Francis on environmental education and spirituality

Brent Fernandez, who teaches at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tenn., tends the school garden with some of his students Aug. 12. Fernandez is incorporating Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato Si'," into their curriculum this school year. (CNS photo/Theresa Laurence)
This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

In the last chapter of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis begins by acknowledging that “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” The path to change comes through education and spirituality.

“We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone,” he asserts. “This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.”

The problem is that compulsive consumerism “leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume,” but “obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”

“Yet, all is not lost,” believes Francis, “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.” But this requires our taking an honest look at ourselves and changing our lifestyle.

Quoting the Earth Charter he asserts, “As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning. ... Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.”

“Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment,” he writes.

An environmental spirituality, according to Francis, would include:

•  Being “capable of going out of ourselves towards the other.”
•  Unconcern about things for the sake of others.
•  Setting “limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings.”
•  “Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption.”
•  Being attuned “to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us.”
•  Overcoming individualism and developing “a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.”

Environmental education is important in developing this spirituality. It should include “scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks” as well as “a critique of ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market).”

Education must “promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature,” says Francis. “Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”

Environmental education must lead to a change in lifestyle, including “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

Christian spirituality has a precious contribution to make in responding to the environment crisis because it “can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world,” according to Francis. A commitment to this goal cannot be sustained without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity,” he writes, quoting from Evangelii Gaudium.

In other words, what is required is an “ecological conversion,” whereby the effects of Christians’ “encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them,” writes Francis. “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Pope Francis warns against hoping that the ecological crisis can be solved by individual conversion alone. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds,” he says. “The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.”

This conversion is founded on a better awareness of our place in the world.

It begins with gratitude, “a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.”

“It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion,” he writes.

It also includes “the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light.”

Finally, “there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore.”

What would a Christian environmental spirituality look like?

“Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle,” explains Francis, “one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.”

It includes

  • “the conviction that ‘less is more.’”
  • “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little.”
  • “a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.”

This does not lead to a sad life, but to a life of joy and peace for those who “enjoy more and live better each moment.”

“Even living on little, they can live a lot,” writes Francis, “above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.”

“Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life,” explains Francis. “Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?”

“An integral ecology is made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” but it is also civic and political and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”

“Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also ‘macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones,’” he says.

This “social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ which permeates all of society.”

“When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics,” he writes, “we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.”

For Francis, spirituality does not mean turning away from the world. There is a mystical meaning to be found in everything in the universe, declares Francis. A good spirituality finds God not only in the interior of our hearts but also in creatures outside of ourselves, whether it be “in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”  

“The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life,” explains Francis. “Water, oil, fire and colours are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.”

“Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature,” affirms Francis.

Quoting Pope John Paul, he notes, “Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation.”

It is in the Eucharist that “The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter,” writes Francis. “Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God.”

“The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation,” he continues. “The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration.” Quoting Pope Benedict, he notes that in the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself.”

Environmental spirituality is also Trinitarian because “The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways.”

At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with God and “be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude,” he concludes. “In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.”

At the conclusion of what Francis calls this “lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling,” he proposes two prayers. The first can be shared with all who believe in God, while the second is specifically Christian.

In the first prayer, we recognize God’s presence in all of creation and ask him to pour upon us his love so that we can rescue the abandoned and forgotten. We ask for healing so we can protect the world and not prey upon it. “Teach us,” we pray, “to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature.” And the prayer concludes, “Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.”

In the final prayer, we acknowledge not only the Creator but also the Son “who became part of this earth.” We profess that in his risen glory he is alive in every creature. And we recognize the Holy Spirit guiding the world “towards the Father’s love” and accompanying “creation as it groans in travail.”

We ask the Triune Lord to “teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe” and to “show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth.”

We pray especially that “those who possess power and money ... may avoid the sin of indifference, ... love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live.”

“Help us, we pray, “to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty.”

This is the sixth of a series of columns on the chapters of Laudato Si’. The first chapter was examined in “Pope Francis: 'Facts are more important than ideas'”; the second in "Revelation and creation: respecting and sharing God’s gift​"; the third in "Pope Francis: Technology + greed = disaster​"; the fourth in "Integral ecology: everything is connected​"; and the fifth in "Saving the environment through dialogue and transparency." 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]


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