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“On Care for Our Common Home”: The Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis

Dear Friends,

This seems to be my season for interfaith exploration, and my horizons are expanding. I just spent an hour perusing Pope Francis’ remarkable and inspiring letter addressing the phenomenon of global climate change. The full text is 180 pages long, and I skimmed some sections, but I intend to return to the document and read it fully.

Pope Francis speaks with clarity, humility, deep spirituality and piercing intelligence. He is not the least bit interested in the faux battle lines some draw between science and religion. His perspective is breathtakingly global and holistic. Honestly, I am awestruck. We all know that organized religion has the proven capacity to be divisive and destructive. I know many folks who have written off organized religion, or at best eye it warily. Don’t let those judgments prevent you from recognizing the capacity that some religious leaders have for profound moral leadership. Pope Francis is truly showing us a way forward, asking us to reach for the very best that is in us.

Because Pope Francis views all creation as interconnected, he does not and cannot separate environmental degradation from human economic and political degradation. A large portion of his letter convincingly describes the need to address economic inequality and political tyranny in concert with ecologic repair. When we humans pursue a self-centered agenda, everything and everyone we encounter function for us only as objects of our own gratification. Religion, at its best, guides and trains us to be “other-centered”, to see our world and everything in it not as our plaything but as our beloved, so that we encounter everyone and everything as precious and deserving of love and care. It is all interconnected and interdependent. We are one.

Pope Francis tellingly named himself after St. Francis of Assisi. St Francis (1181-1226) is the patron saint of the animals and the environment and is also remembered for his special concern for the wellbeing of the poor. No Pope has ever chosen the name Francis before, and Cardinal Bergoglio chose his Papal name with the qualities of St. Francis explicitly articulated. Pope Francis is clearly trying to embody the teachings of his namesake with this document. He named it “Laudato Si’” – “Praise to You” – after perhaps St. Francis’ most famous song, popularly known as “The Canticle of the Sun”. In that song St. Francis addresses every aspect of creation as close kin: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth. His is an ecstatic vision of Life flowing through every bit of Creation, God in everything. This understanding shapes Pope Francis’ call to us to treat the world and each other with reverence and love.

Another central source for Pope Francis’ teaching is his Old Testament, our Torah. I find extensive common ground with Pope Francis in this regard. The vast majority of the Biblical sources that he utilizes is from Torah, and are the same citations upon which Jewish environmental doctrine is based. There is indeed a strong and shared Judeo-Christian ethos based on the fundamental understanding of the Torah that we do not own the earth, but rather are of the earth, formed from its very elements. We were placed in the Garden “to till it and to tend it”, to be stewards of God’s creation.

Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, is not the only prominent religious leader to make unequivocal statements about the crisis of climate change. In today’s New York Times Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion (Church of England) co-authored an op-ed piece entitled “Climate Change and Moral Responsibility.” In this essay they are clearly aligned with Pope Francis without reservation. Many Jewish leaders are also highlighting that global warming is an intrinsically moral challenge for humankind. I recently signed “A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis” along with 360 other American rabbis.

We do not know if the human race has the ability or the resolve to turn the tide of environmental degradation. But it is heartening to know that these important religious leaders are calling to our better selves, determined to inspire us to transcend selfishness and act for the common good. I for one need all the encouragement I can get. There are certainly areas in which I am not aligned with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but I want to be Pope Francis’ partner in the holy work of caring for our planet and for one another.

As I read Pope Francis’ letter, I excerpted one compelling paragraph after another, wishing to share them with you, but found myself with dozens of pages of excerpts! So I will close with just one example of his words, and with the prayer with which he concludes his letter, and encourage you to read more at your leisure:

…Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity that is ours. No one has the right to take it from us. (p. 151)

A Prayer for Our Earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace. (p. 178)

 

And I say, “Amen to that!” May Pope Francis enjoy good health to a ripe old age, and continue to lead his flock with wisdom and courage.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan