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A mural in the 'Cobijo Urbano' of Loma Hermosa in Buenos Aires, Argentina A mural in the 'Cobijo Urbano' of Loma Hermosa in Buenos Aires, Argentina 

On the Call to Holiness in Our Common Home

Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, Dean Emeritus and Research Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., reflects on Pope Francis’ call to holiness in our common home, as expressed in the encyclical Laudato Si’.

By Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin – Washington, D.C.

The “modest goal” of the exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis asserts, “is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (GE 2).  In many of his writings and talks as well as in his teaching by personal example, he has already emphasized very practical aspects of holiness.

Here in GE (nn. 63-94), his striking discussion of the Beatitudes is in line with the Aparecida Concluding Document (2007) by the bishops of the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (CELAM), which document Francis edited as archbishop of Buenos Aires.  The Aparecida Document states boldly that “holiness is not a flight toward self-absorption or toward religious individualism, nor does it mean abandoning the urgent reality of the enormous economic, social, and political problems of Latin America and the world, let alone a flight from reality toward an exclusively spiritual world” (Aparecida n. 148).

And on a very positive note, in chapter four of Amoris Laetitia (nn. 89-120), Francis comments extensively on “the lyrical passage” about love that is St. Paul’s hymn (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). 

These texts reflect the self-transcending quality of holiness that we find in much of Pope Francis’s writing and in his concrete personal engagement in the pressing issues and problems of our day.

This kind of holiness, explored so richly in Gaudete et Exsultate, is entirely consistent with the great encyclical letter Laudato Si’.  Holiness in its major themes was further concretized over a year later in the Holy Father’s message for the 2016 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Show Mercy to Our Common Home.  Both the encyclical and the message develop many important issues related to ecology today from the perspective of the Catholic faith and examine them through the lens of the Catholic theological and spiritual tradition.

The purpose of this article is to raise salient themes from Laudato Si’ and Show Mercy to Our Common Home in light of the Pope’s call for a holiness that is practical for our own time.

Mercy and the Merciful

The Beatitudes that Jesus expounded in the Sermon on the Mount include “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Through mercy received and offered, we are one with the Father. “Nothing unites us to God more than an act of mercy, for it is by mercy that the Lord forgives our sins and gives us grace to practice mercy in his name” (Show Mercy n. 5).

In Gaudete et Exsultate Pope Francis shows how Jesus expands on this Beatitude in his later discourse on the time of judgment (Matt 25:31-46, GE n. 95). The exercise of mercy is one criterion by which we will be judged, specifically in caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the imprisoned (Matt 25:35-36). On this same topic, the Pope paraphrases Saint James “that mercy without works is dead.”  He then expands on the works cited in Matthew 25, asserting that “in our rapidly changing and increasingly globalized world, many new forms of poverty are appearing. In response to them, we need to be creative in developing new and practical forms of charitable outreach as concrete expressions of the way of mercy.”

As for the new concrete expressions of mercy that are needed nowadays, Pope Francis provides a clear, firm and broad guide. It focuses on our common home. In a 2016 retreat for the Jubilee of Priests, he pointed out that:

“We usually think of the works of mercy individually and in relation to a specific initiative: hospitals for the sick, soup kitchens for the hungry, shelters for the homeless, schools for those to be educated, the confessional and spiritual direction for those needing counsel and forgiveness… But if we look at the works of mercy as a whole, we see that the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces.”

Human life itself and all that it embraces: this is the scope of Laudato Si’. There the Holy Father calls us to regard all of creation as fellow creatures (not just as things or objects), and to take definitive action lest any be lost, abused or forsaken.

The Pope’s next step, in Show Mercy to Our Common Home, is to add care for our common home as an eighth work of mercy to the traditional seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy. This eighth work of mercy is both corporal and spiritual.

As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (LS n. 214) that “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (LS n. 85). We are called to appreciate all that lives in our common home both now and in the future.

As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. And because we know that the conditions of our common home contribute to our sister’s hunger, our brother’s frightened isolation, our children’s anxiety – because of “the urgent reality of the enormous economic, social, and political problems” throughout the world, as the CELAM bishops noted – this care also “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world” (LS nn. 230-231). So must we respond to the brother who is thirsty, the sister who is in prison. We must also care for, we must seek to repair and improve, the conditions in the world that is our common home … and “our” includes the future generations, too.

See, Judge, Act

Early in their Aparecida Document, the bishops of CELAM assert that “in continuity with the previous general conferences of Latin American Bishops, this document utilizes the see-judge-act method” (Aparecida n. 19) formally recognized by St. John XXIII in Mater et Magistra in 1961.

Laudato Si’ itself is structured according to this methodology: see in chapters one and two on “What is Happening to Our Common Home?” and “The Gospel of Creation,” judge in chapters three and four on “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” and “Integral Ecology,” and act in chapters five and six on “Lines of Approach and Action” and “Ecological Education and Spirituality.”

This same triad can be used in our communal and individual search for holiness. Gaudete et Exsultate proposes “the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time” (GE n. 2), and in practice this includes the “risks, challenges and opportunities” of ecology for the sake of all who share our common home.

The see-judge-act method invites us to see and view where we are – that is, to perceive that all creation is interconnected and reflects the glory of God. The Psalms are a great help in reminding us of the beauty of creation and the grandeur of God the creator. For example, Psalm 148 invites other creatures to join us in praising God as St Francis of Assisi does in his Canticle of Creation whose third verse begins with the words Laudato si’: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (148:3-5, see LS n. 72).

The see-judge-act method invites us to judge what we have done and what we are failing to do in exercising responsibility for the planet and all who dwell upon it. The second, third and fourth chapters of Laudato Si’ can serve as material for a retreat and for spiritual reading so that we can take up and live out a Catholic stance, indeed a Catholic commitment, toward our common home. This will help guide our acts of judging.

Laudato Si’ builds upon the powerful call of St. John Paul II to focus on the moral as well as natural conditions of life in a truly “human ecology”.  Pope Francis broadens and deepens his predecessor’s teaching from human ecology to “integral ecology” in LS chapter four.

Integral ecology means that any sort of “tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” must give way to using a wide angle lens through which to view the world – a view in which all is interconnected (LS 68). Pope Francis also looks to our spiritual heritage to nourish holiness today. “Ancient [biblical] stories, full of symbolism, bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others” (LS n. 70).

The see-judge-act method invites us to act both individually and in groups. Personal actions on behalf of ecological issues stand up to, or challenge, “the flawed logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (LS n. 230). But action also means speaking out on behalf of the earth; advocating for the preservation of diminishing resources; and giving voice to the voiceless in the corridors of political, economic, social and cultural power. To take a counter-cultural stance toward an unregulated  market-driven economy is a moral obligation in light of Pope Francis’s teaching. It is also a spiritual imperative if we are to show mercy to our common home.

To link holiness with care for our common home is a tall order. It requires constant conversion. “We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ” (GE 28). So in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis concludes by speaking of an ecological spirituality which is indeed a compact name for becoming holy while caring for our common home.

If this seems a bit difficult at first, the Holy Father reminds us, “God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us” (GE n. 175). To build and protect our common home is to become holy as well as help others towards holiness.

12 February 2019, 15:30