraded dangerous—and terrified—wild animals into their Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Francis earlier this month.
Celebrated each year on October 4th, the Feast of Saint Francis commemorates the life of Saint Francis of Assisi – the Patron Saint of the Animals and the Environment. Like Mahavira, Saint Francis believed that animals were to be loved and cared for, even preached to. So revered is Saint Francis that Former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio is now Pope Francis I—taking Saint Francis’ name in recognition of his role in protecting the vulnerable.
Saint Francis returned caught fish to their streams, fed bees in winter and freed animals caught in traps. A 13th-century painting shows Saint Francis preaching to birds. He envisioned the world of nature as a mirror in which one can see God’s reflection. He wrote “The Canticle of the Sun,” urging people to respect the natural world as God’s handiwork and to be protective of all God’s creatures. For these reasons, the Feast of Saint Francis is celebrated by the blessing of animals.
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine should be applauded for commemorating Saint Francis, however, hiring animal exploiters—presumably with parishioners’ hard-earned tithes—to turn a blessed day commemorating the Patron Saint of Animals and the Environment into a press spectacle is the antithesis of the Franciscan message of love and stewardship of God’s Creation. Not only are wild animals such lemurs, binturongs, and crocodiles paraded into the cathedral illegal to possess within city bounds—with the NYPD recently confiscating a wallaby, a caiman, and several pythons following an investigation by Humane Long Island—but lemurs and crocodiles are illegal to keep as pets in the entire state.
Next year, I hope the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine does a better job of honoring the Patron Saint of Animals by setting a better example for New Yorkers. Just as we can all learn exponentially from the kind words of Mahavira, we can and should also learn from the kindness of Saint Francis. As Saint Francis preached, “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 this week’s Anuvrat, I invite readers of all faiths to research Saint Francis of Assisi and consider buying a copy of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Power of Animals, and the Call to Mercy for yourself or a friend.
John Di Leonardo is the founding director of Humane Long Island. He was previously the Senior Manager of Grassroots Campaigns and Animals in Entertainment Campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He has a Master’s degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College. He also earned a graduate certificate in Jain Studies from the International School of Jain Studies (ISJS) in India. John can be reached at [email protected].