03/15/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Will Pope Francis Champion Animal Rights?



As former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina was chosen to take stewardship of the Catholic church this week, I watched, with a high degree of interest and some degree of hope, the direction of the new papacy. Raised in the Catholic faith, I identify strongly with Christian values: humanity and charity being foremost. As a result, the focus of my charitable efforts throughout adulthood unequivocally became advocacy for animals.

Abhorring patriarchy, and based on the church's adherence to the doctrine that animals have no soul, in early adulthood I chose to disengage with the Catholic faith -- as I could never ascribe to either ideology. I am certainly no fan of any view that propagates the exclusion of any marginalized soul. And there is no mistaking: animals worldwide are severely marginalized. Misrepresented again and again in media, treated as objects in law, treated insignificantly in commerce, minimized or ignored in politics, and sadly in too many instances, abused and neglected in daily practice.

That said, as the new Bishop of Rome stepped onto the balcony (sans throne!) to address his faithful, I was struck by his first request: that of our prayers for him. The moment was electric -- tens of thousands went absolutely still, as did I, taking pause and considering what we might wish for this man as he undertakes his new office.

Then came the staggering confirmation that he chose the name Pope Francis to represent his new identity. I was flooded with emotion -- Saint Francis: the revered Patron Saint of animals. As a proud member of the worldwide animal rescue movement, one of the few Catholic holy days I honour to this day is that of the feast of Saint Francis each year in early October.

This animal rescuer and practising Christian was struck by the possibility of a true Franciscan who embraces the disenfranchised and who, by virtue of choosing the name Francis, might actually include all this world's animals in his mission to reform: farm animals, wildlife, domestic pets and marine-life. Horrifically abused and commodified, animals worldwide also need a compassionate leader. I hoped that the media would seize on the aspect of the new papacy safeguarding animals as well, but predictably, the animal topic ended up on the "B-roll" of the media spin.

Pope Francis has an opportunity to serve as a leader for this planet's millions of horribly marginalized animals, as well as our battered environment. Surely anyone who takes the name of Saint Francis would, while "rebuilding the church," consider delivering a special nod to his namesake and open up a small portion of his ministry to embrace animals.

Pope Francis is potentially a reforming Pope, and he's already shown some mettle. My fervent prayer for him going forward, in attempting to deliver relevance, meaning and guidance to a global following circa 2013, is that he has the vision, the clarity, the heart and sheer brass, to put animals on his agenda and truly espouse Saint Francis' championing of animals in word and in deed.

Animals and their rescuers worldwide, read: millions of us, would be incredibly comforted and grateful. And should he publicly utter one statement remotely resembling the championing animals, I would be seriously compelled to reconsider my faith.

A New Pope Is Elected