The long awaited encyclical from Pope Francis focusing on the environment will be released in less than two weeks, according to Salesian Fr. Giuseppe Costa, head of the Vatican publishing house. Fr. Costa spoke to reporters May 30 in Naples, Italy, and said the pope’s encyclical will be titled Laudato Sii (“Praised Be”).
The title comes from St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer known as “Canticle of Creatures.” In the prayer, St. Francis begins each meditation with the words, “Praised be you, my Lord…”
Rumors of a papal encyclical on the environment began in late 2013. Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny, who serves on the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told Catholic News Service in December 2013 that it made sense Pope Francis would write his first encyclical on concern for the environment. (Pope Francis’s first written document, Evangelii Guadium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) was an apostolic exhortation and not an encyclical. Exhortations are meant to encourage the faithful to live in a certain manner or undertake a certain activity.
“He’s been talking about an ecological encyclical,” Fr. Czerny told CNS. “That’s an area perhaps where there’s been less church teaching than there has on poverty and development. So maybe something like that might come.”
An encyclical is a letter written by the pope to all bishops and to the laity. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are two types of encyclicals: letters (which are often addressed to “all people of good will”) and epistles (addressed to bishops of a specific region). Letters are more frequent and formal.
“Encyclicals express the mind of the Holy See on matters of greater importance,” states the Catholic Encyclopedia, and “reflect the ordinary magisterium of the church and merit that respect from the faithful.”
Among the most recognized letters are social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. During his 26 years as pontiff, St. Pope John Paul II issued a record 14 encyclicals.
Why does the world need an authoritative papal document on the environment and what does Pope Francis hope to accomplish by issuing it? Care for our planet is at the core of the protection of human life. In the Book of Genesis, the story of creation tells us that God’s first act was to create the heavens and the earth. If we do not respect God’s first creation, how can we demand respect for all life that exists on our planet? Pope Francis, like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, understands this interconnectedness and in his encyclical will likely ask us to also make that connection.
Around the world we have seen many examples of humans abusing the earth for their wealth and benefit. We have also seen the detrimental effects of this abuse with climate change that leads to droughts, air and water pollution.
Here in the United States, perhaps no church document has been as highly anticipated and debated since the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on war, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” and the 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, “Economic Justice for All.”
Shortly after he was elected pope, Francis was asked why he chose the name of the saint from Assisi.
“For me, (St. Francis) is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” said the new pope. “These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
With the release of Laudato Sii — and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance — that relationship is about to improve.