Reflection on Laudato si’: Nature, nurture and human ecology

Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, a priest of the Liverpool Archdiocese and currently a lecturer at the English College in Rome, gave this reflection on the Pope's forthcoming Encyclical 'Laudato si' on Sunday, 14 June 2015. He looked at nature, nurture and human ecology.

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Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, a priest of the Liverpool Archdiocese and currently a lecturer at the English College in Rome, gave this reflection on the Pope’s forthcoming Encyclical ‘Laudato si’ on Sunday, 14 June 2015. He looked at nature, nurture and human ecology.


Sunday’s readings about cedars and palms, and about seeds growing and being transformed, are more appropriate than usual because, at midday on Thursday 18 June, we shall all be able to read Pope Francis’ new Encyclical Letter, entitled “Laudato si’, on the care of our common home”.

When he spoke to the journalists who had been in Rome to cover his election, the Holy Father explained why he chose the name of Saint Francis of Assisi. He said, “for me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days, we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” Now we shall find out what the Pope wants to teach us about loving and protecting creation.

The Encyclical’s title begins in every translation with those Italian words which open Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Brother Sun, or Canticle of the Creatures: Laudato si’, “Praised be you, my Lord”.

Something that jumps out at me from Sunday’s first reading is God’s power: “every tree of the field will learn that I, the Lord, am the one who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow”. The people who heard the Prophet Ezekiel would have known that he was referring to the arrogance of certain kings; as often happens, the Prophet’s job is to remind us where God is in our lives. The trees are God’s creation; it is God who gives them life. We, too, are God’s creation, and it is God who gives us life.

I have always loved the parables in Sunday’s Gospel. The mustard seed, “at its sowing the smallest of all the seeds on earth”, grows into a shrub with branches so big that “the birds of the air can shelter in its shade”. But Mark puts that parable after another one which stresses that this growth is not something we control. The man scatters seed on his land and “night and day, while he sleeps, while he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know”; when the time is ripe, and not a day sooner, he is able to harvest his crops. Jesus and the Prophets ask us to recognise the order in the world around us, to respect nature and to let nature take its course.

People who have been talking about the coming Encyclical have said it will be about “the environment”. I feel sure that Pope Francis will stress that the common home which needs our care is God’s creation, God’s gift. We are stewards, not owners, and our task is to care for what is God’s.

Last week my mind went off on a tangent when I was reading Sunday’s Gospel. My fingers are anything but green. No plant I have had has ever survived. So I tend to think of the farmer sowing seeds and watching them grow as a distant figure in a book or a painting. Some of you have very green fingers, and you may even have helped out on a farm, so for you the parable is closer to home.

There is one seed that is very important in everyone’s life-story, and that is the seed that became you. I took a risk and e-mailed several women I know who have had children. I said I had to give a homily on the parable about the seed that grows night and day, quite independently of the sower, and asked them if they could write a couple of sentences about their experience of pregnancy, the growth of the seed in them, and what watching it grow was like for them.

After the e-mail had gone it struck me that this might be a cheeky request or slightly mad. So when the first reply came I was really relieved. I was also very, very moved. Over the week eight more replies came, one from someone who had not even received an e-mail from me.

Two of the women thought they would never have children, so the news that they were pregnant overwhelmed them with joy. Those at the older end had no idea what was in store, so just got on with it, but those who are younger – and one who is a doctor – knew so much that worry and even fear were part of their experience.

One, who must be wonder-woman, “absolutely loved the whole experience”, but even she had “feelings of anticipation and anxiety in equal measure”. A few mentioned how nice people were to them, even total strangers. Most of them described feeling their babies wriggling and kicking and looking down and seeing the shapes of legs and arms moving around inside. Some of them described talking to their babies or dreaming of them; they are convinced that communicating during pregnancy has a lot to do with the close bond they have with their children.

What struck me more than anything else was what two of the women wrote about the strength of their protective instinct. One said “I felt very protective towards my growing seed, in that same way that mothers in the animal world would do anything to protect their young” and another explained how a winter flu affected her: “This is usually when I am the first to the Beechams etc. But you come last now – put this child before yourself – a first of many times to come. Protect this child at all costs”. They were writing about the child still inside them, even early on in their pregnancies. Another mother wrote this after having her children: “now they depend on me, they are under my protection and God sent them to me for me to love them ‘without limits’.”

I am grateful to those nine mothers for their honesty and openness.

People within and far beyond the Christian world are delighted Pope Francis is addressing what many call the environment, what he will certainly call God’s creation. Despite our usual differences his words may draw all sorts of people closer together when he reminds us of our responsibilities as stewards of all God has given us. At the same time, I worry that the voices of my nine mothers may not be so clearly heard. The man who sowed the seed in Sunday’s parable apparently just watched it grow – or did he? I bet he did his best to shoo the gulls and the crows away, and any sensible farmer would be on the lookout for pests. I think the farmer and those mothers, in different ways, did everything possible to keep the seed safe, as well as watching it grow and respecting nature’s timetable. It is tragic that many of the people who cry out against the abuse of the planet and nature think they have every right to interrupt the growth of a human seed. I don’t get it. Nature is paramount, except in that one case.

I hope and pray that when we hear what the Holy Father says in the new Encyclical, our respect for nature will grow and be thoroughly consistent. A better understanding of nature could make people more sympathetic to the mum who said, “protect this child at all costs”, and to the wisdom of respecting and caring for human life right through from conception to natural death.

On a more important level, I also hope and pray that some of us may be inspired by what the late Cardinal Winning said to people who had no idea how to cope with a pregnancy: he asked “any person in that situation, of any ethnic background, of any faith, from anywhere” to “come to us”; his promise was “we will help you”. He made the same offer to people who had had an abortion: “come to us…; we will help you”. It isn’t about preaching or pillorying people, but offering them hope. God reward Cardinal Winning and those who supported him, and God give us the courage to offer people in an unenviable situation the same hope as he did.

The Mums’ Experiences

S: I can tell you that I absolutely loved the whole experience of being pregnant. I remember having wonderful feelings of anticipation and anxiety in equal measure. I know that I was lucky in that I did feel healthier than I had at any time (before or since) and not everyone is so fortunate. What I loved most was that I never felt alone during those 9 months and what is also wonderful is that there is so much information these days on what’s actually going on in there (not always good news for the squeamish I suppose!)

M: First thought when I found out I was pregnant at the age of 39 was immense joy! To be honest my husband and I could not believe it and we were over the moon and excited. Behind the lovely element of surprise came fear I suppose. Without having had prior experience of illness and suffering I think that this emotion could potentially have been a bit crippling but because of our faith in God and past history I carried on as normal. Besides as a busy GP I did not have much time to think about it. Most of the pregnancy was beautiful and full of hope for a new future with untold opportunities and expectations. Luckily I was healthy really till the third trimester. As a doctor I knew my risks were greater of high blood pressure and complications at my elderly age and had a nagging feeling something would happen! In fact it was very scary when the old BP went rocketing and eclampsia developed and I thought we were both going to die. However the seed grew and even though was premature and tiny is now a practising doctor herself!!!! Who says miracles do not happen. What utter joy to see what happened to this particular seed.

E: Knowing that you have a life inside you is something wonderful. At first you are unaware… just sensations, but then day after day this little being grows and as it grows as well as sensations there is an awareness that there is something alive in you.

It begins to move; you feel it, it kicks you and hiccoughs…, and then, as your tummy grows, so does the fear of giving birth, but at the same time there is a growing desire and happiness at the idea of seeing and getting to know the little baby boy or girl who has been part of your body for all these months.

And when it is born, a tear of joy falls on your cheek… and it is just love… pure love, now they depend on me, they are under my protection and God sent them to me for me to love them “without limits”.

H: I seem to remember feel elated and very excited, the nine months seemed to last forever. People also treated me so kindly, it was so nice for someone you didn’t know to stop you in the street and just ask how things were going, how you were feeling, when the baby was due. It was as if they wanted to share the joy. It made me feel like royalty.

Fortunately, I was well during the pregnancy but can remember feeling worried about the birth. I had 10lb babies and a bit of a tough time in hospital. It is really strange how you have so much trust and come to rely on people you don’t know at all, and what strength and support they give you.

E: I got to an age where I really, really wanted a child and you expect things to happen immediately! Of course sometimes they take time! When I finally conceived the elation was overwhelming – telling family and friends a great thrill. Then reality kicks in…. this is to be a person, what will he/she be like and ultimately will the baby be healthy. Of course the many checks confirm this as you travel along the journey but until that child is finally in your arms, who can be sure? Will it be a girl or a boy – oh the anticipation.

Considering us ladies strive the majority of time to stay slim, something overtakes and I couldn’t wait to get bigger, knowing that this meant all was well and this little person was growing well and soon be here. I never actually felt frightened by giving birth, although everybody like to tell you a horror story. It is a day to look forward to and nature and excitement keeps you calm. It is a day in your life you have to get through to win the ultimate prize. I was extremely well during both pregnancies, apart from flu in the early stages both times. This is when usually I am the first to the Beechams etc., but you come last now – put this child before yourself – a first of many times to come. Protect and shield this child at all costs.

The day dawns – the pain – then the waiting is finally over. They were born. Never has pain or the memory of such pain vanished so quickly. Nature is truly wonderful.

B: as you can imagine it was all a long time ago but what I do remember is a sense of it all being how it should be. In my time there was less anxiety (we just weren’t aware of all the problems that could arise or we were as they say in Italian incosciente!!) and it was actually a very happy time with lots to plan and I can remember especially when expecting my first baby that I dreamt of this blond blue-eyed boy which he did turn out to be (remember we had no scans to tell us boy or girl!).

P: For what it’s worth, I loved being pregnant every time and I felt beautiful, glowing and full of energy – that’s mostly the hormone rush, of course, rather than anything deeply spiritual. I also felt very protective towards my growing seed, in that same way that mothers in the animal world would do anything to defend their young. It felt very natural and easy so I tried to keep as far away from the doctors as possible – avoiding most of the tests and products they try and persuade you to take here, particularly if you are an older mother.

During the later months, it’s a weird and wonderful feeling as the baby moves around and you can see its arms and legs pushing your stomach into strange shapes – I’m sure you can watch that on YouTube somewhere…

I felt very connected to my children, wondering what they would look like and I remember dreaming about G as a toddler before she was born – a dream which came back to me when she was starting to walk.

Although I know G would now tell me that I’ve been too conditioned by our patriarchal society, I always felt that it was the most significant and momentous thing I’d do – that I was carrying the future inside me. And whatever success or challenges I’ve had at work or elsewhere, I feel it all rather pales in comparison with my sense of purpose/ pride/achievement in watching my (at times still completely impossible) kids grow and make their own way in the world.

Are those rather romanticised musings of a menopausal mum any use? I doubt it, but it beats getting down to the boring routine of….

A: Where to start? I don’t think there is any other experience which takes you through such a wide range of feelings and emotions. In the beginning, it’s excitement, you can hardly believe it, want to tell everybody, but common sense says it’s wise to wait a while. The nine months of growing – apart from the scan you don’t see the baby, everything you know about him/her is a mysterious mixture of “funny feelings” until you get used to it: kicking, jumping, squirming. It keeps you awake at night, and when he/she/they stay still, you worry and hope they’re just sleeping. All the time you are aware that each one is a little miracle, unique and precious. You can’t wait to see them.

There’s anxiety, praying that they will make it, nothing will go wrong, and they will be healthy. When they arrive – it’s relief. You count the limbs, fingers and toes, rejoice and feel so lucky. From that day on, you count your blessings, every day… and I still do!

K: My first child (J): delighted that I was able to conceive (I’m a worrier), very excited, pressing awareness that it could easily end in miscarriage, resolution to love the baby no matter the length of its life so I communicated with him from the earliest days of the pregnancy, telling him that he was loved and precious no matter what happened. On passing the 12 week mark, feeling much more secure. Later in the pregnancy, a bit freaked out at being able to see limbs moving around. I used to lie down and stare at my tummy for ages, watching James moving around.

Second child (T): Considered myself an expert, quite smug and blase and missed out on the wonder a little bit.

H: Third child, fourth pregnancy: Every milestone was a relief but also a worry. Very medicalised pregnancy, lots of worry, possibility of stillbirth. I made an effort not to think about the baby so if I lost her I wouldn’t be so bereft. Didn’t trust my body to keep her safe so it was a much more alien experience. I didn’t feel as though the baby and I were together, it was more precarious than that.

T: Glorious pregnancy, an absolute blessing and gift. I decided that whilst I couldn’t control the outcome, I could control how I dealt with things. I consciously relaxed (hypnotherapy!) and communicated with her all the way through. Rejoiced in every stage. Felt as though I knew her personality and she knew me, that we were a unit. Towards the end of all pregnancies, overwhelmed, exhausted. Not in a bad way but need the end to come. Also in all pregnancies, when I feel unwell there’s a strong feeling of the baby being a parasite, sucking all that’s good from you and leaving you the dregs. Sometimes this can be met with calm acceptance, sometimes you’re just too weary to think anything.

Readings for Sunday, 14 June 2015