Wednesday, October 4, was a busy day in Rome. It started with Pope Francis releasing Laudate Deum, a sort of update to his groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si’. Released more than eight years ago, Laudato Si’ was the first such document to focus on the environment, specifically on the disasters threatened by global warming, consumerism, and overdevelopment. The release date was deliberate: October 4 is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name this pope took upon his election and whose resonance he clearly intends to invoke. (“Laudato Si’” are the opening words of Saint Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun,” also called the “ Canticle of the Creatures”.) The medieval mystic and itinerant friar is well-known even among non-Catholics for engaging the natural world—reputedly preaching to birds and taming a wolf—as well as for his attempts at rapprochement with non-Christians.
It’s no coincidence that the pope also chose the Feast of Saint Francis as the day to open the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a major step in what he hopes will be the most important church reform of his pontificate. For the uninitiated: Synods are essentially meetings of church leaders, but this assembly will be the latest in a so-called ongoing “synod on synodality,” that is, deliberation on the synods’ model of decision-making. It’s the culmination of a three-year process of collective discernment that has involved millions of lay Catholics from across the globe. His ambitions for the synod parallel his hopes for Laudate Deum: Both aim to rethink the existing structures of dialogue in the church—and in the world at large—in pursuit of an ambitious goal: the inclusion of the voice of every stakeholder.
Within the church, that meant making the bold move of expanding the voting membership of the synod beyond the bishops and their clerical assistants to include the laity and, more dramatically, women. Francis wants to see something similar happen in the world at large. While his warning of environmental catastrophe is what lingers in most people’s minds, the truly revolutionary proposal of Laudato Si’ was its call to a universal dialogue. In that encyclical, Francis sought “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
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