Symphonic: this is the best way I can describe Laudato Si, the encyclical released by the Vatican yesterday. The structure and style of prose expression make this one of the most engaging Church texts (from my perspective, at least), promulgated in my lifetime. I don’t make a habit of reading encyclicals on the day of their release, but in this case, I made an exception: Pope Francis had a tweet fest yesterday, and my curiosity was piqued. Throughout the day, I saw tweets about the natural world, human dignity, work, interdependence, home, poverty, and more. How can it be that critics billed this encyclical ahead of time as too narrow in scope?
As I read Laudato Si last night, a particular poem kept coming to mind—and I suspect that Pope Francis would approve. His fellow Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), in awe of God’s transcendence in nature, penned this prescient poem, “God’s Grandeur”—a poem that, like his others, Hopkins never intended for publication. How fortunate for us that after Hopkins’ death, his friends decided to publish his poetry! “God’s Grandeur” is one of Hopkins’ responses to the Industrial Revolution (and I suspect that it’s a direct reply to William Wordsworth’s bemoaning of the condition of Industrial England). As a 21st-century reader of this sonnet, I find it significant that Hopkins so skillfully diagnoses the problems that industrialism had wrought, and that despite these ills, the prognosis he provides is excellent because of the renewal that the Holy Spirit offers. This is what Hopkins has to say:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The Petrarchan sonnet form of this poem allows Hopkins to lay out the problem in the first eight lines (the octave) and to shift the direction of his comments and highlight the solution in the final six lines (the sestet). Despite the damage that humans, in their pursuit of wealth and dominance, have caused, Creation is constantly renewed through the protective love and constant presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a hopeful message: one that is still needed today.
Yet this poetic reassurance needs to be backed up by action on the part of humanity; belief and hope are primary, but we need a transformation in our attitude, rendering a shift in our actions. This is where Laudato Si picks up.
In the introductory passages of the encyclical, Pope Francis takes his readers on a tour de force, visiting and reflecting on prayers, letters, addresses, and exhortations by St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Paul II, Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict, Patriarch Bartholomew, and others. While he is delivering a difficult message—reminding us that we must change our lifestyles in order to resume our proper place in creation—Pope Francis, like Hopkins, highlights hope: “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forgets his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (13).
Pope Francis does not shy away from specifics: he outlines the particular ways in which our collective habits and failed stewardship do harm not only to our planet but also to us. He pinpoints the past two centuries as the time in which we have been the least mindful of the way we treat the natural world (53). The Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant ways of life, are causes for our detachment from the order in which we were created; as Hopkins notes, our “foot [cannot] feel, being shod.”
While the magnitude of our current predicament is highlighted by the fact that we face, as Pope Francis explains, have created “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (139), the interconnectedness of the elements of the problem points to a common solution. And the solution that Pope Francis proposes centers on mindfulness, humility, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, and community. Our globalizing society continually points us in the direction of interdependence, yet we, in our pride, resist. We should remove ourselves from our silos, attend to the world around us and the needs of others; in this community life, for which we were created, we can “respond to [God’s] grace at work in our hearts” (205). Through community—by sheltering together under the wing of the Spirit, as Hopkins suggests—we can hasten the return of the “morning, [which] at the brown brink, eastward springs.”
As Hopkins reveals poetically and Pope Francis demonstrates through a sweeping theological analysis that takes in elements of anthropology, economics, politics, and psychology, we collectively have taken centuries to create a difficult situation for ourselves; however, righting the ship is not merely possible but unavoidable if we pay attention to the generosity and presence of God. Laudato Si reaffirms and further draws out how the needed changes can come about, emphasizing the action of three persons of the Trinity:
The Father—“God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore” (221).
The Son—In the Incarnation, “He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours….The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation” (236).
The Spirit—“The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways” (238).
Somehow, I have a feeling that Hopkins is having a retweet fest in heaven today.