When I embarked on my “Laudato Si’” walking pilgrimage from Rome to Krakow last year, one of the highlights of the trip was Umbria in Italy. There, I followed in the footsteps of St. Francis and happened to stumble upon the cave where the saint of Assisi composed the famed “Canticle of the Sun.” As the sunlight broke into the dark cave and the birdsongs echoed in the forest I got a glimpse of why this Canticle was such an appropriate inspiration for our latest encyclical on ecology.
While you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can learn a lot about an encyclical from its title. Laudato Si’ means “Praised be” in Umbrian. Encyclicals are usually written and titled in Latin and there are very few exceptions in the millennial history of the Catholic Church. If a Pope chooses a non-Latin title, he is doing so to make a point. At first there was some confusion about whether the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical was to be Laudato Sii (Latin), but the Pope explicitly chose “Laudato Si’” in the original Umbrian of St. Francis of Assisi. What is the point Pope Francis is trying to make with the Umbrian title?
First of all, the encyclical’s title is a reference to the “Canticle of the Sun,” by St. Francis of Assisi, who was also the inspiration for the Pope’s name. Picking a name is the first decision made by a new pontiff and it usually indicates his priorities. No pope has ever chosen to be called Francis before, and it has been over a millennium (since Pope Lando in 913) that a pope has chosen an original papal name. Therefore, by invoking St. Francis of Assisi in the title of the encyclical, Pope Francis is being true to what he believes he is about as pope. About his name he has said, “That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” In a certain sense, the name Francis and these three characteristics outline the program of the Pope’s pontificate.
Laudato Si’ is intended to be read and understood by everyone. It opens, “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people.” Therefore, the language of the encyclical is simple and accessible. Pope Francis uses phrases like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth (porqueria)” (21). Just like Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun,” Laudato Si’ is filled with passages of lyrical and poetic beauty: “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face” (233). This is unusual language for an encyclical, and its style is distinctly colloquial, accessible, and down to earth. Laudato Si’ is something that anyone can read.
Indeed, it almost seems that everyone has read it. The encyclical was highly anticipated, praised, and criticized even before it was published. Upon its release, major media outlets including the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist, among many others, published multiple articles about it. Even the president of the United States and several world leaders made remarks about the encyclical. Of course, not everyone was happy with Laudato Si’. Some Catholics were expecting an air-tight doctrinal treatise on creation, while others thought of it as a political manifesto or climate policy white paper. The encyclical was none of these… which leads us to the final point, concerning the genre of the encyclical.
The title Laudato Si’ is somewhat ground breaking, or “edgy,” like the choice of Francis for a papal name. This “edginess” anticipates what I will call the “prophetic” genre of the encyclical. Laudato Si’ is Francis’ example of a prophetic “wake up” call in which he takes the side of “the poor and the powerless.” One commentator picked up on this prophetic genre: “Francis has penned a cri de coeur… Like the prophet Ezekiel, Pope Francis sees perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy….” We must recognize the novelty of the style of this encyclical – it is not an “application of Catholic social doctrine to help us think in a disciplined way about how to respond to environmental threats,” but rather a prophetic and poetic appeal for change.
Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer familiar with the Pope’s language and style, came to the following conclusion, “The pope is almost saying: ‘You may not believe in God, but if you believe in ecology, you can’t ignore this.” Laudato Si’ invites people of all beliefs to stop, reflect and pay attention. Much like the legacy of the saint of Assisi who shook up the world in his time, the encyclical that bears his mark has had and continues to have its desired effect.
Ricardo Simmonds is the Environmental Policy Advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development, within the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the USCCB.
Every year, for the Feast of St. Francis on October 4th, Catholic Climate Covenant produces a free catechetical resource to help faith communities explore how they can better care for creation and the poor. Get the resource.
 One of the most recent exceptions was Pope Pius XI’s prophetic ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ (With Burning Anxiety), a denunciation of the ideas of the Third Reich, smuggled into Germany and read out from the pulpits of Catholic churches on Palm Sunday in 1937.
 Laudato Si’ was published during the Year of Consecrated Life, for which , Pope Francis called all consecrated persons ‘“to wake up the world” since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy’, and ‘prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side.’” See https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_lettera-ap_20141121_lettera-consacrati.html