‘Laudato Si’ Echoes Centuries of Church Teaching

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Dear Friend,

I was honored to be asked to the Vatican last month to be one of the speakers at the press conference announcing Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. It was an honor that really goes to Catholic Relief Services—including all of you who support CRS—because it was a recognition of the important work we do to help the poor around the world.

Because of my background in business education, I was asked to address the issues the encyclical raises with the business community. I have always felt that the true purpose of business is to contribute to the common good by harnessing its power and importance with appropriate ethics. The environmental issues that our world faces as we contemplate the fate of God’s creation give business just such an opportunity.

As you know, the title of the encyclical is “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be.” It is from the title of a poem written by the saint from whom the Holy Father takes his name—Francis of Assisi. In the “Canticle of the Sun,” St. Francis used the phrases that came to be associated with his love for nature—our brother the sun, our sister the moon, and the other members of our natural family.

“Praised be my Lord God with all creatures,” St. Francis says, “and especially our brother the sun, which brings us the day … for our sister the moon, and for the stars, which God has set clear and lovely in heaven … our brother the wind, and for air and cloud … and all weather, by which you uphold in life all creatures. Praised be my Lord for our sister water, which is very serviceable to us, and humble, and precious, and clean … ” and, yes, even “sister bodily death, from whom no living man can escape.”

Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, speaks at the Vatican about “Laudato Si’.” Photo courtesy of Paul Harring/CNS
Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, speaks at the Vatican about “Laudato Si’.” Photo courtesy of Paul Harring/CNS

Throughout the poem, you can feel across the span of eight centuries the communion that St. Francis had with the natural world. That was where he felt the presence of the Lord—in the rays of the sun, the brush of a breeze, the warmth of fire, the beauty of a flower, the eternity of death.

There are so many parallels between St. Francis’ times and ours. Worried that the growth of wealth and its trappings was blinding mankind to what was truly valuable, he venerated the poor. Worried that the growth of cities was cutting people off from nature, he sought distant retreats.

While there are those who say that Pope Francis has taken a radical stance with “Laudato Si’,” “The Canticle of the Sun” shows that he is actually speaking in an ancient tradition of our Church. This has been recognized for decades by more modern popes. In 1982, Pope John Paul II said that St. Francis’ example called on us “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.ˮ

There are many other examples, but this makes the basic point I tried to emphasize in Rome: What sort of world do we want to leave for our children?

And this brings us back to St. Francis’ essential image in his canticle—that of the family. A constant unspoken presence in the Father—the Creator—made complete by the mother, the sisters and brothers. All of us work to ensure that our families survive and thrive. Pope Francis and St. Francis remind us that we must feel the same way about the natural world that sustains us and our children.

God in His mercy has given us a bountiful creation. Let us use it well.

May blessings overflow.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO