"We are losing our attitude of wonder, of contemplation, of listening to creation and thus we no longer manage to interpret within it what Benedict XVI calls 'the rhythm of the love-story between God and man.'"
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Pope Francis 2020: On Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti
In August, the Holy Father began a series of General Audiences addressing our response to COVID-19. Approaching the issue with the Gospel firmly in hand, his words offered a critique of and answers to some very dark elements of our fallen world.
He's since echoed his hallmark themes of dialogue and relationality in statements on migrants, economics, and the Season of Creation. In all, the Holy Father has reflected on some of the best and the worst of 2020 as a buildup to his upcoming encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the successor of Laudato Si’, to be released on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.
Central to his recent statements, and certainly to his new encyclical, is the dignity of the human person, the integral nature of ecological and economic realities, and, thus, the value for us all to remain connected.
While these are long-standing papal themes (for Francis and his predecessors), the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter has had the unenviable opportunity of showcasing Catholic Social Teaching through the lens of a global pandemic, as well as mounting bad news on ecological health and simmering social and political unrest around the globe.
“The coronavirus is not the only disease to be fought, but rather, the pandemic has shed light on broader social ills,” Pope Francis said in his first audience in this series on August 12.
One of these is a distorted view of the person, a perspective that ignores the dignity and relational nature of the person. At times we look at others as objects, to be used and discarded. In reality, this type of perspective blinds and fosters an individualistic and aggressive throw-away culture, which transforms the human being into a consumer good.
While there's been considerable progress to defeat COVID-19, the virus is still taking the lives of the wealthy but mostly the poor, the young but mostly the old, and those who are otherwise healthy, but mostly those with some prior weakness.
While all of this has been making headlines, a less recognized reality is the tragedy of isolation.
It is as ironic as it is tragic that the five-year anniversary of Laudato Si’ occurred this spring. Much planning and many efforts to celebrate and elevate the eco-encyclical’s message were largely muted as the world huddled at home.
The great cry of Laudato Si’ is, of course, that everything is connected. We humans—made in the image of the Triune God, Who is pure love and relationship—are thus created to be in relationship with God, with all creation, and with each other.
But life in the age of COVID-19 has been largely a life lived socially distanced.
And one particularly vulnerable population has suffered disproportionally because of it.
The price of being socially distant
For years, my brother’s Sunday routine had been to visit our mother so that I could attend Mass.
Now, afraid of transmitting the virus because of his line of work, my brother has been protecting our mother by remaining at a distance—speaking with his mask through windows or from an outer porch.
Recently, he’d been away for two Sundays on holiday. On his first Sunday back, just a few days after the Holy Father’s first General Audience on COVID-19, my brother spent several hours making repairs to my outside shed. We were able to get my mom out to watch some of the work and then, before my brother left, he stood in his usual spot in the porch doorway. After a moment, my mom admitted to him with uncharacteristically despairing words that she missed seeing so many of her family.
Frail and succumbing to the early effects of Parkinson’s-induced dementia and grieving the death of my older brother, who died suddenly in February, my mom didn’t hold back that she is desperate for time together with family and friends. And yet, in these last years or months of her life, she is being denied that joy—that necessity—which, I fear, is only accelerating her decline.
This is indeed the very fear of the Holy Father: that all of our masks and our social distancing is becoming normalized, which runs counter to who we really are.
“Looking at our brother and sister and the whole of creation as a gift received from the love of the Father,” Pope Francis said in his August 12 address, “inspires attentive behaviour, care and wonder. In this way the believer, contemplating his or her neighbour as a brother or sister, and not as a stranger, looks at him or her compassionately and empathetically, not contemptuously or with hostility.”
While we all work for a cure for a virus that strikes everyone without distinction, faith exhorts us to commit ourselves seriously and actively to combat indifference in the face of violations of human dignity. This culture of indifference that accompanies the throwaway culture: things that do not affect me, do not interest me. Faith always requires that we let ourselves be healed and converted from our individualism, whether personal or collective; party individualism, for example.
For Catholic ecologists, it is our duty to live out the fullness of Laudato Si’ in ways that we may not have expected five years ago—ways that will most assuredly be examined in Fratelli Tutti.
As this next encyclical will no doubt underscore, we must ensure that the basic needs of humanity are available for all—needs that include human contact.
In the words of Pope Francis in his profound August 12 audience,
May the Lord “restore our sight” so as to rediscover what it means to be members of the human family. And may this sight be translated into concrete actions of compassion and respect for every person and of care and safeguarding of our common home.
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About the Blog
Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.