September 18, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Stewardship of creation calls us to conversion, action

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

For the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the new encyclical of Pope Francis, “Laudato Si’ ” (“Praise be to you”). In this letter, our Holy Father builds on the teaching of his predecessors (especially St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), and calls for a conversion of mind and heart regarding our attitude toward the environment. He also challenges us to act in ways that are both eco-friendly and committed to resolving the problems of human society.

If you’ve paid attention to coverage in the news media, you know that “Laudato Si’ ” is controversial. In many ways, it is a prophetic statement that is guaranteed to make everyone uncomfortable one way or another. “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” Pope Francis insists. “We 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” (#49).

Although it is a prophetic statement with many challenges for us to consider, “Laudato Si’ ” is also a song of hope and joy inspired by the “Canticle of the Sun” written by St. Francis of Assisi as a hymn of praise to the Lord of all creation. “Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,/especially Sir Brother Sun,/who is the day and through whom you give us light./And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;/and bears a likeness to you, Most High” (#87). Our world is confronted with serious challenges—social, political, economic and environmental—that the pope tells us are, in reality, one crisis of “integral ecology” (#137)

“We are not God” (#67), the Holy Father says. The Earth that we inhabit does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth. As we are reminded vividly on Ash Wednesday, we are dust. We come from the dust of the Earth, and every one of us will return to dust one day. In the meantime, we are called to be stewards of all God’s gifts, and this fundamental change of perspective (from owner to steward) changes everything.

The “dominion” over all creation that has been given to all humankind (see the Book of Genesis 1:28) is not to be exercised as a form of domination, but rather as an exercise of the kind of reverent care and nurturing cultivation and pruning that a sensitive gardener gives to his or her garden. “A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power” (#78), the pope tells us.

What can you and I do? We are called to conversion, to see with new eyes and an open heart. We’re also challenged to act differently. How do we do this?

The classic formula—used by the bishops of Indiana in our pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana—is “see, judge, act.”

First, we have to see God’s creation, our common home, differently. This requires prayer (for those of us who are religious), and meditation on the wonders of the world we have been given as stewards. Then we have to make decisions on issues that are not always clear, and that people of good will can disagree about. Finally, we have to act.

As stewards of all God’s creation, we have to change the way we live. We have to advocate for new laws and policies in our local, national and world communities that respond to both “the cry of the Earth” and “the cry of the poor.” Change does not come easily to us. That’s why “Laudato Si’ ” is a prophetic statement, as well as a hope-filled song of praise.

Here are a few of the things that Pope Francis hopes will be stimulated by his new encyclical:

  • Lifestyles that are simpler, healthier and less dependent on material resources.
  • A new covenant between humanity and the environment based on responsible stewardship of all God’s creation.
  • A renewed sense of the sacredness of everyday things we use and too often take for granted.
  • Substantive change in laws and social policies concerning the environment and care for the poor and most vulnerable members of our society.

“Laudato Si’ ” is a call to conversion and action, but is also a call to heartfelt prayer. So, with Mary and all the saints, let’s pray:

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
Teach us to contemplate you
In the beauty of the universe,
For all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
For every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
To everything that is.

Praised be to you, Lord! Amen.

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