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The Next Steps toward Caring for Our Common Home

In this year of celebration of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, there remains an urgent vision in need of implementation

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On May 24, 2020, Pope Francis announced a special year to celebrate Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), the encyclical he issued in 2015 to promote action on behalf of the environment. Recognizing the dire circumstances and fragility of the earth with its “sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (No. 2), the pope invited humankind to a serious reflection and urgent dialogue on the overt and latent symptoms of humanity’s abuse of nature. It was imperative, he wrote, that there be a concerted commitment to action by the entire human family and a comprehensive plan for change. Five years after the promulgation of his groundbreaking encyclical, it seems even more urgent that the initiatives he recommended be embraced and put into action.

In that encyclical, Pope Francis identified several themes related to the ecological crisis, including:

• A “throwaway mentality” that has infiltrated societal thinking, leaving our world looking like “an immense pile of filth.”

• Global warming due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases released as the result of human activity.

• Depletion of natural resources such as water where, in many places, demand is exceeding the sustainable supply with a serious impact especially on the poor.

• The loss of biodiversity, evident with the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species each year.

• A decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society due to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy.

• The effect of the deterioration of the environment on the most vulnerable people on the planet.

The Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has launched a multiyear action plan for a seven-year journey to total sustainability in the spirit of Laudato Si’, inaugurating programs for families, dioceses, schools, universities and other groups (laudatosi@humandevelopment.va). A recently issued pastoral guidebook, co-published by the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (CADEIO) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Climate Covenant (http:/creation.cadeio.org/ecumenical -and-interreligious -guidebook-care-for-our-common-home/) includes practical steps that can be undertaken by dioceses and parishes to protect the environment. It emphasizes that working together to improve the environment provides fertile ground for collaboration with other faith communities.

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USCCB RESOURCES

The U.S. bishops offer resources on Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home including discussion guides, bulletin inserts, links to a video series and an animated video for children. Visit the general secretariat’s page at usccb.org to link to Laudato Si’.

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In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis has outlined a practical agenda to respond to the question, What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? He strongly encourages honest and open debate on both a global and local level, with the goal of sustainable use of natural resources. Parishes, working with other faith communities can use the method “See — Judge — Act” to examine their own possible misuse of creation, to seriously study Laudato Si’ and to take action steps to promote practical solutions, which could include a simple lifestyle, caution about our consumption and better care of the earth. He offers practical examples, applicable to everyone: avoiding “use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living human beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices” (No. 211).

Pastoral ministers can be most helpful in implementing the environmental vision offered in Laudato Si’ by assisting in the interior development of the faith community’s “new convictions, attitudes and forms of life” (No. 202).

In Chapter 6 of the encyclical, Pope Francis outlines an “ecological education and spirituality” for the development of an acute awareness of the cultural and ecological crises we face.

Spirituality and Conversion

Our traditions of Christian spirituality have much to offer in raising our ecological consciousness. Our encounter with Jesus Christ can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world, since the Gospel should have a direct consequence on the way we think, feel and, subsequently, act. An authentic spirituality celebrates the association between the spirit and nature, which brings us into communion with all that surrounds us.

Pope Benedict, in the homily which inaugurated his Petrine ministry declared: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” We must confront the desert of our spiritual life that can awaken us to the ecological crisis.

Our encounter with Jesus Christ should impact our relationship with the world that surrounds us. Pope Francis offers St. Francis’ struggles with his faults and failures. He underwent a conversion of heart that enabled him to see the beauty in nature. We are called likewise to see how we have harmed God’s creation and begin a change of heart. This can be promoted by a spirit of gratitude, “a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works” (No. 220). We see ourselves “within creation” and not disconnected. Each creature reflects God’s goodness and can speak to us of God’s presence.

Alternative Quality of Life

Our Christian spirituality proposes an alternative lifestyle, prophetic and contemplative. As taught by many faith traditions, “less is more.” Our happiness as followers of Jesus is characterized by the ability and grace to be happy with little, a simplicity where we stop to express gratitude for the small things, free and detached from possessions and not slaves to them. We do not succumb to the lure of more things in the hope that they will provide the happiness and peace we lack.

Paradoxically, a more simple lifestyle leads to a life lived to the full. “In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there for what they do not have” (No. 223). They experience an appreciation of every person, appreciating even the small things of life, avoiding obsession with unsatisfied needs.

Living on little, they are cultivating “other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer” (No. 223).

Living with Integrity

Laudato Si’ strongly defends the integrity of ecosystems. But just as important, states Pope Francis, is the integrity of human life. What is needed now is greater humility. When we lose our humility, we can easily become enthralled with our supposed mastery over creation and end up harming our environment, ultimately society, as well as ourselves. To cultivate a satisfying life, we need to be at peace with ourselves. Such an inner peace is tied closely to care for ecology, a balanced lifestyle and a capacity for wonder for all that God has done. A revitalized ecological spirituality can help to slow us down. “Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride roughshod over everything around them” (No. 225).

Jesus taught us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. He encouraged us to cultivate contemplative serenity and peace of heart. One simple practice is for the family to take time to give thanks to God before and after every meal, which is a simple yet profound way to consider our dependence on God for life, giving thanks for creation and for those whose labor has provided us with what we now share.

We cannot make the necessary and urgent changes that will save our environment alone. We need one another and have a shared responsibility to collaborate on creating a cleaner environment for all.

Embrace the World

The sacraments are a privileged invitation to embrace the world in a supernatural way. “Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise” (No. 235). Gifts of nature are used by the Church to mediate God’s presence. The material world is acknowledged since Jesus himself became flesh to show us the way to God. Present in the Eucharist, the Lord comes to us in the form of bread and wine, as food for God’s creatures. “The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration” (No. 236).

The Sabbath is the day that heals our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. “Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the ‘first day’ of the new creation, whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transfiguration of all created reality” (No. 237). It is the day of rest when we contemplate all that God has done for us and opens our eyes to the larger picture of what can still be done — a greater concern for nature and the poor.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis provides the Church and the world with a troubling scenario: If we do not take proactive steps and collaborate, we will wound our fragile planet to a point where it will be beyond repair. But God calls us to a generous commitment and offers us light and a reminder that he is always present, that he will not abandon us and his love will propel us to find new ways forward.

FATHER KEVIN McKENNA is pastor and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral Community in Rochester, New York. He is past president of the Canon Law Society of America and former vice-chancellor, chancellor and director of legal services for the Diocese of Rochester.

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Be ‘Guardians of Nature’

Pope Benedict XVI
CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Italian students in 2011, he urged them to be “guardians of nature” and follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology: “Today more than ever, it has become clear that respect for the environment cannot forget the recognition of the value of the human person and its inviolability at every stage and in every condition of life.

“Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one, but both can grow and find their right measure if we respect in the human being and in nature the Creator and his creation. On this, dear young people, I believe to find allies in you, true ‘guardians of life and creation.’” — The Guardian, environmental blog, Feb. 12, 2013

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