Francis, at the Heart of an Ecological Conversion

by | Oct 26, 2015 | Justice, Pope Francis

In following Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, I was moved by a report of New Yorkers moved to tears after just a brief moment of seeing Francis on the popemobile passing by.

The last time I saw such a cheering, adoring, tearing, screaming and selfie-ing crowd was for a One Direction concert in Sydney, Australia.

While one could view Pope Francis as just another celebrity, those teary-eyed New Yorkers weren’t the teens and tweens idolizing One Direction. Rather, the reaction of these adults points to something significant — something of the heart — in all that Francis is doing.

In my own experience, I have similarly found his latest encyclical, Laudato Si’: care of our common home, to be a matter of the heart.


In mid August, we Jesuits in Timor-Leste (East Timor)1 were given parts of Laudato Si’ to pray with during our eight-day retreat together. We were asked to consider that Francis is giving us a personal invitation, a call to care for our common home.

Francis’ words stuck with me as I read the beginning parts of the encyclical. He says, “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” [Laudato Si’, 12].

While I previously had an intellectual understanding of the need to respond to what we then called ‘global warming,’ I did not have an affective understanding — a feeling in my heart — of my inherent relationship with my human family and our common home, the earth.

As an architect, I advocated for sustainable design, but my interest in sustainable architecture and effort to reduce my own carbon footprint was essentially a kind of exercise to reassure myself that I was ‘doing’ my part and could get on with my life. In many ways, it was also a kind of resignation that the problems of climate change were so much bigger than what I can personally solve.

Feelings of compassion, grief and hopelessness started arising, however, when I learned of how my friend’s country of Kiribati is sinking in the rising water in the ocean. Where will all the people of this country go?2

Now, being in East Timor, I am brought much closer to the struggles of the poor and the environment. I have felt the sense of loss when seeing trees cut down for “progress.” In this country, it is not difficult to see the inherent relationship between people and their land.

Pacific Sunset

Photo by author

I believe the appeal of Pope Francis is a call for conversion of the heart. In the last chapter of his encyclical, he refers to an “ecological conversion.” My feeling after reading Laudato Si’ was that Francis was speaking to me “heartfully,”3 or from the heart.

I could feel this because of our separate, but not too dissimilar, experiences of being with the poor: Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio) in Argentina and I in Timor-Leste. When I previously lived in Australia and the United States, struggles of the poor and environmental degradations were largely hidden by beautiful and prosperous cities. In Timor-Leste, however, the poor are large in number and the effects of climate change make it even more difficult just to survive.

In our views of one another, it is often easy to emphasize the differences between human beings, but Francis calls us to consider the inherent connection we have with one another as members of the human family living in this common home — each endowed with inviolable dignity.

Conversion of the heart is enabled — the heart is open to change, and open to one another — when we see in one another this inviolable dignity of the human person. On that basis rests Francis’ call for us to be in touch with the matter of the heart, to discern together what is the deepest common desire of the human family. Francis takes us even further by including all living creatures on this earth in what he calls a “communion of creatures.” Conversion then is a change in how we see one another as human beings, and how we see our relationship with nature.


An encounter between two hearts, as Adam Rosinski, SJ says, is an encounter in which we are open to one another as we truly are. In this encounter something changes in us. That’s a conversion. That is the stuff of the heart which propels us to be a bit more of what we deeply desire to be.

Laudato Si’ is a call for the conversion of our hearts, the heart of humanity. The science has already spoken loudly about the degradations we have inflicted on the earth. A dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet cannot begin when our hearts are detached from one another and from mother earth. When we experience personal and communal conversion of heart we can have hope that humanity together can help care for our common home.

Pope Francis says, “Young people demand change” [12]. Is this a real change of heart, one that propels us to change our ways? Or is it more a change in preference, like a shift from following Backstreet Boys to One Direction? Only the former, true conversion, will help make our common home a livable earth and peaceful world for the future. If it is the latter, then we are merely shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.


Cover image by Lawrence OP from Flickr Creative Commons can be found here.

  1. Timor-Leste is the official Portuguese name of the country. Check out a bit of East Timor’s history here.
  2. … and, rising sea water as the result of “global warming could impact the Miami club scene.” More young people at church?
  3. In a video message to a conference of American Pentecostal Ministers on Christian unity, Pope Francis apologizes for having to speak to them in Italian instead of English. With that, he wishes to speak “heartfully” to them.