“Eight days a week
Is not enough to show I care!”
— The Beatles
Pope Francis, continuing the work begun in last year’s encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” has made a radical proposition. On Sept. 1, which was the second annual Catholic World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, he proposed that caring for Earth could be designated as an eighth work of mercy.
An eighth work? We Catholics have long memorized the lists of the seven spiritual works of mercy and the seven corporal works of mercy. There are seven of each, you see. The spiritual works include such acts as praying for the dead, comforting the sorrowful, and instructing the ignorant in the faith. The corporal works are the ones Jesus lists in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and such. (We are often better at memorizing than at doing, but we aspire to incorporate these good deeds into our daily lives.) Our minds are blown by the idea of an eighth work, because seven is that perfect holy number. What is Pope Francis doing?
Perhaps he is counting on us to stretch ourselves to meet new challenges, and to make the eight-days-a-week effort to clean up the planet-wide messes that we ourselves have caused. Perhaps he hopes that this additional work of mercy, which he calls a “complement to the two traditional sets of seven,” can bring about a change of mindset, wherein we are better able to distinguish needs from wants. Perhaps he is encouraging us to reassess our individual responsibility within the greater global good.
In his message on Sept. 1, the pope characterized “care for our common home” as both a spiritual work of mercy — “a grateful contemplation of God’s world” — and a corporal work of mercy, entailing “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.” In this vein, the words of the recently canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta come to mind: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” The pope refocuses on those small, seemingly insignificant, but practical things previously discussed in such as turning off the lights, carpooling, recycling waste, planting trees, eating less meat, farming with fewer chemicals, and consuming less of everything.
The spiritual genius of Pope Francis is that he sees the interconnectedness of all life. The grand concepts of social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice are all directly related to how we treat each other and how we treat our shared planet. The poor disproportionately suffer the consequences of the sins against creation, the sins of selfishness and exploitation, which are perpetuated by economic and political systems that value profit over people. Love and mercy, on the other hand, apply to everyone and everything. In this Year of Mercy, we are to act with mercy, as Jesus did, boundlessly, without mitigation, without hesitation. “The object of mercy,” writes Pope Francis, “is human life and everything it embraces.” We are to be channels of God’s love, which “constantly impels us to find new ways forward.”
I have heard certain Catholics call our current pope a socialist, as a way of blunting his pointed messages of justice and mercy. With this eighth work of mercy, will they now call him a hippie? A granola-head? The Washington Post speaks of the pope’s “green agenda,” which surely makes some folks see red. Pope Francis is indeed a bona fide environmentalist, but because he is the pope, his concern for the earth exists in the context of respect for the Creator. If we love God, we must also love God’s creation: the seas, the clouds, the mountains, the trees, the animals, the people, all of it, every splendid bit. The adjectives “Catholic” and “green,” after all, should not be mutually exclusive. As people of faith, part of our work is to conserve and cherish the earthly abode that God has given us. Pope Francis reminds us that this is our calling, eight days a week, to show that we care enough to take those small steps that just might change the world.