One of the criticisms which is sometimes levelled at the Church is that it is too heavenly to be any earthly good. The claim is that it so focused on the next world that is has nothing credible to say to the great questions of our time, to the great global issues that impact on the lives of people.
This is hardly an accusation that can justly be levelled at Pope Francis. He has been fearless in addressing the great issues of our times, such as poverty and inequality, the limitations and impact of global capitalism and especially the impact of climate change. Indeed, climate change was the subject of the first encyclical or papal letter written by Frances. Yet, many Christians are unaware of this letter which, this year, marks its fifth anniversary. This letter has been variously described as ‘a game-changer’, ‘a wake-up call for the Church and the world’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘a moral milestone’, a prophetic challenge for the twenty first century’, yet it is barely known in our Church communities.
Like all papal letters, Laudato Si takes its name from its first lines: ‘Laudato Si’ or ‘Praised Be To You, My Lord’ echoing the first words of Francis of Assisi’s great canticle in praise of creation. Unlike other papal letters which are addressed to the Church, Laudato Si is addressed to ‘every living person on this planet.’ For Pope Francis the earth is ‘Our Common Home’, and he calls on the whole human family to come together with urgency to engage in a new dialogue about the shaping of 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.”
While Laudato Si is at times lyrical and poetic in its language it does not shy back from describing the ways we are complicit in contributing to the destruction of creation. Pope Francis offers stinging critique of ‘what is happening to our common home?’ He begins by sketching a picture of how humanity is destroying our planet. The Earth, our home, ‘is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. People in poverty have contributed least to climate change, yet they are disproportionately impacted by it. As a result of excessive use of natural resource by wealthy nations, those who are poor experience pollution, lack of access to clean water, hunger, and more.
Francis is especially critically of the ‘throwaway culture’ which reduces so much of what is produced to rubbish. We have not developed the capacity to absorb and re-use waste products. The example he gives is that of paper, most of which is discarded rather than recycled.
The Earth is ‘among the most abandoned and mistreated’ of the world’s poor and yet most are indifferent to it. Francis frequently uses the term ‘indifference’ to point to our tendency to ‘insulate ourselves’ from the direct experience of pain and suffering of other people’ especially the poor of our world who are most affected by the impact of climate change and by the exploitation of the earth’s resources.
So what can be done? Francis outlines some approaches and actions. Most of all Francis encourages open and honest debate which leaves aside particular interests and ideologies to focus on the common good. He calls for a healthy global politics where those with power and influence come together to make radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming and shape a common global plan around specific issues like sustainable and diversified agriculture, the development of renewable and less polluting forms of energy, better management of natural resources and ensuring universal access to drinking water.
Most of us will no doubt feel that we are powerless to influence matters on a global scale. But this does not let us off the hook. Pope Francis’ letter is clearly saying that responsibility for caring for our common home rests with us all. Individually, it asks each of us to look at our personal lifestyles and how they contribute to the environmental crisis. Is it also a call to us as Christians to wake up from ‘the globalisation of indifference’, to make ourselves aware of what is happening and to ask what positive action we can take to protect our fragile earth? Young people are already ahead of us in their awareness of these issues. Perhaps it’s time to invite them to teach us?
For some years now the Christian Churches have been celebrating the Season of Creation at this time of year. This celebration unites Christians everywhere in thanking God for the gift of creation and in urging Christians throughout the world to pray and take action to protect the earth. This year, as always, it begins on September 1st and ends on October 4th, the feast of St Francis of Assisi.
On this the 5th anniversary of Laudato Si, could we use this opportunity of ‘The Season of Creation’ at all levels of our churches: parish, educational setting, diocesan groups, to read Laudato Si and to begin to think and talk together about how we can respond?
Maureen Kelly work in Pastoral Development with the Diocese of Killaloe