The long wait is over.
The greatly anticipated encyclical letter of Pope Francis that has been the topic for much discussion and speculation for well over a year has now been published. The encyclical on the environment is now available for the entire world to see, read, ponder—and most importantly (as Pope Francis hopes)—act upon. Laudato Si!
It is enough to say that the publication of this document has been greatly discussed, disseminated and parsed long before it ever saw the light of day on the printed page. People of all persuasions—political, religious and otherwise—have chimed in with their views and opinions on the meaning and the purpose of this encyclical letter long before the Pope and his advisors had ever prepared the vaguest of outlines of what he wished to discuss. Some were for it; others, against it. Despite all the speculation—because and despite it—it has been completed and it is available to all—in all its unvarnished truth—standing on its own, all 192 pages of it.
As everyone knows, an encyclical letter takes its name from the first words that are written in the document and in this case, the words are a deliberate invocation of the canticle of Saint Francis, praising the Lord and his creation. Those words alone sets the program—and the tone—of this audacious letter that Pope Francis has written not only for the Church, but for everyone in the world, whether he or she is a believer or not. (That in and of itself is noteworthy; it evokes the spirit of Saint John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris of 1963.) He seeks to involve the Church in a dialogue with all concerning the question of our time, the care of “our common home.”
Our Common home—three simple words have profound meaning for our Pope; early on in the encyclical, he points out that he realizes that there are those in the modern world who believe that religion has become "irrelevant." For Pope Francis, salvation history and church magisterium proves otherwise. However, it does not deter him from eagerly pointing out that while there are those who believe and those who don’t, the fact remains that both live on this planet and that both—believer and non-believer—have a common stake in it and that is why he addresses this encyclical letter to everyone who shares that “home.”
And while Pope Francis approaches the topic of the environment from its various angles, such as our natural resources, pollution, biodiversity, and ecosystems, food supply and other inter-related problems, he also ponders the political, economic, historical and policy proscriptions of the matter at hand. The encyclical is a detailed and admirable work; it will be one worthy of study and prayer for a long time. But of all the issues and problems discussed, the most important thing for him is the social aspect.
Interconnectedness isn’t an abstract idea for Pope Francis; to him, it is vital to being a human being. Isolation does not foster fellowship or goodwill, it inhibits it. And that is why it is important for the Church to be open to dialogue with others and have no fear in engaging others. As he says: “No form of wisdom can be left out.” With this statement, the Pope says—while recognizing that the Church is the bearer of divine truth—the Church has nothing to fear from engaging with others in efforts to learn from, work with, and listen to our fellow human beings. “We have only one heart,” Pope Francis says, emphasizing a fact that we, in our own hearts, know all too well—that how we treat our fellow creatures and creation we all inhabit will ultimately affect how we treat our fellow human beings and how, in the end, we interact with the Creator of all things, God himself. This emphasis is the key to understanding the encyclical; indeed, it is its “heart.”
Above all, Pope Francis approaches this as a pastor, not a politician. His interest in the subject is a long-standing one: it goes way back to his time as an archbishop in Buenos Aires. Coming from the Third World, he has an unique perspective on human consumption and human relations; it is a perspective that we in the West have lost sight of and one he wishes to reiterate in this encyclical—and one which is worth learning from, especially in the area of human relations. For him, that too, is “falling into serious disrepair” and is something that needs attention.
Pope Francis worries about our self-centeredness, that we “see nothing but ourselves” and that is what he sees as being the basis of our problems with the environment (as well as other things), and that while we have the power to do things, it does not necessarily mean that we have the wisdom and that we end up trafficking not only things, but ourselves. Says the Pope: “We are not God.” He says that our habits of consumption and self-destructive behaviors only contribute to the “globalization of indifference” and that we all need to “seek paths of liberation,” paths which can only lead to true peace and joy.
The encyclical is published. Indifference will not end, nor will wars. Greed will still entice and poverty will still be prevalent in our world, while indifference will often hold sway and there will be those who will grasp for those powers that rightfully belong to God and not to man. The poor will still be vulnerable and there will be those among us who will still be beholden to the “mental pollution” that is often the end product of all kinds of electronic gadgets, preventing meaningful social interaction and a distraction from appreciating and enjoying the beauty of God’s nature—and our own. The environment will continue to be strained and depleted. And yet, despite all this…
The Pope has spoken out. The Pope with the fraying sleeves of his cassock, the Pope with the simple way of living, the Pope will the simple unaffected manner of speech, the Pope who aspires to his namesake, has proclaimed the Gospel not only with his actions, but now with his words. He has nothing up his sleeve, he has nothing to hide. But he has something to offer to those of us living in “our common home”: he has offered us a way to be at peace not only with God, but with ourselves—and our environment. The pastor whose hand is raised in blessing above the frayed sleeve and the inexpensive watchband (and now who rides around in a less elaborate popemobile) is beckoning us toward a deep-seated hope. But as he has written: “Many things have to change of course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”