Not Just for Nerds: Why We Should Read Encyclicals

When I was a high school student, my classmates and I often had to participate in large discussions called “Socratic Seminars.” In preparation for these seminars, our teachers would assign reading material that often was lengthy, such as several pages of a papal encyclical. On the day of the seminar, in order to gain full credit for participation, we would be required to speak a certain number of times in the discussion. Believing that I was “too busy” to scrutinize these readings, I would often skim through the material and read a couple of paragraphs to figure out a few profound thoughts I could offer. Then, I would present these ideas in our discussion, receive full participation credit, and relax while the other students talked back and forth. While this strategy seemed rather clever to me, I was holding myself back from an opportunity to be enriched by the material and participate in substantive conversation with others.

I noticed this practice being adopted by many people about a year ago. Pope Francis released a new encyclical, titled Laudato Si, and debates erupted across communities and social media. Some people were horrified that the pope would write about such controversial things; others were happy that he was discussing some very real problems in our world. Some people questioned how much authority the pope’s words have when they come in the form of an encyclical.

Curious about the rather passionate reactions, I read Laudato Si, and I realized something both sad and shocking: many of the people who were reacting strongly to this encyclical had not actually read it. Using the techniques that I had adopted in high school, some people skimmed the text for key words or phrases. Other people merely read the comments that theologians had made. Some people simply read what was promoted by popular news sources. Instead of reading and mulling over all of Pope Francis’s words, many people were satisfying their curiosity by glancing through whatever articles were trending on Facebook.

Popes have been writing and promoting encyclicals for many years, but we only seem to pay attention if there is controversy. Even then, we rarely take the time to read through what the popes actually write! Since we—as members of the faithful—are under the leadership of the pope, shouldn’t we read what he has to say? He is our papa, as the Italians call him, our loving father who is guiding us to God. Encyclicals are a letter from the Holy Father to his people—to the bishops, to those in particular regions of the world, or to all of the faithful. These documents instruct on specific matters and can deepen our devotion to God.

Once, a friend gave me Ecclesia de Eucharistia, an encyclical on the Eucharist by Pope St. John Paul II. As I carefully read this letter, my love for our Eucharistic Lord deepened, and I grew much more devoted to prayer, Mass, and Adoration. Instead of being mere routines, these became avenues to an intimate relationship with God. I discovered, as Pope St. John Paul II notes, that “[i]t is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple and to feel the infinite love present in his heart” (#25).

Reading papal encyclicals may seem daunting, and it is easy to label “encyclical reading” as an activity for Catholic nerds. However, any of the faithful can read these letters. Encyclicals are conveniently arranged into sections and paragraphs, making it quite simple to divide the reading material. When I read encyclicals, I tend to read a certain number of paragraphs each day. Not only does this practice make a lengthy document seem more manageable, but it allows me to really meditate on the words that I have read.

There are many encyclicals, covering a wide variety of topics. Since we are in the Year of Mercy, I highly recommend Dives in Misericordia by Pope St. John Paul II, which is an incredible reflection on God’s mercy, love, and justice. A few of the other encyclicals that I have enjoyed are: Musicae Sacraeby Pope Pius XII, Humanae Vitae, by Pope Paul VI, Redemptoris Mater, by Pope St. John Paul II, Caritas in Veritate, by Pope Benedict XVI, and Laudato Si, by Pope Francis.

Encyclicals are not just floating around for the sake of intellectuals and nerds. As a member of the faithful here on Earth, realize that the popes have written these letters to you. I encourage you to select an encyclical on a topic that interests you and grow in your knowledge and love of God and the Faith.