The Society responded to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and human ecology, in a number of ways.
Six Sisters and two Associates have written responses to the encyclical.
We do not need to go too far to notice the effects of pollution and climate change in our environment. When I was a child, I knew the various weather related seasons, as we call them in parts of West Africa: Rainy Season, Dry Season, and Harmattan Season; each of these was very distinct. Before each season begins, we already knew what to expect, each came with its peculiar and appropriate temperature, types of food, fruit & vegetable and life remained normal. To resonate with what the Pope said, pollution and climate change has affected all these natural phenomenon. “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once the beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish”. These seasons are no longer distinct, they either become too severe or too mild or all mixed up because the natural habitats have been polluted and confused and one is no longer sure what to expect.
The agricultural products are lesser in both quantity and quality, farmers hardly record bumper harvest without the use of artificial fertilizers; resulting in diseases, decreased quality of human life and premature deaths. Our common home is in severe crisis and the environmental degradation affects mainly the poor, natural streams are no longer clean for drinking due to pollution, unlikely places experience flooding and extreme temperatures.
This encyclical is setting up the arena for debates and discussions to help us look closer and take positive actions towards the mending of our common home. Sometime ago I read from a newspaper about some individuals arguing that there is nothing like climate change and pretending that nothing is going wrong with the ecology; this is denying the obvious realities.
God saw all he made were good and he placed human beings over his creation, this supremacy over all creation does not permit us humans to manhandle creation and other creatures. The Pope reminds us that “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creation back to their creator” (83).
Ecological education and changes in lifestyle will go a long way to alleviate the crisis and minimize the damages and harms done to our environment and other God’s dear creatures by humans. Human beings endowed with conscience and intelligence are capable of effecting positive changes if they are willing and determined. “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning” (205). Depending on what part of the world you live, many of us are witnesses to choked gutters and drainage ways, streets littered by papers, plastic bags, cans, and refuse of all sorts; leading to dirty environment, flooding and diseases affecting both humans and other creatures. The Encyclical exhorts us to good action by saying “There is nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle” (211). As expressed in the letter, education on the environmental protection at all levels is key to curb our bad conducts and better ecological commitment and right attitudes to protect the environment.
The Encyclical strongly urging us to look closely at our environment and all is happening around us and encouraging us to act positively towards the mending of our broken common home and alleviation of the present ecological crisis. I end this response with a quote “There is no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations” (180).
Let’s begin with the knots. In 1986 when Pope Francis was studying in Germany, he saw the painting of Our Lady untying the knots on a white ribbon. He was intrigued by the image, wrote a prayer to Our Lady “Undoer of Knots” and brought the devotion back to Argentina. From there it has spread worldwide.
After reading the first several chapters of the encyclical, the image of knots came to me because the pope begins by delineating the knotty problems that face the world regarding care for our common home. Over and over he insists on our interrelatedness and how entangled are the complex problems the world is facing today: pollution, climate change, insufficient water, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of human life and global inequality. He underlines the fact that “environmental degradation is related to the human and social” and points out the need for an integral ecology (economic, social, cultural and daily life) based upon dialogue at all levels. That is what will bring about the necessary unraveling.
Feeling dismay over this tremendous global snarl, we may well ask as I did, “But what can I do?” Reading on to Chapter 6, I found that its deep spirituality resonated with Cornelia’s vision for the Society. It’s all there:
– the Incarnation – God present in each creature and each creature reflecting something of God (221)
– attitudes of awareness, self-sacrifice and gratitude (221)
– virtues of sobriety (simplicity – less is more), humility (224)
– the peace of a balanced life-style, deep enjoyment free from the obsession with consumption (225)
– the little way of love as espoused by St. Therese of Lisieux (230)
In an earlier section (211), Pope Francis had suggested some small daily actions: “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transportation or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights …” The pope earnestly asks that we do not downplay these efforts because “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread … they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.”(212).
This is only an outline of the riches this sixth chapter holds for our spiritual nourishment and the renewal of our incarnational call to live simply, humbly, joyfully and lovingly. The call is not only to us as individuals, but to us as a community because we need one another in our ongoing conversion.
With hope in the capability of humans to change, Pope Francis gives us the steps for bringing about this change – a program well-suited to us SHCJ in the year ahead in our personal and communal discernment:
“We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.” (205)
May Our Lady Undoer of Knots assist us!
The encyclical is on climate change. The Pope humbly makes it clear that he was inspired by St Francis of Assisi’s “care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology, and joyful and authentic life to choose his name and what he would write in the encyclical.
The reader gets the nature of this encyclical, its message and purpose from the Popes description of St Francis: “He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, for his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Without reading further we see right away that all that is lacking in our world today, namely peace, commitment, authenticity, justice, loving, affectionate bond between people, nations, humans and other creation, selfless sacrifice, giving and sharing, religion, joy, care and concern for the weak and poor, etc. are found in St Francis. Today humans see themselves as “lords and masters, entitled to plunder” “our common home” and “sister” with “the violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin” which also reflects in “the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”
This encyclical apparently and obviously is on ecology. A contemplative stance to the encyclical reveals that it is actually about us, human beings- our wrong self-perception and self-understanding, philosophies of life, belief and value systems, lifestyle, and activities particularly from the dawn of Enlightenment and modernity and post-modernity. The point is, with the exception of human beings, the ecosystem, technique, technology, science on and of themselves have nothing wrong with them and do nothing to destroy themselves.
Historically, before the modern and Enlightenment age was the Traditional human society characterized by a wholistic worldview that emphasised the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things, the importance of divine will, source and ownership of all that exists, and the virtue of things remaining the same.
Modernity and the Enlightenment period replaced the traditional society with reductionist and modern worldview which sees the world in an objective and mechanistic way, science and rationality as sources of constant progress, development and human emancipation and so legitimated science, technocracy, patriarchy and imperialism. At the heart of modern philosophy is the conquest, control and revelation of reality – nature or the biophysical world and human social world through science and the power of reason. The result is humanity left with subverted and distorted rationality by instrumental reason and associated technocracy hence, the brutalization of creation and their relationships through human instrumentalization.
In a clear, direct, honest, effective, and blunt communication, the Pope tells every person living on this planet the reality of our climate: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” The Pope backs what he says with scientific proof: A “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” “things are now reaching a breaking point,” “greenhouse gases are released mainly as a result of human activity.” The life-giving harmony and covenantal relationship among creation and between creation and God is broken and “this sister now cries out” because of irresponsibility and abuse.
While critiquing the role of science and technology in human society, acknowledging the contributions of science and technology to improve human life, recognising that “the modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning” and that “technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings,” asking, how can we not feel “gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering, and communications?” He laments over the present deplorable condition of the earth due to human’s misguided and erroneous self-perception and self-understanding resulting in humanity becoming enemies of self through brutality and destruction of the earth rather than being co-creators with God. The Pope declares loudly, “we are not God,” and should not act as if we are “usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.”
Unambiguously the Pope lays blame on proponents of modern anthropocentrism and their activities rooted in economic and political techno science paradigm, moral relativism, vested interest, and on rich world leaders who should take positive action to stop the damage or save the earth and failed or refused to do so instead adopt general indifference, obstructionism, blind confidence in scientific and technical solutions, “masking” and “concealing symptoms” of the problems, manipulation of information and trumping common good, habit of evasiveness to feed “self-destructive vice,” expresses dissatisfaction of modern capitalism, rejects a spirituality without God as all-powerful and creator, “a magical conception of the market,” condemns claim to “economic freedom” which impoverishes many.
Those who accuse the Pope of being anti-science, anti-modernity, Green Pope and of winding the clock back should do well to remember that he is a science (chemistry) scholar, he continued the path of the Church’s Social Teaching from the Bible, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and his predecessors, and even ought to wonder what agenda he has except that we must “regain the conviction that we need one other, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”
The victims worst hit by the threats posed by the destruction of the environment are the poor all over the world including human and non-human nature. “A true ecological approach” must “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” who suffer “the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment” and who pay the highest price. He challenges the rich North, especially “opinion makers, communications media and centres of power” who are “far removed from the poor” and demands “ecological debt between the North and the South.”
The Pope proposes “sustainable and integral development,” “an integral ecology” which “clearly respects its human and social dimensions,” requiring a fully humanistic interdisciplinary approach to address the ‘deepest problems of the global system’ and shared responsibility to save the present and protect the future, an interior journey of conversion of “ecological citizenship” and “community conversion” rooted in gratitude to God’s unconditional giving and “splendid universal communion” of all creation not just reformulation of policies, laws and regulations and individual self-improvements; “an integral Ecology” and a “global ecological Conversion” as means of “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork” which is “essential to a life of virtue.
Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home needs to be seen for what it is and means – that humanity “is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.” Its aim is to “bring the whole human family together to seek sustainable and integral development,” the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.” There is “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” confronting all creation. The encyclical is informed by faith and science and so the meeting point of faith and politics.
Laudato Si’ may appear a hard and rigid saying, but it is beautiful, inspirational, hopeful and an answered prayer for compassionate and simple hearts. The challenge is to realize that we are “united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures, and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river, and mother earth” and that our ultimate destiny is “in the fullness of God.” No doubt it is a bitter pill, which only the ascetic, mystic, free and indifferent can willingly swallow with faith and hope to reap the joy, sweetness and peace of pain of love, which passes understanding. We may be like those who sow in tears as we travel the path of interior conversion to mend our ways, rediscover who we are and our place on earth, humility and simplicity of life, justice, for and with the poor, receiving and using science as God’s gift and being stewards of God’s creation but surely we shall sing a song of joy we draw water from the well of God’s love through obedience to God and love for the universe.
Laudato Si: Meeting the needs of this age
‘God has chosen to need men and women in every age to reveal his love, to make known the reality of the Incarnation’ (SHCJ Consts #1). This opening of our Constitutions is woven into Laudato Si as the underlying theology, the reason for needing to speak out at this time. God needs us: ‘All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation … Par 14; to reveal his love: ‘God’s love is for all creation but most especially for each human person, ‘… a love which confers upon him or her infinite dignity.’ Par63 quoting JP II. God’s presence is a dynamic presence in the unfolding history of creation for ‘ God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things’ and ‘The Son, through whom all things were created united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary’ Par238
It follows that creation is not free of ownership ‘The created things of this world are not free of ownership” For they are yours O Lord …” (Wis.11:26)’ and yet ‘Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.’ Francis emphasises the prevalence of greed without actually using the word, speaking instead of excessive consumerism. Together with a belief that creation is there for our use we have increasingly ab-used. Market driven projects are destroying eco-systems, creating areas of pollution …’once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.’ Par21. Francis spells out at length a litany of destruction, referring also to the need to substitute renewable sources of energy for the prevalent fossil fuels. Because the planet is not ours, because as Aquinas told us “God continues the act of creation.” Par 80, we cannot regard it as ‘a resource’ we can destroy. ‘We have no such right.’ Par 33. An ‘ecological conversion’ is required of us all.
We, shcj, know that ‘The guiding principles for our apostolic service … are rooted in Cornelia’s understanding of the Incarnation. In Christ we unite ourselves to the whole of humanity, especially to the poor and suffering’ (SHCJ Constitutions #6). The same understanding of the Incarnation means that the poor are at the heart of this encyclical and Francis is at pains to show how it is they who suffer most when the interconnectedness and interdependence of creation is disrupted. ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.’ Par48. He cites the depletion of fishing rights, water pollution, – doubly serious when the poor cannot afford bottled water, – and rises in sea level. ‘A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.’ Par49.’
‘Those of us who live in the wealthiest countries on the planet have to take heed of how markets create need and fire consumerism, most often achieved at the expense of the poor because ‘a minority believes it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized.’ Par50 Moreover this excessive consumerism creates waste, too often toxic waste which in turn destroys eco-systems. The markets are geared to the rich, their goal is profit therefore ‘.. by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.’ In other words, we have to monitor it with the dignity of every person in mind. ‘We are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources’. With reference to foreign debt, Francis condemns ‘ a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse…’Par52 Again, as a rich nation we need to ask how freely given is our Overseas Aid?
Francis gives a lengthy consideration to technology which we each really need to study given that it is such a huge part of life today-for better and for worse as Francis himself acknowledges. He regrets that ‘humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm’, Par106, which is not built on relationships but on manipulation and control.
‘Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.’ Par106. There is much more in this section for us to study with an open mind.
We have to decide how we are being called to ‘cooperate with God’, or in shcj terms, how we can meet the wants of the age. As we read the encyclical, the choices before us are often implicit, so we have to read carefully. Francis urges us to pray, to foster an ecological spirituality based on our belief that God creates the world and has written into it an order and dynamism that humans have no right to destroy; that each creature has a message for us; that the risen Christ is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection…Par220. This is the incarnational love our Constitutions say ‘we are to reveal’; the love, which gives inherent dignity to each person equally. ‘We have to dare to speak of the dignity of human life’ Par224. So we fight against trafficking, for the protection of the unborn and the old.
As individuals we can monitor our own behaviour remembering nothing is too small to count, so turn off lights, switch off Standby when we can, do not waste anything. Remember how ‘our real needs are few’ and we value a simple life-style; be on guard when the market (and fashion) is telling us we have to have, cannot live without….
Use the focus and pressure groups that exist to reach those in control of the economy, those at the heart of politics and decision-making. One of the benefits of technology is that all the above are available on-line, often for a mere Click. Pressure groups such as Avaaz and 38degrees are extremely effective. We can try to be aware of and involved in local issues (as I write our local council is voting on whether to allow fracking to go ahead). Cornelia wanted us to be ‘cosmopolitan’ (international?) and today, knowing this involves our inherent interconnectedness and relationship with every human person, we can each be directly linked to those in dire need via for instance, agencies such Caritas International and its affiliates like CAFOD (Catholic Fund for Overseas Development). This is a very influential and effective organisation on the ground abroad and in the Overseas Development Ministry of national government in the UK. Do not let us allow technology to depersonalize our communication with each other. Texts and e-mails have a place but the spoken word, whenever possible is surely more friendly and ‘human’ and help us to be more fully present to the other.
We could be ready to share this ecological awareness with others, for example by a display in the parish.
It would be good if the Society responded to Laudato Si, by continuing to encourage everyone to grow in awareness of ecological issues and the serious consequences to the poor of any abuse, and to give a high profile to our JPIC team. Perhaps we might consider an international (inter -congregational?) study group of those who are particularly interested in the theology and practicalities of an ecological spirituality? Does our Society -wide educational policy lay stress and give priority to ecology? How green are our expectations? Should there be a single building of ours without solar panels? We choose our investments with care; do we ever buy shares in ethically dubious concerns so as to be able to ask awkward questions at the Annual Meetings?
Laudato Si has ‘alerted us to the signs of the times’ (Constitutions) ‘May we listen attentively to the Spirit in the stillness of a quiet heart and learn to recognise and respond (to him) in every person and situation.'(Ibid) and pray with Francis ‘All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.’
Protect Our Common Home – Pope Francis Cautions!
Who does not want a beautiful, peaceful, clean, healthy, and protected home for her or himself and for the less privileged? Who wants her or his home destroyed? Who is not concerned about the kind of world we would leave to the future generation? A spontaneous response to these questions might definitely be different from a thoughtful one.
In an interview, Neil Degrass Tyson, an American `astrophysicist, once showed a picture of the cosmos he took from a space craft and said, “The earth is a tiny dot, that’s here, that’s home, that’s us. It is for us to have more responsibility to deal kindly with one another and to preserve the earth because that is our home.” Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, released 18th June, 2015 on the environment, affirms the above sentence. Pope Francis echoes the reflection of many philosophers and theologians on the marvel of creation and the care of the earth. He affirms the findings of scientists and expresses deep appreciation for the advancement of technology, but urges that all be used wisely. Also, he is grateful to the ecological movements and some countries for the noteworthy contributions they have made towards improving the environment. The pope encourages us to discover God in all things like Saint Francis and others, who felt the awesomeness of God through God’s creation.
Pope Francis decried environmental abuses, caused by human activities. As a result, pollution, climate change, the depletion of natural resources, the destruction of ecosystems, global inequality, and consumerism have brought incredible affliction to plants, animals, and human beings, especially to the poor. The pope regrets that in spite of the immense exploitation of the earth for economic purposes, poverty is still evident in countries that are being exploited. He believes that developed countries need to limit their consumption of non-renewable energy and help poorer countries to “support policies and programmes of sustainable development” without infringing the developing countries’ sovereignty. The Pope reminds us, Christians, of our obligation to till the earth and to keep it – “caring, protecting, overseeing, and preserving.” He cautions us against ‘throwaway attitudes” and compulsive consumerism, and advises us to live moderately to avoid the overuse of natural resources.
As Holy Child Sisters, what choices are we being guided to make that will “give life to the world in fidelity to the mission of the Society” (as we pray in the chapter prayer)? How will the Society respond to this encyclical?
Our constitutions state, “In Christ we unite ourselves to the whole of humanity, especially to the poor and suffering,” and “We inherit from Cornelia a spirit of concern for the whole world,” (pp. 10 -11). As Pope Francis rightly asserts, environmental problems have caused millions of premature deaths among the poor who are exposed to atmospheric pollutants, and have suffered from neglect. Our Incarnation spirituality and our educational apostolate mandate us to have respect for the integrity of creation, create awareness, and promote justice, peace, and compassion. Maybe, we need to pay more attention to those in the Society who are involved in the eco-spirituality movement and are sharing their findings with us, especially in the newsletters. Provinces and communities could identify the unique environmental issue(s) in their various areas and collaborate with existing ecological movements with a view to entering into dialogue with those in the ministry of environment to find solutions to avert the dreadful conditions the earth faces at the present.
I received an email from a friend and below that email was an inscription, “No trees suffered because of this e-mail…Please think of the environment before printing this email.” From then on, I became more conscious of how I print, tear up, and throw away papers. Perhaps, we might start with this simple strategy of adding (customizing) a similar sentence in our website, Facebook, Skype, Twitters, and Email pages. If three to four hundred Holy Child Sisters do this simple act, we might be deepening the “culture of care” in us and in the minds of thousands of those who are technologically connected to us.
The onus is on all of us to educate and to act!
Pope Francis explored both God’s books of nature and scripture and praises God for the beauty of creation and for God’s presence in the whole universe. The Pope condemns human activities that have brought untold suffering to the inhabitants of the earth, our home. He calls all peoples to develop sound virtues that would ignite us to make selfless ecological commitment for the common good. He adds, “It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.”
Perhaps, we need to look at the question, “What can I do to add my small contribution to help preserve our planet?
The Profound Interconnection of Creation
“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.” (138)
Of the many themes developed in Laudato Si, the profound interconnection of creation touched me most deeply. It broadened my understanding of the mission of the Society, a mission I have fully embraced as an Associate:
For this is our mission: to help others to believe that God lives and acts in them and in our world and to rejoice in the divine presence. (SHCJ Constitutions 4)
For most of its history, the SHCJ has focused its mission on the care of people, specifically in education. There was always an emphasis on educating the whole person with exposure to many different disciplines. But care of creation, as an expression of the mission, is relatively recent. The encyclical can help us to move from what is familiar, to a clearer realization that care of people cannot be accomplished without care of the natural world and vice versa. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (139)
Pope Francis grabbed my attention when he addressed two potential extremes in thinking. At one end, a misreading of Genesis sees human beings as the pinnacle of creation and everything else as created to serve humanity. The Pope cautions against what he calls “excessive anthropocentrism” (116), in which we refuse to recognize either the intrinsic value of non-human creation or our status as creatures. At the same time, he says we don’t have to “yield to biocentrism”, i.e. seeing humans simply as one being among others” (118). At some unconscious level, I think I believed that expressing concern for the environment meant abandoning or at least minimizing care of people. The encyclical makes very clear the connection between human and non-human creation at every level.
Francis speaks of the “unique worth” of human beings, which may sound to some like anthropocentrism. However, once again he balances our unique worth with the “tremendous responsibility it entails.” (90) But what constitutes the “unique worth” of human beings in an ecological context? How can we express it in a way that respects “the Gospel of Creation” (62-100) but doesn’t veer into anthropocentrism?
The words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin come to mind – “evolution conscious of itself.” (The Phenomenon of Man, p.243) We are the only created beings who are aware of our existence. Not only are we aware, but we can consciously act (or not) on behalf of creation. Herein lies our “tremendous responsibility.” In order to fulfill our responsibility, we have to first become aware of how inseparable our existence is from the natural world.
The Pope uses a term to express the interrelatedness of creation that I have never seen before – “integral ecology”. (137-162) I have always understood ecology as a reference to the environment. However, in addition to environmental ecology, the encyclical includes “human ecology” – economic, social, cultural and, what the Pope calls, “the ecology of daily life.” He includes justice between generations and the principle of the common good to round out the concept of integral ecology. “It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (139) All aspects of integral ecology must be addressed, according to the encyclical, in order for meaningful change to occur.
Pope Francis points out the need for “educating for the covenant between humanity and the environment.” (209-215) He also recognizes that nothing will happen without “ecological conversion.” (216-221) Just as Cornelia envisioned a new way of educating girls and woman to meet the needs of her time, the Society could explore innovative ways of promoting the education and conversion that the Pope speaks of.
The concept of integral ecology can be a powerful tool for educating and inviting to conversion. The Society’s mission has included aspects of “human ecology” since its earliest days. It seems like a natural progression to expand our understanding of the mission to include environmental ecology as part of the mission and to integrate it into Society ministries. The Society has been a leader in education since Cornelia began the Holy Child schools. My hope is that the SHCJ will draw on its expertise, experience and innovation in the field of education to raise awareness of the interrelatedness of creation and the ways that we can work on behalf of creation.
Reflection On Laudato Si’
June 18 had long been the designated date for the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. I was asked to write a reflection and had a few hesitations about doing so, but they had nothing to do with the event that filled the day before the publication. Let me tell you about it.
On June 17, our US news reported another story of the killing of African Americans; this time, not by police but by a 21 year old white fellow who walked into a Bible study in a church in the south, sat for an hour with the group and then opened fire, killing nine, including the pastor, as they prayed over the Scripture.
Yes, I have used two paragraphs of space to tell you this because I had planned on using the image of “our eyes” to begin the reflection. Originally the introduction was going to be something like this: “With which set of eyes will you read the encyclical?” …knowing that each of us has a number of lenses we use to view and focus reality-whether we do it on purpose or not. I knew what some of my usual lenses would be but I hadn’t thought about another shooting of Black people being the context of my starting reflection. The continued reality of racism in the US is a lens through which I see some of the struggles and hopes in Laudato Si’.
So, before you start reading the encyclical, or returning to it for further reflection, think about your eyes, your lenses. You will read the text, to be sure, but you will see it with the eyes of your experiences, your emotions, the things that matter most to you. I will try to highlight a few sections of the text and share with you how it is that I see some of the ideas and challenges that are there. I hope this is helpful and that you might use this as a way to read and discuss the Pope’s message with others.
So let me begin. I am an educator. I am a student and teacher of Holocaust studies. I have learned a bit about Judaism through these studies. Chapter 1 of the encyclical describes what is happening: “our common home is falling into serious disrepair.” I read the details of the ecological crisis and into my head came images from the news of each day illustrating the words: migration, boat people, flooding, drought, unclean water and related diseases, to name a few. The Jewish tradition provides us with “tikkun olam” meaning to mend a broken world. Oh yes, we are in a world broken by choices gone wrong. There is so much to make right. How can we possibly mend it?
The next sections of the letter were, in a way, more familiar because they were drawn from Scripture: the mystery of the universe, the harmony of creation, the common good. I read them through my theological lens. But to highlight one thing, I paused at the discussion of the Sabbath because I, too, sin here and often. Sunday becomes the day on which I do the things that didn’t fit into my schedule on the other days. One of the best ways to witness to others about being Jewish or Christian, I believe, is to make sure your Sabbath is really a day of rest, companionship, prayer.
One of my lenses, of course, is a Roman Catholic one. I’ve already read some critiques that the Pope is not a scientist, should not move into areas that are not religious, that the text has scientific mistakes, etc. What cannot be debated is how much attention has been directed to this encyclical from all arenas: politicians, news columnists, proclaimed atheists, believers and those committed to a spirituality based on ecology, etc. “Rerum Novarum” drew similar attention; for those who don’t remember, it was about the rights of laborers. That encyclical has become a foundation stone of Catholic social teaching, highlighting the need for religious belief to be applied in practical ways. On the other hand, Pius XII is still being studied and criticized because he did not speak out about the horrors of the Holocaust. This, to me, is a kind of “left-handed compliment”. People expect the leader of the world wide Catholic community to speak out about important world issues. My Episcopalian cousin once told me, “We wait to hear what the Pope has to say; it sets the moral standard.”
Now last but certainly not least, my Holy Child lens. Much to my surprise, I found chapter three: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, to be the most stimulating and inspirational. I start each of my courses at USD with a discussion of existential questions. All college students brighten up when you say we’re going to talk about things like: what is happiness? Why am I here? Is there a purpose to all of this? In the anthropology that is presented in this section, the encyclical does something similar: “…people no longer seem to believe in a happy future…” And paraphrased: if we do not wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything we will need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness. Beautiful, almost poetic, sections follow about the value of each human being and the need to heal all fundamental human relationships. A perfect text to define Incarnational theology/spirituality. It is our road map as SHCJ. This anthropology is practical; it provides a context for consideration of the brokenness we see as human trafficking, organized crime, drug trade, or disposal of human embryos. While the discussion is sweeping in content, it is Interesting, I thought, that the encyclical does not mention terrorism specifically (rather, it mentions: “increased violence”).
In the text it is clear that the complexity of these evils requires “enforceable international agreements”, clarity about the roles of the economy and politics, corporate commitments, and strong leadership. Even “…the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics…but to encourage honest and open debate” that leads toward the common good. We are a “little Society” and while our efforts to support, conserve and educate are all part of a coming to awareness, it would be naïve to think that we alone, as the SHCJ family, will solve these problems. Our participation and support? Important but modest.
Without being asked to write a reflection, I have to acknowledge that during the tight time frame of the days before our provincial chapter, I would not have read the encyclical! Later maybe, but not now. Besides, it’s very long! I guess I work best under pressure. I have to say I am very pleased that I read it and I want to go back to it because it is so rich. Don’t miss the sections on culture!
So, to close, I will stop the commentary and quote a section that I believe speaks to us as hope-filled people who believe in conversion and the power of prayer.
- Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us. (Laudato Si’, June 18, 2015)