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Laudato Si and Me

by Dawn M. Nothwehr, O.S.F. | June 22, 2015

Laudato Si and Me: Engaging Pope Francis’ Call to Ecological Conversion and Our Vocation to Protect Creation

It is not without reason that on November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi[1] the patron saint of ecology.[2] But it was not because St. Francis’ statue looks nice in flower gardens and bird baths!  Rather, it was because St. Francis of Assisi was “a vernacular theologian” – his life and teaching modeled a powerful environmental theology and ethics. If we are to benefit from the life and teaching of St. Francis, we must “get him out of the birdbath!”[3]  In the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis does just that.

While addressing the most urgent life issue of our day – the very existence of our planet’s vital systems and the sinful structures that enable their destruction – Pope Francis upholds St. Francis of Assisi’s journey in search of life’s meaning, his conversion, life of penance, and embrace of the cry of the earth and the cry of creation – for our reflection and emulation.[4]

St. Francis of Assisi is best characterized as an ontological poet and a nature mystic who discovered the transformation of the universe and the interrelatedness of all beings through a spiritual journey of conver­sion, penance, and praise. The journey to his conversion was arduous, and it was the subject of his entire life. Yet, it is within that journey that he came to know life’s deepest joy and satisfaction!  In our ecologically threatened age, it is important for us to see the necessity of both the internal spiri­tual encounter and the external ecological effect of this spiritual journey in the life of Francis, for it points the way to our own conversion toward becoming sisters and brothers in the cosmos.

Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone’s search for “something more” than wealth maintained through bloodshed and clever manipulations of the mercantile market, was intentional, self-disciplined, and the subject of his entire life. As he grew, he became an ontological poet and a nature mystic who began to comprehend God’s loving transformation of the universe and the interrelatedness of all beings. It was through this spiritual journey of conver­sion, penance, and praise that Giovanni became St. Francis.

Christians have a long tradition of penance and reconciliation that dates back to our Jewish roots, to the life and ministry of Jesus and his saving death and resurrection. The God we claim to worship is the God who time and time again forgives and gives us yet another chance! Conversion of heart requires disciplined training, similar to that of any Olympic athlete who wants to win the gold. Physical discipline and a focused imagination are needed. In our ecologically threatened age, it is also important for us to realize that our encounters with God will make us internally strong, expand our insights, and activate our moral imaginations so that we can know what is good and right. Yet we will always have the choice of whether or not to take up the courage and fortitude God offers that enables us to act and do what is morally good. But when we choose to follow in the footprints of Jesus, we soon discover a deep empowering confidence because we do not journey alone. The footprints we follow are created by the nail-pierced feet of the one who came to dwell with us and who knows “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age, especially of those who are poor or in any way afflicted.”[5] It is he who will continue to guide us.

“The Testament” of Francis tells us that early in his life, he responded to God’s call to do penance:

The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned to sweetness of soul and body.“The Testament” (1226), 1–3[6]

To do penance means to embrace a life of loving relation­ship with God, to see the world as an expression of the Creator’s good­ness, and to live in hope of the fulfillment of the reign of God. Francis shows us that a life of penance is a journey of faith that climaxes in conversion, a new way of knowing, and a greater sensitivity to the voice of God within ourselves and all of creation. Most importantly, this con­version leads to action.

Embracing a Leper Today

In St. Francis’s day, lepers presented complex and daunt­ing public health issues that were not fully understood by ordinary people. Thus, lepers were feared, outcast, and denied their full dignity as human persons. None-the-less, such ignorant, anxiety-based hostile behavior was idolatrous and insulted God’s gift of the divine image, which is at the root of human dignity. In that context, Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone’s actual en­counter and embrace of a leper was extraordinarily significant. By embracing a leper Giovanni took the first steps on his journey to discover his true vocation and authentic Christian identity. I believe that we are being called to make a similar embrace today.

Just as Francis’s embrace of the leper allowed him to see the truth about that person suffering from leprosy, and to subsequently reverence the dignity of all lepers and love them into life, so too, we must embrace the truth concerning our suffering planet Earth – and those most burdened by poverty because God’s creation is so ravaged. Only when we love deeply enough to make such an embrace, will we be able to radically change our treatment of God’s creation. Like Francis, we too must be converted internally and spiritually – shifting our dispositions and attitudes; but alsoexternally and morally – changing our behaviors and practices in daily life. We already know what needs to change. The question is – when will you and I make this embrace?

Learning from Our Brother Francis

In the moment of embracing the Leper, many things shifted within Francis’s person and life. In a vitally healthy way; in fact, a part of him died. What died, was that part of him that clung to the status quo of his former privileged life, blinding him to his truest self and authentic vocation. With that loss, he began to see what the true source of wealth in life is, namely, the mercy of God and the healing that love of God and neighbor can bring into the world. Only then was St. Francis able to see each creature as born of the same common Source of Life, as he; and to care for the poor, motivated by his deep desire “to follow in the footprints of the Poor Christ.”

Today we must admit that the “American Dream” has become the “Global Nightmare” for many of our sisters and brothers. Now is the time to let go of our false securities and allow God’s mercy to touch and heal us! Quantum theologian O’Murchu says it well: “We are compelled to assert what seems initially to be an outrageous claim: a radically new future demands the destruction and death of the old reality. It is from dying seeds that new life sprouts forth. Destruction becomes a precondition for resurrection: denigration under­girds regeneration.”[7]

Moral Formation and Death Acceptance: Francis of Assisi as Model

Like us, St. Francis, often wrestled with his inner “angels and demons,” – his Pathos – sometimes doubting, being overwhelmed and discouraged. Yet, through the mercy of God, Francis found the true dynamic of life – “desire,” or Eros Love. Eros is the dynamic force of life within us that calls out to life and invites us to live forever. This is the drive to totality (our constant longing for fullness of life).  Eros love characterizes the love of God. (God desires a particular loving relationship with each unique creature and element of creation.)

But there can be a “dark side” to such love when it is misdirected.[8]  We can see this reality behind the current reality of human-caused global warming.As we know, human-caused global warming is a pretty complex issue.[9]  The stark truth is that there is a 98% consensus among the world’s top scientists – documented in the September 2013 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – that humans are the primary cause of planetary warming, on a size and scale unknown in the planet’s 13.7 Billion year history! The Report states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal … and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. … The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”[10] We can see the development of this warming in this video clip: “135 Years of Global Warming in 30 Seconds.”[11]

We have known for over forty years that our passionate “love” of stuff – consumerism – drives massive uncon­trolled pollution of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and those exacerbate global warming and climate change. Yet, we have done precious little to change our ways!  This situation is what Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew rightly names as sinful (LS,§s 7-8) .

Fortunately, our human reason and capacity for meaning making allows us to direct our God-given energies toward the good. We see this meaning-making capacity in action, through St. Francis’s gentleness, compas­sion, and care for all of creation. Notably, all of these virtues, characteristic of his holiness were birthed in Francis because he did not deny or ignore his “demons” – he embraced them. As Boff puts it, “The accepted negativity loses its virulence and behaves like a house pet.”[12]  Francis’s capacity to embrace the negativity in his life, was also his source of great joy. This acceptance is ultimate recognition of limits, diminishment, or deaths – both small and great.

Deep Joy and the Mercy of God

Today, what our Western industrialized culture has lost track of is, that genuine quality of joy. In our misguided spiritual striving, we try to “create” our security, happiness, and pleasure by buying and consuming ever more “stuff,” material things, which in turn, drives more pollution.

Francis chose to confront, embrace, and integrate negative experiences as part of life. Like Jesus before him, Francis took his hard, overwhelming, or painful experiences to God in prayer, and to his brothers in community. He spent time reflecting on what he might learn from the limits he faced. Indeed, the key to St. Francis’s joy was his profound experience of the mercy of God.[13] And at his death, when his ultimate limits were reached, he surrounded himself with the love of brothers and sisters who accompanied him with compassionate care.[14]

Leonardo Boff observes – “A sign of human and religious maturity is to integrate the trauma of death in the context of life. Then death is dethroned from its status as lord of life and ultimate reality. Eros triumphs over Thanatos and desire wins the game. But there is a price to pay for this immortality: the ac­ceptance of the mortality of life.”[15] We find this process of acceptance of death, in a marvelous manner, in the life of St. Francis in that he (1) accepted of death as part of life and (2) identified with the Source of life.

Acceptance of “Death” as Part of Life

Can we Christians come to such a place on our spiritual journey, that we can genuinely entrust our lives to our loving, merciful God in this way? Did Christ not promise us the constant sustaining presence of the life-giving and communion-building Holy Spirit? What must we let go of?  What must we embrace? How can we support one another on the path to conversion and in fulfilling our vocation to hear the cries of the earth and those disproportionately burdened by poverty?  How much simpler and Christ-like life could be if our focus moved from our own self-satisfaction to the common good of the planet and care for our sisters and brothers – of every kind. 

In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis called death, “Sister” – a fellow creature, of the life-giving female gender. She is the necessary transitus toward a new and definitive birth. A shift to this stance of accepting death as part of life was a profound conversion for Francis, and indeed that stance can be ours as well. In our time, we are being called to a similar kind of conversion. Such change may be painful, as birth often is, but it makes possible a new advent with life—now one of deep joy – now, with God in a different way.   

[1] St. Francis’s original family and baptismal name was Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone.

[2] Note that this reflection draws heavily on my Ecological Footprints : An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2012) available as an e-book and in paperback at: /3374/ecological-footprints.aspx.

[3] See Keith Douglas Warner, “Get Him out of the Birdbath! What Does It Mean to Have a Patron Saint of Ecology?” in Franciscan Theology of the Environment: An Introductory Reader, ed. Dawn M. Nothwehr (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 2002), 361–75.

[4] St. Francis’s full biography and the profound depth of his conversion to Christ cannot be fully exposed here. Several excellent accounts of the saint’s life and spiritual conversion are available. See:  Bodo, Murray. Francis: The Journey and the Dream. 40th anniversary ed. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Press, 2011; Boff, Leonardo. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Ecology and Justice Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997; Doyle, Eric. St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood and Sisterhood. St. Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 1997. (Reprint of St. Francis and the Song of Brotherhood. New York: Seabury Press, 1981); Sorrell, Roger D. St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in West­ern Christian Attitudes toward the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Armstrong, Regis J., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, trans. and eds. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. I, The Saint. New York: New City Press, 1999.

[5] See the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 1, at ii_vatican_council/ documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html , accessed June 21, 2015.

[6] See Francis’s “The Testament” (1226), 1–3, in Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, eds., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. I, The Saint (New York: New City Press, 1999), 124.

[7] Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics (New York: Crossroads, 2004),190–93.

[8] Leonardo Boff, St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation, trans. John W. Diercks­meier (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 131.

[9] Climate Change, Explained for Pando Daily, list= UUb1LudSH HORH K7EyQZzt51w, accessed June 21, 2015.

[10] Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,, accessed June 21, 2015.

[11] “135 Years of Global Warming in 30 Seconds,” Published: Jan 18th, 2015, /videos/climate-in-context/135-years-of-global-warming-in-30-seconds, accessed June 21, 2015.

[12] Ibid., 133.

[13] See Margaret A. Farley, Compassionate Respect: A Feminist Approach to Medical Ethics and Other Questions, Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

[14] The Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano (1228–1229), bk. II, chap. VIII, 109–11, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. II, The Founder, trans. and ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 2000),277–79.

[15] Boff, St. Francis: A Model for Human Liberation, 146.


Image: "Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata" by Jan van Eyck - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Author information Dawn M. Nothwehr, O.S.F.

Erica and Harry John Family chair of Catholic Theological Ethics

M.A., Religious Studies - Maryknoll School of Theology; Maryknoll,  NY
Ph.D., Religious Studies - Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Dawn M. Nothwehr holds The Erica and Harry John Family Endowed Chair in Catholic Ethics at Catholic Theological Union.  The mandate of the Chair is to promote the Roman Catholic Consistent Ethic of Life, advanced by Cardinal Bernardin.  She is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, Rochester, Minnesota.

Nothwehr’s current research explores issues of ethical normativity – especially how moral wisdom of peoples beyond the North Atlantic regions enriches and informs classical Christian ethics.  Her ongoing research engages environmental ethics through the lens of Franciscan theology, particularly the effects of global climate change on the poor.  The dialogue between religion and science, as well the ethics of power and racial justice are of equal interest. Her study attends to mutuality as a formal norm within a feminist ethics of power. Additional involvements include: the praxis of empowerment of the poor and vulnerable, moral pluralism, and relations in moral disagreement.

A Board Member of the Catholic Theology Society of America, she also was Convener of the Moral Theology section and Co-Convener of the Women’s Consultation in Constructive Theology.  In the Society of Christian Ethics she is Co-Convener of the Environmental Ethics and Theology section.  Dr. Nothwehr was listed among the top twenty-five eco-theologians in The Heartland of the U.S. by The National Council of Churches of Christ Ecojustice Programs in 2012.

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