Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is best known as an environmental lawyer and activist who has worked extensively with Riverkeeper, an organization with the mission of protecting the ecological integrity of the Hudson River, among other groups. He is currently a lawyer with the Pace University environmental clinic. His 2004 book Crimes Against Nature is an impassioned criticism of the George W. Bush administration's environmental record. Kennedy recently made a foray into children's books, penning the picture book, Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy, illus. by Dennis Nolan (Hyperion). PW spoke with him about this new project.
PW: What inspired you to write a children's book?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: I have six kids of my own, and we read together every night. I had been looking for good books on the saints that would hold their attention and I couldn't find any. It's hard to keep the attention of children who have been raised around television and computers, and I was looking for something that would keep them interested.
PW: You hail from a family that has been recognized around the world for its Catholic faith and public service. Did this affect your choice of subject matter?
RFK: Of course. Saint Francis taught a lot of lessons that are particularly relevant for people today. He lived in a time of religious upheaval. Islam was at its apex, the center of science, math, literature, architecture, and it was eventually destroyed by religious fundamentalism. Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, which were caused, in part, by religious fundamentalism. Francis played a critical role in the transformation to enlightenment.
Today we are struggling with the threat of religious fundamentalism in the Mideast and in the U.S. Francis said that people who were looking at the literal interpretation of the Bible and other religious writings are missing the point. Christ consistently expressed condemnation of fundamentalism, deriding the Pharisees for binding up loads for others to carry. His message is one of love, generosity, open-heartedness, tolerance and kindness to others. This was lost to people who had put the institution ahead of Christ's message. The lessons of St. Francis are more important than ever.
PW: Many people would say that Saint Francis was an environmentalist of his day. Do you feel a connection to him on this level?
RFK: I have felt a connection to Saint Francis my whole life. He has always been a patron saint of my family. My middle name is Francis, and even today there are statues of Saint Francis in my home. One of the primary threats in our society is not only the darkness of religious fundamentalism, but also of materialism. St. Francis offers us an icon to counter the seduction of Wal-mart. He embraced poverty as well as the mission to advance God's will, not self-will. We live in a world where self-will has run riot; whoever dies with the most stuff wins.
PW: Can you talk about your faith tradition today?
RFK: I consider myself a strong Catholic. My faith comes from me needing God and faith and the church in my life to help me take up struggles in my life.
PW: What do you hope young readers will take away from this book? How do you see it being used or appreciated?
RFK: The messages of St. Francis are: love of nature and love of poverty. Those are good values to be teaching our children. St.
Francis believed that God speaks most clearly through creation. Nothing speaks to us with more clarity, texture, grace and joy than nature, the undiluted work of the Creator.
But when you have a government, as with the current administration, that treats nature as a business in liquidation—that's a huge problem. When industry and government are conspiring to liquidate our resources for cash, then it's a good time to hear the lessons of St. Francis. It's not just to protect the trees, the rivers, the fishes. It's for our own sake. Nature nourishes and restores us. When we destroy nature we diminish ourselves and impoverish our children.