Some might read an article in a newspaper or magazine about the encyclical. Others might watch a news report or listen to a radio program. But even though Pope Francis has written it for them, few will actually read it.
Eight days ago, Pope Francis published his encyclical on the environment entitled, Laudato Si': On the Care of Our Common Home. Have you read it yet? If not, have you started? If not, do you plan to start?
Odds are that the vast majority of Catholics, including Catholics who read Catholic newspapers like this one, will respond no to those questions. Some might read an article in a newspaper or magazine about the encyclical. Others might watch a news report or listen to a radio program. But even though Pope Francis has written it for them, few will actually read it.
The reason is because most Catholics sadly don't read books that will help them grow in faith. An extensive survey of American Catholics done by folks at Dynamic Catholic a few years back revealed that only one percent read a good Catholic book each year. Only one out of 100 reads at least one a year. And chances are that that Catholic book isn't a papal encyclical.
Yet it's pretty difficult to deepen one's faith and grow in the capacity to spread it confidently and competently to others unless one is studying the faith. It's pretty plain, therefore, that one of the most important sources of renewal of one's life of faith, and of the revitalization of our parishes and the Church as a whole, will come through reading.
As we continue this series on a Catholic Plan of Life, the various spiritual practices that help us to grow in faith, holiness, and apostolic effectiveness, the publication of Laudato Si' is a good time for us to focus on the importance of spiritual reading.
Spiritual reading refers to the practice of prayerfully studying or perusing good spiritual literature: the lives of the saints and other important religious figures, books on prayer and the spiritual life, commentaries on Sacred Scripture or the writings of the saints and great spiritual authors, papal encyclicals and exhortations, bishops' pastoral letters, and works of this genre. The Bible, of course, counts for spiritual reading, but because reading the Bible ought to be a given for Catholics, normally spiritual reading refers to other words besides the Bible. Spiritual reading is done not so much as an exercise of information but of formation, not primarily to learn but to live. It is a particular type of reading done specifically to help oneself grow as a Christian.
When we think about spiritual reading, we can ponder the life-altering impact it had in the lives of some of the greatest saints. St. Augustine converted when he heard an angel saying, "Take and read," and he picked up the Letter to the Romans and read a passage that spoke to him personally of what God was asking. St. Ignatius of Loyola, having read numerous lives of the saints, was moved to ask why he couldn't do what Saints Francis and Dominic had done. While still an atheist, St. Edith Stein pulled an all-nighter reading the biography of St. Teresa of Avila and in the morning, approached by friends, said, "This is the truth." She was baptized soon afterward.
My own spiritual life began to take wings when I began to do spiritual reading as a freshman in college. My parents bought me for Christmas Butler's four-volume Lives of the Saints and for the next decade I spent ten to fifteen minutes each night reading about the saints whose feast day would be celebrated on the morrow. I began prayerfully to read the documents of the Second Vatican Council and of St. John Paul II. I read the spiritual classics written by or about the great saints: I can still remember how much I was changed reading St. Therese Lisieux's Story of a Soul, the biographies of Saints Francis Xavier, John Vianney, and Alphonsus Ligouri, the works on prayer by Saints Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and Josemaria Escriva, and various others.
Spiritual reading is a habit that, I'm grateful, I've never lost. Out of all the aspects of the Plan of Life, I've always found spiritual reading the sweetest after the Mass. To some degree, we become what we read, and so our appetite for spiritual reading is more important to our soul than eating in a healthy way is to our body.
One of the great prophets of the importance of spiritual reading today is Matthew Kelly. In his study of the habits that make for dynamic Catholics, one of the most important he discovered is spiritual reading. Highly engaged Catholics read about 14 minutes a day on average of a good Catholic book, whereas most Catholics don't read at all.
One of the challenges Matthew makes to Catholics is to read five pages of a good Catholic book each day. If that were done, he says, in a given year one would read nine average-size (200 page) Catholic books annually and 241 in a 25-year period. Imagine how much richer and different one's Catholic life and apostolate would be if over the next 25 years, one read nearly 250 Catholic titles. And that can be done by reading simply five pages a day, one page at a time.
To do this, for most American Catholics, it will begin by turning off the television, if even for a half hour or hour, and starting prayerfully to read books that can help us grow in faith.
St. Paul's spiritual counsel to the young St. Timothy is still valid: "Attend to reading!" (1 Tim 4:13).
Perhaps we could act on that advice by starting to read at least five pages a day of Pope Francis' Laudato Si': On the Care of our Common Home. Doing so would be one of the best ways to care for the ecology of our soul.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.