On September 1st, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement inviting all people of good will to pray for creation. The statement was brief and reiterated major themes that both leaders have emphasized in the past. At my assignment of St. Joseph Parish and School, we commemorated the day by taking a moment of prayer for creation and for the victims of Hurricane Harvey during our school Mass. Our commemoration was simple and brief, but provided an opportunity for all of us to be reminded of our call and responsibility to care for creation. Below is the audio from Vatican Radio that provides a brief summary of the joint statement and reaffirms that this celebration is now normative for both Eastern and Western Christians.
For some, the need to care for creation is self-evident. In Sudan and South Sudan, the impact of climate change is rapidly transforming a once vibrant ecology into a land in crisis. When reading the 2017 report on the needs of the Sudanese people published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), what is found is a region experiencing increased environmental unpredictability, leading to increased social instability. Seventy percent of rural Sudanese depend on rain-fed agriculture for their food, making an unpredictable environment a fertile social soil for political upheaval. The combination of environmental instability and wars fought over access to usable natural resources has led to 2.2 million Sudanese children living with food malnutrition and 3.5 million people lacking adequate access to clean water and sanitation (see page six of the OCHA report).
For a Sudanese Christian living in an area of crisis, a day of prayer for creation may not only be a nice idea for one day, but a desperate plea one offers to God daily, begging for the most basic provisions of life and an end to war and violence. One can easily see the struggles of the Sudanese people echoed in the third and fifth paragraphs of Francis and Bartholomew’s joint statement.
The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development…
We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service. (Joint Message of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the World Day of Prayer for Creation)
The call for people in positions of responsibility to respond to our ecological crisis reminds me of the resistance one finds in the United States to embrace Pope Francis’ call to care for creation. In my home country, the call to care for creation is often received as a more divisive issue than a unifying moment of solidarity. At one level, I can understand how an American citizen can become confused and question issues such as global warming. All one needs to do is turn on the evening News to hear one headline addressing Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew’s call to address issues of climate change while the next headline is of a weather report on how 2017, at least in Wisconsin, has been one of the cooler summers on record. The absence of tangible proof of a drastic climate change in one’s own back yard can quickly lead to skepticism over whether or not things like global warming are real.
These examples remind us that different countries can have radically different interpretations of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew’s joint statement on care for creation. The irony is that the foundational understanding of care for creation is not meant to be a crisis based ethic, but a constant call from Scripture and Tradition for Christians to be good stewards of the Earth. On a personal level, I think we make a critical error when we only communicate a clear message of care for creation at moments of ecological crisis. The byproduct of a crisis-based approach to care fore creation can lead to a cultural presumption that if I don’t see an environment in crisis in my daily life, then I have no need to take care for creation seriously. What is needed is a new, impactful approach that sees care for creation as a daily ethic to be embraced regardless if “the wood is green” or “the wood is dry” to borrow from Sacred Scripture. This foundational disposition of the Christian heart toward our common home is clearly laid out in the first paragraph of Francis and Bartholomew’s joint statement.
The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation. (Joint Message of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the World Day of Prayer for Creation)
This paragraph clearly states that the starting point for care of creation isn’t crisis, but a spiritual and moral call to care for the gift God has given us that is our common home. From this standpoint, one can more easily see why Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew so emphasize care for creation in their leadership roles: If care for creation is to be an ethic embraced by all Christians when the environment is healthy, how much more do we need to emphasize care of creation when the environment is in crisis?
For the week ahead, I would invite you to embrace the call of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew to pray for creation. Pray for those in our world that suffer from environmental instability. And pray that care for our common home can be embraced by all people of good will not as a political football of division, but as a universal ethic to promote human dignity by insuring access to natural resources for current and future generations.