Yesterday I talked about the new papal encyclical on the environment and the need to study the document critically. So I was surprised to see that my New York Times carried a story today about the limited discussion of the encyclical from the pulpit. Reporters interviewed churchmen and worshippers around the world and noted that Laudate Si was not mentioned in many big city Masses, including unidentified ones in North Carolina and Rhode Island. In the peculiar ways of journalism, the story actually hones in on preachers who did address the encyclical, noting that some clerics had prepared to address the subject when first news of such an encyclical went out months ago.
The famous late Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill would have understood. He is reputed to have coined the phrase, “All politics is local.” Very often the same can be said about preaching. Since my wife is still away on mission, I have been going to Mass in smaller, more rural settings which I prefer, and this weekend past I returned to the church I pastored for a decade. The pastor there now is an old friend of mine who served in my present parish for many years before heading out to the “foliage capital of the world,” as our town here used to be called. He did not preach on the encyclical, but on the Charleston tragedy, which is totally understandable. At the end of the sermon a gentleman behind me said to someone in a whisper, “good talk.” It was, as this sad American experience is indeed a teachable moment, a catechetical one if you will, that screams for acknowledgement and prayerful reflection.
Not to repeat myself from yesterday, but I don’t know exactly how one would preach on the encyclical several days after its release. At some juncture this year some commentary from a pastor on the existence and importance of the document is appropriate, virtually mandatory. But the “preaching call” so to speak is study and prayer over a magisterial or official Church teaching document. Documents have a life all their own and it remains to be seen how Catholics (and the general public for that matter) will receive, interpret and implement Pope Francis’ teaching.
In fact, I wonder if such teachings are more appropriately suited to the catechetical ministry, which is the forum of study, prayer and service. The Times story links to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or USCCB, which has a study guide web page on the encyclical. I looked at it and my first impressions are favorable; the pastoral guide does merge lofty ideals with practical living recommendations. It also struck me that the catechesis process will need to begin ground zero with a strong orientation to the biblical nature of creation, because some of the USCCB talking points are significantly counter-culture to United States customs. For example, participants in the USCCB study program are encouraged to use mass transit over individual autos. It doesn’t take a Tip O’Neill to quickly see a link between papal teaching and state and local tax policies. Our new Orlando Sun Rail, presently a north-south only artery, lost $27 million in its first year.
The USCCB site gives a general outline of the encyclical; from my cursory look I would say that the message and goals here are so extensive that the best hope for its implementation is its integration into Catholic teaching programs, texts, and the regular Sunday preaching. It may be that this is what the pope intended, that this document is his Catechism of the Catholic Church, so to speak. The length alone reminds me of the old saying about the literary classics: “the greatest books that everyone claims to have read but no one has.” This is not a document of solitary inspiration, but rather, it is an exhaustive world vision. I think that there will be a lot of committee work at all levels of Catholic education and faith formation about how to integrate Laudate Si into current curriculum and practice.
From what I am reading from a number of commentators I trust, the encyclical draws together the Lordship of God over all creation, the dignity of every human life, and the moral need to reorder the management of the planet in a way that reflects the worth of every human life. If I am right, this message will be heard as hopeless utopianism, clerical Marxism, or a brilliant practical faith and morals agenda for the baptized, and all those of good will.
Preaching does matter, so long as it is not cherry picking from a document whose ink is still wet. It is from the pulpit that we are roused from hopelessness and resignation over today’s evils to joyful expectation and creative energy. It is in the pulpit that utopianism is translated into Christian eschatology of a Kingdom here but yet to come in its full glory. In truth, this is always what preaching should be, Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps, just perhaps, Francis has given the liturgical experience a precious jump start. We will see.