Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Waiting for Laudato Si'

Laudato sie, mi Signore, cum tucte le Tue creature ("Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures"). For the first time in history a poetic prayer in medieval Umbrian dialect is providing the title for a papal encyclical - Pope Francis's second encyclical, eagerly being awaited by a world not much accustomed to appreciating papal pronouncements. Such pronouncements seem to have increased exponentially in both number and length in modern times; and, while both of Pope Francis' immediate predecessors were noted for their commitment to caring for the environment, this will be the first time an encyclical letter has been devoted completely to this important topic.

Apparently the Italian text (or at least an Italian text) of the encyclical has been leaked and is already in circulation on the Internet. How exactly that version will match up with the definitive official text to be released on Thursday we will just have to wait until then to find out! But, in the meantime, it seems fitting to reflect a bit on the Franciscan prayer the Pope has chosen to highlight by his choice of the encyclical's title. Unlike the unfortunately misnamed "Prayer of Saint Francis" (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, etc.), which cannot be traced textually prior to the early 20th century, Francis's "Canticle of the Creatures" is authentically 13th century. First referred to by Thomas of Celano in 1228, the canticle is said to have been composed by Saint Francis himself in late 1224 at San Damiano. According to tradition, it was sung in its entirety by Saint Francis (along with two other Friars) on Francis' deathbed, when the final verse praising "Sister Death" was added. Whatever the details of the case, the famous canticle effectively captures a core component of Saint Francis' spiritual charism. (So much so that, on one of my various visits as a pilgrim to Assisi, the one souvenir I can recall purchasing was a small parchment copy of the canticle.)

Francis's famous references to Brother Sun and Sister Moon may, to a modern audience, contribute to a somewhat sentimentalized image of Francis. Some of Saint Francis' contemporary popularity is indeed connected with such a somewhat sentimentalized characterization of Francis as an animal-loving figure from some sort of medieval Disneyland.  But there was nothing frivolous about Francis (who preached to the animals) or about his vocation to rebuild a Church that appeared to be collapsing in ruins, anymore than there is anything frivolous about a commitment to reverse the human degradation of an increasingly ruined creation. Francis' famous references to Sun and Moon, Wind and Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and Death as Brothers and Sisters served to re-situate human beings within God's created order, something human beings have persistently resisted all the way back to Adam. Genesis recalls how human beings were placed within creation to cultivate and develop it; but that, as a result of sin, the relationship between human beings and the natural world has become an arena of conflict, in which merely eking out a living from the land is now fraught with so much difficulty, and which now, thanks to the modern degradation of the environment, is becoming even more difficult for the poorest. It was the attempt at separation from the creaturely condition that was at the heart of Adam's sin and is, morally speaking, at the root of the contemporary degradation of the environment. And a moral ill will require a moral cure in the form of conversion of heart. 

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