An encyclical for people who don’t read encyclicals

The pope’s "Laudato Si’" offers us a chance to rediscover love, beauty, and meaning in life.

(CNS photo/Narendra Shrestha, EPA)

“Everybody’s a critic.”

That old saying proves especially true today in the digital age. Just look at the tidal wave of instant analysis that greeted Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’.

It seems as if everybody needs to declare where they stand, or at least to choose from the abundance of opinions on offer.

Do you think we should rush to judgment? Click on the “like” button if you do!

I myself am still ruminating on this challenging and beautiful encyclical. Even though I have already spent a few days pondering it since the leak, I have simply been taken aback by the voluminous reactions piling up on just one Thursday. From the morning on, they incessantly crowded their way into my head, displacing my own first thoughts.

In a way, this avalanche of reactions is a good thing. There is even a superabundance of intelligent and helpful commentary, if you know where to look for it. And I have benefited from it.

Still, here’s what I’ve been thinking. All this commentary seems to be for people who actually read the encyclical today, or who actually plan to read the encyclical eventually. It is meant to assist those committed readers in making deeper sense of the encyclical.

But shouldn’t such committed readers take some time first to read, reflect, and pray? Why is there such a strong impetus to judge, so quickly, where one’s own reactions align with the rest of the world? Perhaps a chance for deeper openness and receptivity is lost in the rush.

Why do we love to compare ourselves to others? Is it simply because we have the technological capability of luxuriating in an ocean of opinions? If so, I find it difficult to object, because I enjoy the superabundance of intelligent and helpful commentary as much as the rest of you who love social media. And yet…

Aren’t we perhaps just enjoying this luxury a bit too much? Surely there are some who aren’t enjoying this luxury, and we need to attend more to them, rather than to revel in the ranking of everybody’s thoughts.

Indeed, here’s what else I have been considering. The avalanche of reactions has a second significance, beyond our own rush to find a first reaction of choice. I think it also points to a greater—but hardly secondary—task. The task is to realize what we need to communicate to those who will never read this encyclical.

What about all the people who will never read this encyclical from cover to cover? Paradoxically, it is for them, it seems to me, that Pope Francis has written Laudato Si’. He has shown us, for their sake, precisely what can be done.

We can protest ugliness for them, and strive to recapture wonder for our world: “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness” (LS 113).

This is no abstract task. The way I live my own life becomes a concrete choice for something beautiful and noble: “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity” (LS 211).

It is exactly these kinds of actions that I strangely found beautiful and attractive when I first met my wife. She was a country girl who introduced this city boy to nature. Her noble personality and habitual actions, environmentally attuned, spoke to something that was not yet a part of me, but to which I felt a profound call.

Answering that call meant finding renewed meaning for my own little life. It meant discovering that, as small as we are, and as small as our daily actions are, there is something truly beautiful to be discovered in that fragile fact.

It is beauty that reveals what really matters, especially when we learn to bring nobility to every little gesture of our lives: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile” (LS 212).

Through this personal encounter, meeting my wife, I learned how to find beauty in, and relish, the small and simple things of life. She educated me, slowly but surely, by example, just as she herself had learned: “Ecological education can take place in a variety of settings: at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere. Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life. Here, though, I would stress the great importance of the family, which is ‘the place in which life—the gift of God—can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life’. In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say ‘thank you’ as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings” (LS 213).

Frankly, I was floored when I concluded my reading of this encyclical and found these closing words. What a beautiful thing to treasure, and to carry in your heart: “simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy.”

It is the same gift given to you, by all the people who have touched your own life most deeply: “simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy.

Truly, this is an encyclical for people who don’t read encyclicals.

Who needs to? Maybe five words, or love, is all you need.




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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.