The Heart of Laudato Si

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

1. Introduction: The Place of the Heart in Laudato Si

The topic that was given me is “The Heart of Laudato Si”. If what is suggested by this theme is to give a summary of its contents, the film clip from the Vatican has already summarized it in four minutes. So, I do not want to repeat them. But as introduction, I would like to start this talk with a little twist: “The Place of the Heart in Laudato Si”. I would like to say that Laudato Si is not just about scientific analysis of globalization and climate change, not only about counting our carbon footprints or the advantages of recycling. It is about all these but, first of all, it is about the heart, our friendships with nature, with others and with our God. It is about our spiritual lives. Pope Francis says:

“The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves.” (LS, 84)

So before I start, I would like to invite you to do this: Can you remember a concrete place in nature during your earlier years (a backyard, garden, farm, beach, stream) that evokes great feelings of joy and awe? What is its significance to you today?

Looking at the program, I know that the rest of the talks of this conference dwell on strategies and best practices, on techniques and scientific processes. So maybe my role here is to say that the heart of ecology is first of all coming home – coming home to our significant places and persons from childhood till now, coming home to ourselves who have been dissipated by the noise of technology, and coming home to God who has revealed himself in a quiet stream, in a river, or in a breeze under a tree one of those quiet evenings of your life. All of us can come home to those places because they give us rest, they make us feel at home. In fact, “ecology” comes the Greek word “oikos” which means home, something familiar, something close to one’s heart, something personal, if you like, something spiritual.

It tells us that spirituality is not just within the soul or inside of us. It is also outside us, it is in a place. It is located in space, in a sea somewhere where I knew my father deeply because there he saved me from drowning; or in a bench somewhere when I first heard the words “I love you” from someone dear to me. These places in our lives are called “home”; and there we have met God for the first time or the nth time in our lives. 

Beyond analyzing the rise in carbon emission, ecology is in fact about taking care of a place called home. It is about keeping a dynamic tension between “tilling and keeping”, as the book of Genesis says, between developing a place and keeping it wild. For St. Francis also advised his brothers to develop the monastery as a place of development and learning but also to leave something wild. Maybe we have developed ourselves so much that there is nothing “wild” in us. ​

“St. Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (LS, 10).

2. Four Keywords

With the limited time given me, let me give four keywords that can bring us to the heart of Laudato Si.

2.1 Our Common Home

The first question Laudato Si asks is a simple question: “What is happening to our common home?” But already in 1988, the Philippine bishops already asked the same question in almost the same words: “What is happening to our beautiful land?” And the Pope’s answer is also simple:

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS, 21). ​

I have seen this illustration in the internet which for me captures the Pope’s analysis. It really looks like an immense pile of filth. But the caption is more descriptive: “There is no throwing garbage out because there is no out.” We usually through the garbage out – out the house to our neighbor’s yard; out of the town to a valley out of nowhere like Payatas in Manila. But now that Payatas is no longer out, we have to look for another place. This explains why Canada exports its garbage out – all the way to the Philippines. But if you come to think of it, if the earth is our common home, in fact, there is no out.

Laudato Si presents an analysis about many things: water supply, air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, etc. Of all these, climate change is the most difficult to explain. We know that the Pope’s analysis is a scientific consensus but many still do not believe. From what grounds does he speak; he is not a scientist, his critics asked. At best, these are unproven ‘scientific’ claims turning themselves into political assertions a la Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, says William Oddie, an English Catholic writer in The Spectator. Or, as George Rutler thinks, the Pope is “mixing up the sciences of heaven and earth” and, like the case of Galileo, is also bound to fail. I think it is easier to convince children of the reality of climate change than these academic critics.

2.2 We are not gods

​Sometime in 1967, an American historian from Princeton, Lynn White Jr., blames Christianity to be the root of our present ecological crisis. When the Lord commanded in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea” (Gen. 1:28), we have assumed dominion to such an extent that we have thought to ourselves to be rulers of the universe and use its resources for our ends. The term given to this contemporary sin is “anthropocentrism”.

I do not fully agree with White’s thesis but his observations also tell us some truth about ourselves. Unlike other Asian religions, Christians have been less careful with other living beings. I once studied Vipassanna meditation in Thailand. It was meditation for hours on end from dawn to midnight. The Buddhist nun who was my retreat master reminded me one thing: not to kill a mosquito if they come and touch my skin. What shall I do? She says, talk to them. In contrast, I was once giving a Laudato Si retreat to a group of sisters and during the meditation each one of them is equipped with that deadly racket that kills mosquitoes left and right.

Though we do not consider nature as god as the pantheists do, we have to always remember that we are neither gods ourselves.

“We are not God. The earth was here before us and has been given to us,” Laudato si reminds us. ​

How many of us – but also our policy makers in governments and businesses, all with technological mindsets – have assumed the role of lords and masters, of being little gods, over all that exists. The emphasis on “human dignity” has its attendant duty of co-responsibility with the rest of creation. Pope Francis says it beautifully: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose” (LS, 84).

Beyond the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (i.e., the Kantian imperative about human beings as ends in themselves) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s insistence on the privileged place of human beings, all creatures in fact have their own ends; it short of saying, that they too are also ends-in-themselves.

2.3 Everything is interconnected

This brings me to my third point: “everything is interconnected”. When I was reading this in Laudato Si, I remember Joey Ayala’s song from the 80s: “ang lahat ng bagay ay magka-ugnay.” Integral ecology means to recognize this link and interconnectivity of the whole universe. “Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation,” the Pope goes on. “And a good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings” (LS, 138).

I am not a scientist but I have read this from some notes somewhere: humans share approximately 96% of their DNA with chimpanzee, 90% with a cat, 80% with a cow, 61% with a fly, and 60% with bananas. We have always taken for granted our own human uniqueness. But we see we are not quite different. Magkaugnay nga ang lahat.

We are interdependent not only within our generation but with the previous and future generations. An American Indian proverb goes: “We do not borrow the world from out ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” Which means we have to return it to them.

In the Pope’s analysis, global liberal capitalism has put a wedge to these interdependent lives, separated them into atomic existence, making them easier to consume, throw away and destroy. That is why Pope Francis calles it an “economy that kills”, a throw away culture. ​

​2.4 Conversion to the Beautiful

This brings me to my last point: Laudato Si’s lines of action. The Pope has several proposals impossible to all mention here – structural and individual, global and personal. Among the structural proposals, we find a rallying cry toward one common action for the world; care for the global commons which is our common pool resource – global ocean, polar regions, atmosphere, outer space, etc. and lastly, the notion of differentiated responsibilities. The last point reads: “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused” (LS, 170). Think about Europe, North America and China! They have the most responsibility.

Released just months before the Paris meeting, the Pope wanted to influence the COP meeting by forwarding some viable agenda. Whether he exerted influence or not, it is for history to decide, especially if you have people like Trump who withdrew US support for the Paris agreement.

If you want to go local, I think that the Duterte government’s environmental program is at best inconsistent, at worst, coopted. As we praise DENR’s effort to intervene in Boracay tourism development, I could not understand its promotion of coal fuel. As Duterte professes to protect the indigenous peoples, I could not understand its willingness to bomb IP schools or look for capitalists to develop their ancestral domains. We have only to remember the rejection of Gina Lopez as DENR Secretary by the Commission on Appointments which is also composed of landed and capitalist lawmakers influenced heavily by the mining lobby. As best, this government is ambivalent; at worst, coopted by capital. We need more consistency from this government. But how can it be consistent when the President says one thing today and his minions say that it was only meant as a joke the day after?

But what actually interests me in Laudato Si are the personal proposals which are quite practical and equally interesting for all of us: (1) change of lifestyle (by practicing the 3Rs – reduce, recycle, reuse); (2) practice of ecological virtues (like gratefulness, sobriety, moderation, mindfulness); (3) and conversion to the beautiful.I would like to emphasize the third point. Pope Francis writes:

“If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (LS, 215). ​

​People in the church have always been concerned with the truth (verum) and the good (bonum) but have forgotten the beautiful (pulchrum).

But we have also observed that these guardians of truth and morals are not only rigid people. They are also the most often hypocritical. They are also inside our churches. All of them have clenched fists; they have forgotten to smile; and for them it is the whole world that is to blame, not themselves. “Conversion to the beautiful” avoids this self-righteous attitude, draws us out of ourselves – to beauty, to creation, to the flowers, to the sea, to the land, ultimately, to God… like the fishermen, gardeners, farmers. I was once asked, “When was the last time your stopped to smell the flowers?” In the end, we are back to the heart, to a place, to the home where flowers grow, where grains nourish us, where trees lend themselves as abode to fireflies at night, where God resides.

3. By way of Conclusion

Let me end with the spirit of hope – which is the heart of Laudato Si. I once read a quotation from the Raji people in the India-Nepal border:

“Before we knew where the gods were. They were in the trees. Now there are no more trees.” No wonder the gods have all gone. ​

​Where does hope reside? From the same poor peoples themselves, those who are victims of the world’s ecological problems. I once volunteered in San Antonio, Basey, Samar a month right after Yolanda struck. I helped the parish priest in things that might help the people make sense of what was happening. In one recollection (what is called de-briefing sessions), I asked a group of farmers, what is next after Yolanda. One farmer stood up, grab the microphone and said: “We want to go back to our farms. We want to plant again.”

The next few days, the world was celebrating Christmas. In San Antonio, it rained a bit days before and the farmers were beginning to plant rice on that early Christmas morning. I was watching them from afar after my Christmas Mass.

And I told myself: “Like the first Christmas, there are no angels who come down from heaven singing Alleluia. But I guess Jesus is born in San Antonio today.” ​

I began to realize that it was these poor victims of ecological disaster themselves who taught me what is at the heart of Laudato Si. Hope. That morning, people did not see it, but the gods have come back to San Antonio.