“LAUDATO Si’”, the title Pope Francis chose for his encyclical on the environment, comes from a hymn of praise by St Francis of Assisi that emphasises being in harmony with God, with other creatures and with other human beings, said the head of the Franciscan order.
Sitting under towering trees, surrounded by potted flowers and herbs in the garden of the Franciscan headquarters in Rome, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor Father Michael Perry sang the mediaeval Italian words “laudato si’” (praised be you) and recited the English translation of St Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures”.
The hymn praises God and the reflection of God’s glory in “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, “Brother Fire” and “Sister Water”, and “our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs”.
The canticle was incomplete, though, without St Francis’ praise of human beings “who give pardon”, bear infirmity and live in peace, Fr Perry said on June 12.
Also essential was St Francis’ embrace of “Sister Bodily Death” as the portal to eternal life.
The Franciscan minister general from the United States said St Francis of Assisi, over the course of his life, came to recognise that “God was present everywhere and in everything”.
Once a person recognised the “divine dignity” of every created being, Fr Perry said, he or she recognised a responsibility to “give glory to God by respecting and caring and promoting a sense of ‘being in this together’, that life is one and each of us brings a special contribution”.
The inter-connectedness of all creatures should help people to recognise that when they hoarded riches and resources, they were harming their own brothers and sisters, especially the poor, he explained.
St Francis’ canticle “is not just a flowery song about how we should live with nature”, he said.
“It is challenging us to revise our entire way of living our lives” in accordance with Gospel values, Fr Perry said.
“If someone is starving somewhere in the world, we are responsible,” he said.
The canticle was a call for people to recognise that they were sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters to one another, he said, “part of one family that embraces all creation: trees, sun, rivers, wind, fire – all of these because they all give glory to God”.
While St Francis’ praise of Brother Sun and Sister Moon had been romanticised in many ways, Fr Perry said, the obligations it carried were realistic and concrete – to defend human dignity, especially the dignity of the poor; to promote dialogue and reconciliation to end war; to safeguard the earth and all living creatures; and to learn to live with just what one needed, not all that one wanted.
Speaking before the scheduled release on June 18 of the encyclical, Fr Perry said the title signalled Pope Francis’ belief that the entire Church and all its members must be in solidarity with the poor, “must be about peace” and must respect the planet.
By praising nature’s harmony with God, St Francis’ canticle helped people understand what kinds of relationships they must have in order to live in peace and to give glory to God, he said.
Stories about St Francis, such as the one about him taming a wolf who was attacking the people of Gubbio, could really be stories about how “the population was really terrorising itself” with family feuds, neighbours fighting and towns battling each other for control of territory and wealth, the Franciscan said.
As with the people of 13th-century Gubbio, so today with climate change and drought and more violent storms, Fr Perry said, “nature is barking, nature is chasing after us, telling us we have got to wake up”.
“It’s disturbing us; it is not disturbing in order to threaten our lives,” he said.
“It is telling us we are already a threat to ourselves. We’re a threat to the world.
“Nature is telling us, ‘Step back from the brink before it’s too late’.”
In the work of St John Paul II, retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, he said, the Catholic Church presented a vision of “human ecology, social ecology and the natural ecology”.
Focusing on just one, Fr Perry said, “can lead us to misrepresent what God wants”.
While the Judeo-Christian tradition said God chose to have a special relationship with human beings, it did not mean human beings had a right to exploit and abuse other creatures or the natural environment, he said.
“What happens in exploitation without limitation is that not only is nature stripped of its dignity, which God gave it – we cannot deny that – but we are progressively stripped of our own dignity” as those called to care for creation, he said.
Fr Perry said he expected Pope Francis to use his encyclical to promote an “integral ecology”, which urged respect for the human person and God’s plan for human life, for just social relationships and for care of the natural world.
The point was not “to shame” those who were destroying the earth or to disagree with the majority of scientists who say global warming was real and was a threat, Fr Perry said.
Rather, like St Francis in warring Italian towns or in the midst of the Crusades, “Pope Francis is trying to be the bearer of that white flag” to promote dialogue and help everyone reclaim their dignity as God’s children called to care for creation.
Fr Perry urged not just reading the encyclical but studying it with attention to what it was saying about the future of the planet, about Christian discipleship and about ways they can make a difference.