The sensation of raindrops and the smell of petrichor took on special significance for me as I walked around the Eremo delle Carceri, the austere but beautiful site where St. Francis spent significant time in prayer and contemplation over eight hundred years ago. Nestled in the forests of Monte Subasio and roughly three miles from Assisi, the hermitage complex (developed after St. Francis’s death) is today home to Franciscans who welcome visitors from all over the world to tour the old haunts of the saint and his early followers.
On a humid but pleasant early June afternoon, Friar Daniele, a young Franciscan with a wealth of knowledge on St. Francis and the order, welcomed the nearly thirty participants of the Spirituality and Sustainability Conference for a meditative walking tour of the site. After an hour of ducking and contorting to fit through the narrow spaces––including the rooms (or caves) where St. Francis slept, prayed, and ate––we made our way to a simple garden for moments of reflection and conversation with Friar Daniele. Midway through the session, a light rain began to fall, as if to remind us to pause and reflect on our utter dependence on the natural world. Or perhaps it was St. Francis blessing us before we resumed our difficult and sobering explorations of our impact on the environment.
Before heading to Assisi for the crux of the conference, we had first gathered in Rome. There, Father Joshtrom Kureethadam celebrated a Mass and facilitated a rich dialogue on Pope Francis’s landmark 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’. The consensus among participants was that we live in a time of intense ecological and social breakdown––and so responses must be swift, compassionate, cooperative, and transformative. “The urgency of the ecological situation demands that we come together across differences to address the serious threats to our common home,” one conference-goer said after a moment of reflection.
My own meditations were a bit more hardened and perhaps less hopeful. On a walk through the city, I stopped to marvel at the way some ants were devouring the carcass of a grasshopper. Decay and death are also part of nature, I thought. As living organisms, the deaths of other life-forms allow us to live in a precarious cycle. Our own flesh will one day cease to exist. If we are to respond to the ecological crises, we must be realistic and acknowledge both our own participation in the cycle of life and death and our own inevitable demise. What if the starting point of ecological transformation is death instead of life, a hope that begins from acknowledgment of our faults and interdependence instead of a premature celebration of our technological prowess and “rugged individualism”?
Laudato si’, released in 2015 to much acclaim, once gave me hope. I believed the encyclical would galvanize U.S. Catholics––laity and clergy alike––to take stock of their own behaviors and levels of consumption and to take actions, both small and large, toward curbing environmental degradation. At the very least, I thought, the first-ever encyclical on the environment would propel changes in how we understand faith in relation to the natural world, prompting revolutions in preaching, liturgies, religious education, and even perhaps in public policy. But as time passed, it seems the encyclical has had little impact on most Catholics’ views. In the United States and around the world, many Catholics remain skeptical or apathetic when it comes to the environment.