Francis of Assisi was 44 years old when he died. He had discovered a call to holy poverty when he was 22, and for half his life he had lived as a beggar, serving the poor and proclaiming the Word of God. He had preached to kings and sultans, and conferred with popes, cardinals, and saints. When Francis died, he bore the stigmata—the wounds of Christ’s passion took form in his own flesh.
Francis saw God’s goodness in all things. He saw Christ in the poor, the rejected, and the suffering. He saw Providence in every path his life took. And he saw the creative, generous, magnificent love of God in the natural world around him.
St. Francis died in a small hut in the wooded mountains outside of Assisi. In his last days, he listened to the Gospel of St. John. And just before he died, St. Francis and two companions sang the “Canticle of the Sun,” a ballad Francis had composed in praise of God.
“Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing,” they sang. “Laudato si! Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures…. Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you…. Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.”
Last week, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, published his second encyclical, Laudato si. He chose the name to honor the song that St. Francis wrote in praise of God. Like St. Francis, the Holy Father sees the love of God in the planet he has given us—and he sees that we are responsible to care for our planet, in obedience to God, and as an act of love for those with whom we share this earth, our “common home.”
If you haven’t read Laudato si, you should consider it. The encyclical frames serious contemporary issues in the enduring truth of sin, grace, solidarity, dignity, and redemption.
The encyclical is about ecology, but, most especially, it is about human ecology—the impact of our moral, economic and social choices on the earth, and on people living in our communities, and people living half a world away.
Of course, the encyclical contains certain prudential judgments and policy perspectives that are the private opinions of the Holy Father—suggestions based on unbending Catholic principles, but suggestions intended to invoke discussion. The Holy Father argues for international treaties and policing, against carbon credits, and for international renewable energy subsidies. Some Catholics may agree with these arguments, and some may not. Some— like me—may not understand the issues sufficiently to make a conclusion. But fundamentally, these issues are not the heart of Laudato si.
Fundamentally, the Holy Father’s encyclical is about holiness—to the extent that we are holy, he argues, we will bless the world. To the extent that we are sinful—selfish, short-sighted, or relativistic—we will cause calamity in the lives of other people. The consequences of disorder, injustice, and sinfulness are borne out in the condition even of our planet, and in the social conditions of the families and communities impacted by our lives. The heart of Laudato si is to encourage all people to commit to an ordered, just, and selfless life consistent with mandate of the gospel.
We live in a largely agricultural diocese. Family farmers, ranchers, and outdoorsman are keenly aware of how important good stewardship is. Many Nebraskans work land their grandparents worked, and they hope to pass it on to their grandchildren. People connected to the seasons, the climate, and the earth’s resources know how important good stewardship is. I’m proud of the good stewardship in our diocese—and I pray that all people will come to understand how important, and how tenuous, our relationship with the earth really can be.
Laudato si says that; “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” That’s true. This text is about the environment— but in the context of a Christian anthropology, and Christian theology. The environmental message cannot be separated from that context. We can’t really understand environmental stewardship if we don’t understand the dignity of all human life—including unborn human life—and the needs of the poor.
Pope Francis’ encyclical is worth reading. It is worth discussion, study, and consideration. It offers much to consider. But its point is very simple: we cannot be unreflective consumers—our lives must be lived for others, and in solidarity with others, just as Jesus himself lived. True ecological renewal requires renewals of morality, of justice, and of charity—in our families, our communities, and in our hearts. Like St. Francis, let us praise God, give him thanks, and serve him with great and holy humility.