Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I hope this letter finds you well and that you are enjoying your summer. I know I am already tired of pulling weeds!
The English title of Pope Francis’ new encyclical is “Praised be you O my Lord” (Laudato Si). It is our vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ, and there can be no greater joy in our lives, than that we give praise to our savior. We strive to live in union with him; yet, how often do we fall short of this in how we live our daily lives, too little moved or inspired by our faith. Still, the Lord is most patient, forgiving us and calling us back repeatedly to that intimate union with him to which we aspire eternally.
Can we learn from this divine compassion how to live as his disciples? The gift of our faith is meant to shine brightly on all our actions, no matter how trivial. Faith should illuminate every aspect of our lives, and therefore, there is nowhere and nothing to which faith is alien or irrelevant. In one immediate sense, this points out to us the “little way,” made popular by St. Therese of Lisieux: to do ordinary things with great love unites us to the extraordinary love of God.
Thus, the daily and seemingly thankless chores of washing the dishes, cutting the grass, changing the baby’s diaper (weeding the garden!), and so many others, far from distracting us from God, in fact bring us face to face with him in such simple yet profound acts of self-giving. It takes humility to see life in this way.
So often, we see only how such chores impose on us, binding us to the needs of others. We rebel, demanding instead a false freedom. But in humility and charity, we find rather that such obligations transform need into gift, work into joy, action into prayer.
I am thinking along such lines as I read Pope Francis’s encyclical, “Laudato Si: on care for our common home.” It is a sprawling document, and there is much in it worthy of our prayerful, careful consideration. Unfortunately, the broader discussion about it is likely to be dominated by a narrow and mostly unhelpful point of view, focused only on what it says (or seems to say) about climate change, the economy, and politics.
But in my initial reading, I am drawn much more to ponder what the pope is saying about God’s plan of salvation, and how creation and the natural world are “very good” (Gen 1:31), and how our relationship with the natural world affects our spiritual life.
The whole of Chapter Two of the encyclical contemplates “the Gospel of creation.” The Holy Father insists that solutions to whatever problems we seek to address cannot arise from politics alone, or even from science, but must also be deeply informed by morality, Revelation, and Judeo-Christian faith in God.
“The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person. St. John Paul II stated that the special love of the creator for each human being ‘confers upon him or her an infinite dignity.’ Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment” (#65).
Certain fundamental moral commitments immediately derive from this sort of revealed truth. For example, “The biblical texts… tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1)….” (#67). Likewise, “This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature….” (#68) and “The biblical tradition clearly shows that this [salvific] renewal entails recovering and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator. We see this, for example, in the law of the Sabbath” (#71).
Pope Francis also boldly confronts us with some of the commonly held contradictions about protecting creation. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings…, if we fail to protect a human embryo…” (#120). And against a related, and also gravely false, idea, he preaches, “[T]he relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an ‘ecology of man,’ based on the fact that ‘man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.’ It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father…” (#155).
At the heart of this encyclical, there is a true and Biblical vision of society and nature. Just as we can and must learn to live together in our daily communities, by following the example of Christ’s and the saints’ charity and humility, and by offering simple and ordinary gifts of service, so in a broader sense, we can learn to live more in cooperation with all of God’s beautiful gifts in nature, which are ours to “keep and till,” not for ourselves only, but for all. The world desperately needs our witness, as true disciples of Jesus Christ, not only in the moral and spiritual order, but also in regard to how we shall “keep and till” the natural order.
May our hearts be converted more deeply to obedience to God! And may God indeed be praised through us, to the glory of his holy name, and to the salvation of many souls. Continued blessings to you and all your family in these summer days!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City