July 2015

Common threads: Francis’ encyclical and Benedict’s rule

The concerns and values expressed in Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si are also central to the rule of St Benedict, says Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald.

By Mary McDonald SGS

The recently published encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home, has drawn unprecedented media attention, both positive and hostile, from religious and world leaders. The Pope has received scathing criticism for being dogmatic on scientific matters, such as climate change, instead of remaining within the theological limits of church matters. Yet this very integrated approach is what I believe makes the encyclical so authentic.

Throughout the entire encyclical, Pope Francis stresses the importance of the interconnectedness of all aspects of life – economic, environmental, human life and conditions, justice and sharing in the common good. Though expressed in different language, these concerns and values are also central to the Rule of Benedict.

Some years ago, I went as a sole pilgrim to the Benedictine Monastery at Subiaco, south of Rome. An Australian monk, Brother John, welcomed me there and his guided tour included a visit to St Gregory’s Chapel in which there was a full-length fresco portrait of the young Friar Francis. According to tradition, it was painted when St Francis had visited to honour St Benedict.

St Benedict taught about the importance of stability and stewardship; St Francis’ song, “Laudato si”, praised the whole of creation. Both saints cared deeply about the whole of creation, so this challenged me to question and explore what Pope Francis’ encyclical has to say to those who follow St Benedict’s sixth-century Rule.

What are some of the commonalities that can deepen our understanding and appreciation of Pope Francis’ and St Benedict’s teaching?

In a strong introduction, Francis says: “This sister [earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (2). Pope Francis calls us to listen “so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49). In addition, he invites us to engage in a contemplative listening to creation that “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us, since ‘for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice’” (85).

Like Pope Francis, Benedict invites us not only to listen, but to more deeply “listen with the ear of the heart” (RB, Prol:1). Such listening becomes a way of being in the world so that I am sensitised to myself, to other people and to the whole of creation. This calls for a contemplative stance, an ability to experience wonder and joy in nature. It can also prompt me to ask: when was the last time I really saw the swift flight of a bird, the delicate beauty of rose petals? Or, more generally, how do I respond to God’s plan and ensure that beauty and peace are integral to the way I live?

Pope Francis warns us that “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously (47). He acknowledges that these technological tools “[give] rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature” (47). This can lead to harmful isolation. It raises another challenging question: how much do I miss or neglect because I am caught up “amid the noise and distractions of an information overload” (47)?

Rather than trying to fill every moment with sound and distraction, the Benedictine way of life is characterised by peace and silence. Benedict instructs his followers to “diligently cultivate silence” (RB, 42:1) and “to control the tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless asked a question” (RB, 7:56, 58). All too often, argument, particularly in controversial matters like climate change, replaces dialogue and respectful listening. It’s hard to follow Benedict’s advice “to be silent and listen” (RB, 7:6) especially so, when one is sure s/he has the most logical and well-researched point of view!

Francis reminds us that “Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families. This is a major issue for human ecology”. (152) He rightly points out that global inequality and environmental problems affect the most vulnerable people, and urges us – “Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting”(162).

Similar words of urgency and encouragement are found in Benedict’s directions to his followers to “relieve the lot of the poor. Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else”. (RB, 4:14-20). He instructs the cellarer, the business manager, that “great care should be lavished on the sick, the children, the guests and the poor” (31:9).

Francis states that “pollution, waste and the throwaway culture” are inextricably linked to the serious situation facing peoples’ and the planet’s health (21), and wisely notes that “caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation” (36).

Wisdom is central to Benedict’s Rule, which refers to the monastic buildings, people and surrounds as the “household of God” and says that the house of God should be in the care of those who will manage it wisely “so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God” (RB, 31:19). For Benedict there was to be no false dichotomy between sacred and profane: “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar and be aware that nothing is to be neglected” (RB, 31:10-11) and “If you desire true and lasting life… seek peace and pursue it” (Prol:17).

Pope Francis speaks of the gospel of creation in which everything is interconnected (16). He calls for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet and calls us to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents” (14).

The encyclical contains challenges at many levels – some personal, communal, national and international. The biggest challenge to each of us is how am I prepared to respond? And to what am I prepared to commit? What Benedictine values impel me to care for creation and shape the future of our planet?

Mary McDonald

Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald has had a long involvement in and commitment to education, the environment and social justice issues. She holds degrees in arts, education, environmental education and theology. Mary lives in Brisbane where among other things, she gardens, plays Mahjong the Chinese way and tutors at Lourdes Hill College.

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