Writing this series of columns on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” has provided for me something similar to a course on Christian spirituality. The Holy Father’s vision is simultaneously challenging and inspiring, profound and yet accessible.
My experience in re-reading Pope Francis’ letter has been encouraging, but also a little frightening. If his thoughts on the environment are correct – and I think they are – then action is necessary. There should be no delay. God has made us responsible for the environment. Pope Francis writes the following:
“In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.” (No. 76, p. 54)
Basic Moving Force
Pope Francis stresses that creation is a free choice, that it does not come about through an order to show force or as a need or desire for self-assertion. Rather, creation is due to God’s love, which is the basic moving force in all created things. When we ask why God creates, the only answer we can come up with is that love shares.
Nature is not divine, but nevertheless, we should see that we are responsible to treat nature properly. Pope Francis sees excitement and drama in human history precisely because we can either use our freedom to nurture nature or to cause setbacks. God’s gift of freedom can be used properly or improperly.
The personalism of Pope Francis shines through his document. Pointing out that through creation there is a call from a “thou” to another “thou,” the Holy Father insists that we should see each human person as a subject who cannot ever be reduced to an object. He also insists that other living beings should not be looked upon as mere objects that we can arbitrarily dominate.
Warning against any tyrannical domination by human persons over other creatures, Pope Francis writes the following:
“The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.” (No. 83, p. 58)
In a very profound way, the encyclical calls us to be Christocentric, to form our conscience by imitating Christ’s love. Christ embraces all of creation and offers it back to His Father. Pope Francis is calling us to imitate that embrace and to join in Christ’s offering. This is what we do in every celebration of the Eucharist. We are called to treat non-human creatures with love and gratitude because they are precious gifts from God. What we do at a Eucharist should influence the way we live.
It takes a long time to shape and form a conscience. Actually, it takes a lifetime, and there are many realities that can affect a conscience: from family to schools attended, from books read to films viewed, from the media to the Sunday homily. Pope Francis’ challenge to our consciences is marvelous.
At this point in time, Catholics are blessed to have a spiritual leader whose vision of the world is really magnificent. Catholics should welcome his leadership and allow his vision to influence their consciences. And it seems his influence is not limited to Catholics, but is both challenging and encouraging to many who are not Catholic.
What I find most challenging, but also exceptionally beautiful, is the notion of “universal communion.” There is no such reality as an unimportant person. Pope Francis’ personalistic view of creation suggests that a human person has the capacity to relate to all of reality. We are the guardians of creation. How we relate to other creatures will either lead to a beautiful future, or contribute significantly to a destructive future.
The future is not something that merely happens to us but rather something that we, to some extent, create by our free choices. Universal communion provides an image of the human person – motivated by love and gratitude for God’s gift of creation – treating all beings with respect. All of creation is a message of love from God. To disregard that message, to deliberately misuse God’s gifts, is sinful.
I think of St. Theresa’s statement: “all is grace.” That, I think, is part of Pope Francis’ message in “Laudato Si’.” The more we love and respect God’s creations, the more we will see into them and see God’s presence in them.