Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (6)

The 6th and final chapter, Ecological Education and Spirituality, centers on the change that must occur in human beings themselves. Reminiscent of his earlier Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wants us to get out of ourselves. "We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other. Unless we do this, other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment" (208).

Young people in particular, the Pope warns, "have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits" (209) Hence the importance of "cultivating sound virtues" which will facilitate "selfless ecological commitment" (211). Again it seems that the solution to the problems of the present lies in a retrieval of what humanity learned long ago!

Hence, he recommends recovering "the rich heritage of Christian spirituality" (216). Invoking Saint Francis of Assisi again, Pope Francis reminds the world "that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change" (218).

Since our present predicament is rooted in the human desire for more, which presupposes more mastery over the world, the Pope makes a case for the virtue of humility. "Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. it is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong" (224). Of course, that is a good description of where our culture has moved in the last century especially. The Pope acknowledges that cultural movement in the opening sentence of that same paragraph on humility: "Sobriety and humility were not favorably regarded in the last century." 

Indeed not, which is why that memorable line will likely not become a popular soundbite in the secular media! That in turn, of course, is what makes it less likely that the next century will be any different!

The personal conversion he proposes points to a retrieval of authentic civil society rooted in religious virtue and practice. "We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it" (229).

As he brings his encyclical to its close, Pope Francis invites us to focus on such basics as saying Grace before and after meals (227), an intensified appreciation of the sacraments, "a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life" (235), and the observance of Sunday, "a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world" (237).

The encyclical concludes with two prayers, a more generic prayer to God the Creator and a more explicitly Trinitarian Christian prayer "to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus" (246).

Laudato Si' is long and repetitive. Reading it takes time and requires some patience. But, unlike the more philosophical prose of Saint john Paul II, for example, it is relatively accessible to the average reader, who takes the time to engage it, not primarily as a work of political philosophy or economic theory or as a program of public policy proposals, but as an invitation to conversion of heart, mind, and will. To read it effectively, therefore, one must the time necessary to absorb its underlying theological principles and its religious challenge to transformational spiritual conversion.

Fittingly, it is worth noting that the official date of the encyclical was Pentecost Sunday, the day when the Church recalls its own birth in the Risen Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of the Church's mission to continue Christ's life and work in our world. This encyclical is intended - and should be received as - another contribution of the Church's magisterium to that continuation.

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