The Ancient Song Behind the Title of Pope Francis’ New Encyclical

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Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca / Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis just released his encyclical on the environment titled Laudato Si. Its the first papal encyclical to be dedicated to care for the environment and so represents an important development of the Church’s teachings on the matter.

Its title, Laudato Si, is the first two words of the encyclical, which opens with the line: “Laudato si, mi Signore!” (“Be praised, my Lord!”) This is a quote from the 13th century song “Canticle of the Sun,” written by Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. So it seems like a fitting title!

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St. Francis of Assisi was born in the late 12th century to a rich family and at first indulged in selfishness and immorality. But then as a young man he had a radical conversion experience, renounced his family’s wealth, and began roaming the countryside preaching the Gospel, caring for the poor, and rebuilding run-down churches.

He also had a deep appreciation of nature. This wasn’t simply because he thought nature was useful, but because he saw that, like him, it was all created by God for His glory. When he beheld the natural world around him, he saw that he was a part of God’s harmonious natural order, and the beauty of it all proclaimed the wondrous majesty of God.

So, about two years before his death, while recovering from an illness, he wrote his “Canticle of the Sun,” in which he identifies various parts of creation as his brother and sister, and exults in how they give praise to God. Apparently, he was suffering from blindness at the time, and so he dictated the words to someone nearby.

He may have been inspired by Psalm 19.1-4, which proclaims:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

He also may have been inspired by the great “Canticle of the Three Children” found in Daniel 3.51-90, in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego sing a long song of praise to God, listing how various parts of creation praise God, while they were miraculously protected in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.

So there is a solid tradition in Scripture for seeing nature as something that reveals and glorifies God. St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” is a particularly beautiful expression of this tradition.

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Here is the full text of “Canticle of the Sun”:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

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