The rugged beauty of the windswept Maine coastline instilled a keen sense of care for creation in Benjamin Vail, OFS. Growing up in Brunswick, Maine, Vail says he found himself “surrounded by the ocean, forests, and farmland.”
One could imagine Saint Francis himself praising God in such a place. But it would take years for Vail to respond to the call to conversion and the Secular Franciscan Order. Vail’s family is of a Protestant background, but he describes his upbringing as mainly nonreligious. Saint Francis of Assisi was an inspiration for him early on. “For me, he was a role model of faith, simplicity, humility, self-sacrifice, and love for God and others,” Vail remarks.
He spent some years as a Quaker, embracing values such as peacemaking, voluntary simplicity, and respect for all people (which Franciscans espouse, too).
After studying history in college, he obtained a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met his wife, Renata. They married in 2002 and moved to her homeland of the Czech Republic in 2004. Vail would go on to complete a doctorate in sociology and environmental studies at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.
“Throughout all these years, environmental concern was central to my life—studying environmental problems in Scandinavia, working for the US Forest Service as a researcher, writing as a journalist for an environmental news service in Washington, DC, and managing a beach water quality program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, for instance,” Vail recalls.
But something was missing. Vail knew that the spiritual dimension to care for creation was crucial to his mission to protect Mother Earth. He converted to Catholicism in 2009 and made his permanent profession in the Secular Franciscan Order in 2013.
Vail describes the decision to move to the Czech Republic as a “leap of faith. Despite massive culture shock, we managed to settle down and make a life in our new home.”
Though it’s one of the least religious countries in the world, Vail notes that the Franciscans are highly visible in Brno. “Where I live there are three monasteries (of the Friars Minor, Friars Minor Conventual, and Friars Minor Capuchin) and a Poor Clare convent,” he observes.
After teaching environmental sociology at the university level for 10 years, Vail now teaches high school English. He’s eager to offer a seminar on environmental issues next year.
Care for creation, in Vail’s mind, is concretely a justice issue. “Justice is a virtue having to do with the proper treatment of things. The choices we make affect other people and the biophysical world around us, not just today but also for future generations,” he explains. “We are part of an economic and social system that is not oriented toward God.”
Despite that, we are not powerless. “The least anyone can do is examine and take responsibility for his or her choices within that system,” Vail offers. Vail draws inspiration from Saint Francis of Assisi’s simple, yet sincere, relationship with nature.
“Birds were attracted to him because of his peace and love, the wolf trusted him because of his respect; Saint Francis saw that God’s creation is good and saw the hand of God in all created things,” he says. “If we are right with God, we will be right with nature, God’s creation.”
Stories from Our Readers: Boundless Faith in Saint Anthony
My hearing aid broke recently, rendering me completely deaf. I’ve been partially deaf since birth. Consequently, my hearing is dependent on my hearing aid functioning properly.
Last month, it went completely dead, so I thought I needed to change its battery. I tried several new batteries—no sound. After having my aid for eight years, I thought it must be broken and needed repair.
As a Secular Franciscan, my faith in Saint Anthony is boundless. Therefore, the next day I fervently prayed to Saint Anthony, indicating that I needed his help in fixing my hearing aid. I tried once more to put a new battery in my aid, inserted it in my ear, and it worked! I’m so grateful for this miracle from Saint Anthony of Padua.
—Jeannette Bernadette Williams, Utica, New York
Saint Anthony of Padua: Overcoming Adversity
According to Anthony, “It is only in adversity that we come to know whether we have made real progress in virtue.”
It is easy to be kind to people who return our kindness. Generous people tend to attract our generosity. Real
virtue, however, is always more than convenience.
Anthony certainly embraced this saying from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Because he [Jesus] himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” –P.M.