In paragraphs four through six of his encyclical letter, Pope Francis recaps what his predecessors (St. John XXIII, Bl. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI) have said about care for our environment.
St. John XXIII wrote about the danger present in the continual buildup of nuclear weaponry which, if used, would completely destroy our environment. Bl. Paul VI reflected on the possibility of an ecological catastrophe under the effective explosion of industrial civilization. St. John Paul II said that the human family seems to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Pope Benedict XVI proposed that we adopt strategies eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment. By citing his predecessors, Pope Francis makes it clear that this is not an issue to which the Church comes without a history. Care of our environment is crucial and is the only logical response to the gift which is our world.
It also needs to be pointed out that Pope Francis is not dictating the actions that need to be taken. This encyclical letter is an attempt “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” As Pope Francis has said many times in his brief pontificate, dialogue is the only reasonable path to take when trying to resolve problems. In seeking dialogue, the Pope also demonstrates something that has almost become a hallmark of his pontificate, the ability to listen to others. For instance, at the Synod on the Family that was held in Rome last year, the Holy Father opened the synod with a few words and then sat silently until the very end of the meeting, listening to every intervention and asking that people speak from their convictions without trying to curry favor by saying what they thought he wanted to hear. At the end of the synod, he reiterated the need to continue to listen to one another in order to better resolve differences. This encyclical letter is written in the same vein and with the same kind of pledge to listen to what others have to say.
After the encyclical letter was published, a man approached me after one of my Bible Study classes. “What business does the Pope have sticking his nose in this political issue?” he asked. I am not sure if the man had read the letter or not. However, my answer to him simply pointed out that the encyclical letter was a way to begin a conversation regarding the destruction of the planet. It acknowledges that our world is a gift of the Creator that has been entrusted to the creatures. However, as he demonstrated by choosing the title of the encyclical from St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” the Pope’s primary concern is that we come to see ourselves as part of creation rather than masters of creation.
I am sure that many of you have seen birdbaths with a statue of St. Francis in them. Perhaps you even have one in your yard. Francis’ love for birds and for all of the creatures of creation was born out of the conviction that the birds and he shared a common Father, that all of creation has as its purpose the praise of the Creator, that he was “brother” to all of the created world. Concern for our planet is simply an exercise in recognizing that we are created from the dust of the earth and shall one day return to it.
Praise be to you, my Lord, through all your creatures.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator