Shortly after moving to the Bronx, my roommates and I were blessed with the opportunity to get to know two people who moved into the apartment above us whose life and work was steeped in the practice and culture of liberation theology. I was intrigued by the many stories they told of oppressed peoples in Central and South America, and even here in the United States, rising up and confronting the established powers with the power of the Gospel. The power of the Gospel in the hands of the poor and oppressed seemed like something St. Francis of Assisi would have rejoiced at seeing.
While I do not profess to be an expert in liberation theology or the history of the Latin American church, I have learned from Joseph Nangle OFM in his book Engaged Spirituality that the liberation theology movement led to a decision made at the 1968 Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Medellín, Colombia, to prioritize the poor over the privileges of the established order. The impact of this decision by the church hierarchy was not inconsequential: more and more people sought to join this movement which was improving the authenticity of the church, now that the church was authentically serving the New Creation. And over the next ten years, a thousand people were killed for working to implement this vision, by those who preferred the status quo – continuing the Christian tradition initiated by Jesus of the faithful being persecuted by empire.
This is the backdrop of where our current pope, Francis, was formed and lived out his early years. The Latin American church, Pope Francis, and all they represent show us what it means to live out what Fr. Joe Nangle calls an “engaged spirituality” – a spirituality that impacts how we live every aspect of our lives. Living a life of voluntary poverty, a counter-cultural lifestyle that prefers simplicity to consumerism, is a direct threat to the empire of capitalism that permeates society. Following Jesus’ call to leave everything behind and follow him, the way Francis of Assisi did, leads us more fully into our faith and begs us to develop a deeper spirituality whereby we can live a richer, fuller life. Living out an engaged spirituality allows us to recognize our interdependence with one another and all of God’s creation, and feel a sense of reverence and wonder about it all.
It is from this perspective we can best appreciate what Pope Francis has to share with us in his encyclical Laudato Si’. Pope Francis lays out the framework for an integral ecology – one in which we recognize the responsibility we have as human beings to humbly come to terms with our place in the world. Building on the spirituality and mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi that is so clearly expressed in St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, Pope Francis continues on to “read the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3) and lays out what St. Francis would say “is ours to do” in this day and age, in order for us to rise to a new consciousness and accept the responsibility God gave us when he gave us the gift of life on Earth.
When God became incarnate through Jesus, He did so to show us how to live as a human being on Earth in such a way that would allow us to honor our Creator. Through Jesus and the many parables He gives us throughout the Gospel, we learn how to prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized, not take more than we need, and counter the empire that leads to suffering and injustice. What Pope Francis is doing now is building off of the lessons of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, and many others from recent church history who are also working towards the “New Creation.”
This “New Creation” is what is referred to in the Lord’s Prayer, Isaiah 65, Revelation 21, and in many other places throughout the Bible and religious liturgy. It is the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of so often and invited us to join him in building. We are invited to be co-creators with God, which maybe is another way of interpreting the call St. Francis heard to repair God’s house, when he prayed in front of the cross of San Damiano. What greater honor do we have than the opportunity to accept this supreme invitation?
To build the New Creation, we will need to take a sincere look at the institutionalized racism, economic inequity and environmental injustices surrounding us, and examine our contributions to the injustices and desecration of the ecological web of life. We as humans have pushed our ecosystems beyond that which is sustainable, and it is we humans (especially the most vulnerable, who are least responsible for the desecration) – as well as other creatures – which are suffering the consequences of veering too far away from God’s original plan for humankind. I am of the belief, much like Pope Francis, that the only hope for humanity may lie in the humility and spirituality delineated by the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the posture towards creation he shows in his Canticle of the Creatures.