Laudato Si’: The prayer behind the encyclical

Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si’ is named after a famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi. Here are seven things you need to know about the prayer behind the encyclical.

1. Laudato Si’ is the song of St. Francis’ life.

Unlike some other prayers attributed to St. Francis, Laudato Si’ was actually written by the saint. He wrote it after he had already received the stigmata, and would sing the canticle throughout the day.

2. He wrote the section praising death as he was dying.

St. Francis ended the canticle by praising “sister bodily death.” He wrote these verses as he was dying.

“It’s a beautiful example of how we’re called to live,” Father John Lager, O.F.M., Cap., said.

3. It isn’t a New Age anthem.

St. Francis didn’t write songs to the ambiguous force of nature. Instead, he praised God for each individual creature.

In his book “St. Francis of Assisi,” G.K. Chesterton states, “St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.”

Each stanza of the prayer is dedicated to a specific creation, to whom St. Francis assigned a title. He gives the sun an honorific title, calling it “my lord Brother Sun.” Wind, however, is simply his brother. He didn’t jumble all of creation—he thanked God for each individual entity.

4. St. Francis really, really loved all of creation.

St. Francis didn’t love the moon, wind, etc. because they were pretty; he loved them because they revealed their maker.

“To St. Francis, everything in creation reflected back God’s beauty, loveliness and majesty,” Father Lager said. “He had a tremendous love of seeing Christ incarnationally.”

5. St. Francis saw stewardship as a means of praising God.

Father Lager said that Pope Francis echoed this sentiment in his encyclical.

“He wants us to ask how we can give praise to God, like St. Francis did, and give thanks for our common home,” Father Lager said.

6. St. Francis saw connections between everything in creation.

“I think Pope Francis wants us to see how way back in the Middle Ages, St. Francis saw this interconnectedness as a great gift,” Father Lager said. “He sees in St. Francis this great interconnectedness with each other, with God, and with creation. There’s harmony in all of that.”

7. St. Francis didn’t only care about the moon and the trees.

Father Lager said that if St. Francis were alive today, he doubts his first sermon would be about nature.

“I’m sure that he’d want to preach about … the unconcern for the very poor,” Father Lager said. “People are raising their children in garbage heaps—literally. We should care about that.”


COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”