20 June 2015

On Laudato Si: When an Encyclical is REALLY an Encyclical!

Well, Pope Francis' new encyclical, Laudato Si (from the first line, "Praise be to you, my Lord" has been out just one day and already it is the talk of the world. Those who ordered copies from the USCCB or Amazon have not even received theirs yet, but the encyclical is up on the Vatican website and can be copied and printed or read right there. Apparently many are doing just that. Though I am sure most reporters and politicians have not had time to read the letter yet --- many are depending on what their colleagues have gleaned and are quoting and requoting Francis' observation that the world is becoming a huge pile of filth --- there is a clear sense of dismay in some arenas that Francis "did not stick to religion". Others of us are excited by the integrated vision Francis provides of a sacramental world and his unflinching reiteration of the call to do justice as we hear and respond to both "the cry of the world and the cry of the poor." This is authentic religion at its best!

How often does it happen that people wait with bated breath for the publication of a new book? We saw it happen with the Harry Potter series. There bookstores were open at midnight on the release day and lines were out the door and around the corner. Then folks holed up for the next day or two reading and began sharing with everyone what Rowling had done with the characters the plot, etc. I suppose it has happened with the newest romance novel by certain authors --- though I admit I really am not sure. It has happened with movies, some from the Star Wars or Star Trek series, for instance. And in a similar way it has happened with this encyclical. Imagine people virtually standing in line waiting for the Vatican to publish the letter to hear what Francis has to say on matters of the environment! Imagine them calling one another up, walking into daily Mass, emailing, etc and saying, "Wow, Francis has really done it! You HAVE to read this encyclical!" or, "Hey, what about that Francis?!" And yet, that is precisely what happened yesterday morning, what is happening now, what is true of Laudato Si!

I have only read through the beginning of the second chapter myself so I cannot speak much about the content of the encyclical yet, but until then, beyond the integrated sacramental view of reality which stands clearly at its heart, I am completely struck by the fact that this encyclical, this "circular letter" is functioning not only as the term encyclical means today (that is, a specific genre of Papal writing) but as something that is news, something to be handed around, circulated, something to be excited about, inspired by, something provocative and challenging which changes (or can change) the way we see things. People may love this encyclical (many already do), some will definitely be offended and provoked by it (many already are), but there is no doubt that no one will be able to ignore or dismiss it without first being touched by it.

This is truly an encyclical in the original sense of that term --- a letter that suggests the papacy is profoundly relevant to our own lives and the life of our world, that affirms that what the Office of Peter offers our world is a vision of reality, a vision of possibility we must embrace if we do not desire to see the destruction of that world, a wholistic perspective in which faith and reason, politics and social justice, the Creation narratives and theology of the Old Testament, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the analyses of the sciences inform and enrich one another. It is a letter that will be read and handed on and read again and quoted, grappled with, argued over, reflected on and prayed with, a letter people will be inspired and motivated by. In other words, it is an encyclical which is truly a Papal encyclical representing a faith which is truly catholic in every sense of that term.

Is this part of the so-called, "Francis effect"? Is it a sign of a genuine "new" Pentecost;  something that --- instead of the gehenna-like fires of ecological and social destruction kindled and fed by the drive for unbridled power, or linked to greed, selfishness, carelessness and outright indifference --- can set the world on fire with a love that does justice for all of God's creation? Then thanks be to God! Laudato Si mi Signore!