Two years ago, a month before my initiation as a Feri Priest, I wrote about the intense liberation I felt with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, which helped to break the chains the Church still had wrapped around my sense of myself in the world.
Now, freed of that relationship, I am able to read the words of his successor, Pope Francis, with new eyes, and recognize a surprising resonance with my own Pagan practice.
"Pagan" and "Heathen" are words that originally referred to the unchurched and unlettered people of the countryside, and these were the people Francis of Assisi ministered to -- a ministry marked not by conversion but by inclusion in an animist form of Christianity, which saw plants and animals and sun and rain and wind and stars as humanity's kin. It is telling and significant that the saint's namesake draws quite explicitly on that original Franciscan language, theology, and spirit in an encyclical addressed not to Catholics but to the world. The Pope writes:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.And, then, comes the really astounding part:
The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.With these words, Pope Francis challenges the cosmology of capitalism, resurrecting a world that was declared dead, and calling for a new politics and a new economics that recognize the inherent worth and rights of all life, human or otherwise.
He goes on to explicitly condemn anthropocentrism -- a complete reversal of Benedict XVI's position that challenges to the concept of a human centered world were inherently heretical. Writing of biodiversity, he says:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.What we are witnessing here is a fundamental theological shift -- the Pope is moving the Church's position from a view of a world created by God for human use to a view of a world in which all life is sacred.
He aligns himself and the Church, as well, with Indigenous people, taking the position that they are best caretakers of their traditional homelands, and that they deserve to be allowed to honor an protect "a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values." These words are coming from the leader of a Church which for centuries blessed the extermination, forced conversion, and forced assimilation of Indigenous people. Now, witnessing a world devastated by colonialism and capitalism, the Pope is completely rewriting Church doctrine.
Its appropriate that this comes just weeks after the Vatican beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by U.S.-trained assassins for speaking out on behalf of El Salvador's poor. Like Pope Francis, Romero was a quiet and moderate man who distanced himself from politics -- until he could no longer ignore the suffering around him. Romero said "“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried” I wonder at the miracle of the tears that have cleared the eyes of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis believes in a single God. Though he also speaks of Mary, beautifully, as the Mother and Queen of the universe:
Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power. Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus, and all creatures sing of her fairness. She is the Woman, “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty. She treasures the entire life of Jesus in her heart and now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.My spirituality is rooted not in belief, but in relationships -- and my relationships are with many gods - the Feri gods and the gods of my ancestors - and with plants and animals and rivers and stars.
But that is almost all that separates my view of the world from the view Pope Francis articulates in this encyclical.
And that brings great healing to this once Catholic heart.