I spent a good part of the weekend reading “Laudato Si'.” For those who haven’t started it yet, it’s a pretty good read. Pope Francis brings a nice sense of poetry to the way he writes; and there’s little in the overall document that reads like you need a degree in theology or environmental science. There’s also relatively few of those jarring quotes from old papal documents that you can’t remember ever reading and and cannot possibly out of context understand.
Having said that, the encyclical is 180 pages. It's big print, but even so, at the least we’re talking novella territory here. You’re not going to glide through it over breakfast on a Saturday.
But that should not put you off. In fact, I believe if you're of a certain age you've probably already read much of what lies at the heart of this encyclical. Because many of its central insights were actually enumerated by another religious figure, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Washington State, long ago.
In 1988, this then-unknown author published a book that became a New York Times bestseller for almost two years.
At its heart was a list of 16 insights central to our lives that he posited we had all learned as children:
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. Clean up your own mess.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup—they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all- LOOK.
If you just listened to pundits you might think “Laudato Si'” is a policy document, the pope’s list of changes that need to happen on different environmental and social issues. But really what the pope is interested in first is a change in the way we all think about our lives, our relationships with one another and our world. Again and again he makes the point, it’s only through that kind of conversion of our minds and hearts, of our imagination that our actions and our policies will ever substantially change.
And as flip and cutesy as it may sound, truly, at the heart of that conversion is a return to the very things that we knew as children, ideas that Robert Fulghum put so well in his book All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Things like: Share. Be kind. Clean up after yourself. All things in moderation. Make time for wonder.
And, one idea that Fulghum doesn't mention but we also grew up knowing—We’re all connected. Plants and animals and human beings; strangers and friends and enemies; God and humanity and the world. Children’s faith in things like magic or the impossible comes directly from that belief that everything is connected. So does their sense of morality. It's not only that hurting people is bad. It's also, when your sister is sad, your parents are sad or even your dog is sad, you get sad, too. We’re all deeply connected.
Reading “Laudato Si',” we might ask ourselves, where did all that kid common sense go? How did we go from being the kids we were to the world we now live in? Obviously that world was here before we were, and it can’t help but affect us. But we affect it, too.
But that too is something that we were taught as children—that we can make a difference. With their questions, aspirations and challenges our own children call us back to that insight day after day. In "Laudato Si'," we might say the pope adds his voice to theirs, trying to help us remember again the kids who still live within ourselves, and ask and believe and wonder.
Yes, the situations in our world are incredibly complex; yes, we’re just little people on a big and messed up and complicated planet.
But as my nephews and nieces would say—"So what?"
Think of Noah, the pope writes: “All it takes is one good person to restore hope” (No. 71).