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.
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!
Pope Francis’s Laudato Si is a groundbreaking publication for our time; a kind of ‘Magna Carta’ from the Church to society! Continuing a practice starting with Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris in 1963, Pope Francis addressed Laudato Si to ‘All people of good will’. The content of this encyclical needs little elaboration, interpretation, exegesis or paraphrasing. Its succinct, down-to-earth and readable text speaks to a broad range of ‘people of good will’ through the mind, heart, conscience, and soul. However, it would help the encyclical to be more impactful if it had a much broader dissemination and application for people and institutions across numerous social milieus.
Dissemination and Diverse Application of Laudato Si
Laudato Si has shaped and transformed my conviction, attitude, mind-set, and deep consideration of relationships in and between the environmental and social domains and my personal utilization of both public and private goods. My teenage daughter read Laudato Si with ease when I persuaded her to do so and we have since had useful discussions on her perspectives. I am looking forward to her return home from high school on holidays so that I can learn from her about application of Laudato Si in a public boarding school environment.
As a social and development worker for the Church, I am constantly exploring other spaces and arenas for the dissemination and application of Laudato Si. Recently, as part of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference advocacy against land grabbing in Ghana, we held a two-day policy dialogue meeting with governmental actors on this subject. Caritas Ghana’s report—Unmasking Land Grabbing in Ghana; Restoring Livelihoods; Paving Way for Sustainable Development Goals (available at www.caritas-ghana.org)—which was the basis for the policy engagement, considered (in chapter 2) the menace of land grabbing from the lens of Laudato Si. I was amazed at the number of government officials—Catholic and non-Catholic—who requested copies of Laudato Si. Caritas Ghana had intended to distribute only a few copies as gifts to key functionaries at the event. However, the demand for copies provided us the opportunity to disseminate Laudato Si on the second day of the event as well.
Laudato Si is also central for Caritas Ghana’s advocacy strategy to help the country implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are about to publish an assessment report on Ghana’s readiness to implement the SDGs framework. At a national validation meeting on the report with representatives of government ministries, departments and agencies, civil society organisations, university researchers and intergovernmental organisations, we again demonstrated how principles that Pope Francis invokes in Laudato Si are essential to implementing the SDGs framework. The principles of leave-no-one-behind, inclusion, participation, policy coherence and respect for ecology and environment aligned well with this framework.
Another example of such dissemination and application of this message involving the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference occurred during the group’s 2016 Plenary Assembly, which just concluded in Ghana’s Northern Region city of Tamale. The theme was ‘Reconciliation with God, Humanity and Nature in the Year of Mercy’. Participants devoted the whole of 11 October to issues related to integral human development and public policy in Ghana. Notable issues they discussed included the phenomenon of land grabbing, ecology, national cohesion and peace, the upcoming general elections in December, and human security. In all these discussions, Laudato Si was at the centre of the reflections and thus provided an opportunity to disseminate its message. The text of the culminating communiqué (available at www.caritas-ghana.org) amply demonstrates the centrality of the teaching of Laudato Si for the bishops.
This post has presented concrete examples of ways for Laudato Si truly to be a message to all people of good will. Laudato Si will benefit from application and dissemination in diverse contexts to develop creative responses to today’s social and environmental questions. The encyclical reflects Pope Francis’s plain-spoken approach to the relevant issues: the ‘signs of the times’. The availability of translations of the document into multiple languages broadens such access and opportunity. There is no need for those who distribute it or those who read it to overthink its direct moral appeal and factual exposition; what will be most helpful will be for all reciprocally to bring to the dialogue the very qualities that Pope Francis models in this text and his leadership generally: good will, honesty, and care. Perhaps, going forward, the compilation of a compendium of case studies of Laudato Si’s application in diverse and varied contexts could be a befitting gift to Pope Francis on the fifth anniversary of its publication in 2020.
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:
Photo by Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/CC BY
Celebrating the first anniversary of Laudato Si continues to be a blessing and a challenge. The encyclical calls us daily to the urgency of the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
I recall the well-known words of Arleen Lorrance: We must become the change we want to see in the world. Pope Francis’s emphasis throughout the encyclical is on care and love for the universe as a framework for the care and love we demonstrate for humanity. It is a call for a change of mind and heart on the part of all peoples, a change that leads to action. We respond to this call to be agents of change, initiators or creators of change in the ordinary circumstances of daily living, i.e., to involve ourselves—and to care. We need one another because we share a common home and have a shared responsibility for the world and for one another. “An integral ecology is made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (230).
This reality makes certain anthropological assumptions and implies a parallel set of duties proportionate to both:
Many things need to change but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. . . . (202) A new and universal solidarity is required (14).
This change is transformational and internal, a change in how we see the world, how we see each other, and how we see God. It is a call to reflect on our relationship with God, neighbor, and earth. Are these relationships healthy or broken? Do these broken relationships invite us to take action locally, nationally, and globally though advocacy and universal solidarity? It is a call to address policy, structures, and institutions on broken issues: climate change, gun violence, human trafficking, immigration reform, hunger, racism, global inequality, economic disparity and exclusion.
Laudato Si continues to invite students, parishes, interfaith groups, business and professional leaders, and others to study, reflection, dialogue, and ongoing ecological conversion. What is needed is a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor, and to the priorities of a global economy. Awareness changes the mind and heart and moves one to take action, to build bridges of unity and love. This is love overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, but it is also civic and political, and is felt in every action that seeks to build a better world, the ideal of “a civilization of love” (231).
Personal experiences call us to deeper conversion and action. This year, I participated in a human rights delegation to Honduras. My meetings with various groups—listening to stories of struggles, fears, violence, injustice, and corruption—gave new concrete testimony and meaning to being in solidarity.
I read in the newspaper about Berta Caceres, one of the leading indigenous activists in Honduras. She spent her life fighting in defense of indigenous rights, particularly to land and natural resources. She was assassinated on March 2, 2016. This for me was a call to solidarity and action. To honor Berta Caceres and all people of Honduras who suffer human rights abuses, I ask that members of Congress support H.R. 5474, the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. The bill seeks to “suspend U.S. security assistance with Honduras until such time as human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” To demonstrate solidarity in action, it’s time to write to our representatives and senators!
Laudato Si speaks of hope, a hope that will bring new life and care for our common home and one another. It is a call for action, creativity, and collaboration. Let us be thechange we want to see in the world as we respond daily to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.