Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 13
I held this quote in my heart the first time I read it. I held it in my heart as I prepared to take on a new role as Youth Engagement Officer at Catholic Earthcare Australia, the ecological agency for the Catholic Church in that country. Since accepting this responsibility, I have travelled around Australia, and sometimes the world, as I shared the news of Laudato Si’ with young Catholics like myself. As a 16-year-old, I came to the environmental movement frustrated and heartbroken by the inability of adults to secure for my generation a safe climate future. At 21, I joined the team at Catholic Earthcare Australia, elated to find that Australia was the first country to have a church agency dedicated to care for creation. At 22 and at the end of my initial contract, Jacqui Rémond, the director of Catholic Earthcare Australia, and I created a new role, promoting me as a speaker in Australian Catholic schools, linking care for creation to faith and social justice.
Young Australian Catholics are exactly as Pope Francis described them in Laudato Si’. We are buzzing and aching for change. When I speak with my peers about politics, climate change, and the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, they are irate, as I was, that adults can claim to be creating a better future without properly tackling the anthropocentrism and selfishness that are leading to climate change. They ask me why others are selling us a narrative that we can live lives that so clearly damage the planet, and that these lives are not only desirable and necessary, but also inevitable. When we speak about our lifestyles and how our lives are having progressively stronger impacts on the planet, they don’t ask me, “How can I change?” They ask me, “How can we change?”
Laudato Si’ not only affects what I say, but how I say it. When I can easily get caught up in frustration where I feel like I am screaming into an abyss and where no one is listening or changing, I find comfort in Pope Francis’s words:
How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” (Laudato Si’, 65).
When we run up against the challenge of a lifestyle that others sell us—and that we sometimes sell ourselves—that things and possessions make us happy and define who we are, it is easy for us to feel insignificant and lost. It’s easy to feel that our actions are futile and that we might succumb to what Pope Francis calls the temptation toward indifference. However, there is nothing like the warm embrace of our loving God to fortify and renew one in the fight for justice and to inspire us towards the globalisation of hope.
Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded. I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 13-14
In the wee hours of a June morning in 2015, I awoke at 4 o’clock to begin furiously reading Laudato Si’. As a father with young children, giving up sleep is not a choice I made lightly — I was making a commitment! As I began to sift through the text, I could not help but think about how my three boys, ages three, three, and six at the time, would experience the legacy of this document. How would this collection of words influence a new generation to “care for our common home”? After just a few paragraphs, it was obvious to me that Pope Francis was thinking about this, too.
Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.
Laudato Si’, 213
In our work at the Ignatian Solidarity Network, we are constantly reflecting on how we can invite a new generation of Catholics to respond to the realities of injustice as contemplative people of action. Laudato Si’ has provided us with a framework to do just this.
Pope Francis frames his invitation in section II of the document to educate “for the covenant between humanity and the environment” by noting that young people “have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit” (209). However, he also cautions that the presence of “extreme consumerism and affluence” create an “educational challenge” (ibid.).
In late 2015, two faculty members from Cheverus High School, a Jesuit coeducational college preparatory school in Portland, Maine, approached our staff with an idea to develop a program to challenge high school students and their institutions to more deeply reflect on the themes of Laudato Si’. As they began to share their ideas for the themes and structure of the program, I was in awe of the ways that the pope’s document was taking hold of these educators and leading them to respond to this “educational challenge” in ways that could impact young people and their schools for generations to come.
Grounded in various themes of Laudato Si’, the resulting Ignatian Carbon Challenge responds to our current ecological context, the needs of the global community, and Pope Francis’s call to practice responsible stewardship for creation by demonstrating care for it. The program invites both individuals and institutions to address climate change and environmental justice through a series of monthly challenges arranged in eight categories that coincide with themes of Laudato Si’: consumerism, transport, person-to-person interaction, relationship with the earth, energy, food, intellectual understanding, and prayer.
To date, nearly 4,000 students and upwards of 35 Catholic high schools across the United States and Canada are participating. Program leaders are collecting, analyzing, and sharing the results of participants’ ability to meet the challenges so that others can learn from their commitment. Will these young men and women change the world with their actions alone? Likely not. However the Ignatian Carbon Challenge is responding to the invitation to “plant seeds” and engage young people in a “new dialogue” of care for our common home and one another.
In my global advocacy activities, both as the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and as part-time attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, I have been amazed at the positive response of diplomats and international nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates to Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’. Many who would pass by me at the United Nations when they noticed my Roman collar now greet me warmly and tell me, “I like your Pope and his encyclical!” Despite my joy upon receiving these positive echoes, I am concerned that too many still see the encyclical as focusing on climate change alone (as vital and important as that issue might be) and do not discern the deeper implications of Pope Francis’s call for “integral human ecology,” which requires a profound discernment of our relationship with God, with nature, and with ourselves and each other.
In the sixth chapter of the encyclical, the Holy Father issued a rather curious challenge – that is, to promote “civic and political love”: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it (220)…. Social love is the key to authentic development (231).” What a contrast between Pope Francis’s admonition and the demeaning political rhetoric that dominated the recent referendum vote in the United Kingdom and the political campaigns in the United States and Europe!
The bitter debate about admission of migrants and refugees into Western countries is literally the most glaring proof of the crying need to promote civil and political love in our world. In February 2016, while standing at the border between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis described the current situation in this manner: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”
On January 15, 2017, the Catholic Church observes the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees. For this occasion, Pope Francis has decided to focus on “Minor migrants, vulnerable and voiceless,” who often arrive unaccompanied in their destination countries, “are unable to make their own voices heard” and “easily become victims of grave violations of human rights.” In his message for this day, the Holy Father insists on the need to strike a balance between “the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation … with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants.” He reminds us that the migration phenomenon is part of salvation history, which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.” Echoing dominant themes of Catholic social teaching, and specifically of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for far-sighted perspectives, “capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all,” and reminds us that “this development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”
My own organization, the ICMC, received a mandate from Pope Pius XII, “…to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.” I recently visited the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey; our staff there are deeply engaged in assisting families to apply for resettlement in the United States. These refugees cannot return home, and their current host country is unable to offer them permanent residence, employment, and long-term safety.
During my visit, I spent time with a group of children who were receiving instruction on life in America. As most children, they were enthusiastic and curious – they grinned from ear to ear and spoke of what they planned to do in their new homes. Each had colored a map of the United States, placed his or her destination state in a special color and spoke with confidence about heading to better and happier lives. But behind their smiling faces, I noticed pain and trauma in their eyes. They had witnessed terrible atrocities; several had lost their loved ones. I am sure that they were experiencing much anxiety and concern about how safe they would be as they boarded an airplane heading for parts of the world that would be very unfamiliar to them. What impressed me most about these children, however, was their sense of hope – they could imagine a better life for themselves and their families despite the many challenges they had experienced so early in life. They, like the Child Jesus, could still imagine the world described by the prophet Isaiah, where “… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them (Is. 11:6).”
For me, the time with these child refugees was a real lesson in a way to promote “civic and political love” that seems to be so lacking in our contemporary society and living proof that refugees and migrants are part of our common good!
The Gospel challenges each of us to respond to today’s refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. Michael Jackson popularized the song, “Man in the Mirror.” Whom do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Pope Francis has challenged us all in this Jubilee Year of Mercy to become “merciful, like the Father.” The person you see in the mirror determines your window to the world. Can you see out of your windows those who have borne the burden of human suffering and social injustice? “Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open doors (and windows) to God and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself (Pope Francis, “Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” 2016).
What is your window to the world? Your outlook? Pope Francis locates this encounter with oneself, others, and the world in the concept of “integral ecology”: “a relationship . . . between nature and the society which lives in it. 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” (id., Laudato Si’, 139). His vision calls for an ecological conversion with nature as its root, humanity as its heart and compassion as its core principle: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (ibid., 13). “Men and women are still capable of intervening positively” (ibid., 58). “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” (ibid., 205).
One of the key features of this nexus is security in harmonious community, both as to a physically safe and healthy place to live and as to economic, political, and social circumstances that reflect and respect the dignity of the human person and foster human flourishing. At a minimum, this requires individual and joint efforts to guarantee basic rights. However, as Pope Francis reminds us, it requires that we look beyond protecting rights and do more. It requires that we care. Indeed, if we are to take integral ecology seriously, we must care for “our common home” as well as one another.
There have been many deprivations of such security in harmonious community, but the current refugee crisis signals one of the worst, with a record 65.3 million displaced men, women, and children who have fled war, political persecution, and lawlessness around the world, leaving their homes, livelihoods and, at times, other family members and friends behind. Of these, almost 20 million have undergone vetting by the United Nations as refugees and are ready to immigrate now.
If we who are people of faith are to rise above the madding crowd, we need to inform ourselves enough to counter negative attitudes about immigrants and refugees, beginning with the person we see in the mirror. How do we confront the enemy of misinformation and wrong assumptions, beginning with ourselves and then taking it to others? What changes might we make if we are to do more than stand on the sidelines to one of the greatest tragedies in human and ecological history? What concrete steps can we take individually and jointly through local, national, and global institutions, to respond impactfully? Integral ecology, and the judgment of history, rule out looking away. In short, we need to care, and to act upon the indissoluble links among us as we see the world, and ourselves, through the mirrors of their eyes: