“In 2000, also a Jubilee Year, my predecessor Saint John Paul II asked Catholics to make amends for past and present religious intolerance, as well as for injustice towards Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn. In this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, I invite everyone to do likewise. As individuals, we have grown comfortable with certain lifestyles shaped by a distorted culture of prosperity and a ‘disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary’ (Laudato Si’, 123), and we are participants in a system that ‘has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.' Let us repent of the harm we are doing to our common home.”
– Pope Francis
Today, September 1, is the World Day of Prayer for Creation. In the above excerpt from Pope Francis’s message in honour of this day, we are urged to see the destruction of the earth not as an unfortunate event wrought by circumstance, but a grave sin for which we are responsible. However, as always, Francis urges us to think and act in terms of reconciliation and mercy. For him, environmental stewardship can be seen as an eighth corporal and spiritual act of mercy:
As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato Si, 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world” (ibid., 230-31).
During my recent pilgrimage to Poland for World Youth Day, I met some young leaders who have taken Francis’s exhortation to heart. During the week of WYD Events Krowoderski Park in Kraków was designated as a space specifically devoted to discussions on environmental sustainability in the wake of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudatio Si, which was released last year. Tomás Insua, an activist who is originally from Argentina but now lives in the US, said that he and his colleagues formed the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a broad coalition of 350 Catholic organizations from around the world, in response to an urgent need.
“My calling to get involved in the environmental movement came about when I travelled to the Philippines, which has been hit by super typhoons and is aware of the devastation caused by climate change,” Insua said. While living in Singapore and working in marketing for Google, Insua had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haian, which killed ten thousand people and displaced eleven million. “Knowing that overconsumption in the West was a major cause of this devastation made me realize that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are the same,” he said. He added that the Filipino Church has a stronger ecological commitment than the rest of the Church because they have experienced the effects of climate change firsthand.
Insua went on to study climate policy in graduate school and become more involved in the movement. He was very concerned by the lack of a Catholic environmentalist presence at the 2014 Climate March in New York. “Catholics were present at the march, of course, but not as representatives of the Church. The Bishops’ Conference and other Catholic organizations did not endorse the march. I was ashamed of the gap between Pope Francis’ message endorsement and the lack of participation from Catholic bishops in the US.”
Insua and his colleagues then worked to mobilize 40,000 Catholics to March before the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris, and they collected 900,000 signatures for their petition to governments and leaders around the world. One of their main objectives is education – to encourage people to read Laudatio Si and put it into practice in their daily lives by reducing consumption. “Why is the US the only country in the world where half of the people, including political elites, deny climate science? It has to do with the massive influence of the fossil fuel industries, which has been contributing to the misinformation of the public.”
At the final Mass of World Youth Day, Pope Francis urged all of us to celebrate September 1 through October 4 as the Season of Creation, in which we are called upon to pray and act for the care of creation. Insua stated that the next objective of the Global Catholic Climate Movement is to promote this Season of Creation and, hopefully in the next five to ten years, have it designated as an official liturgical season.
What can we do to respond to Francis’ call to become stewards of creation? The members of this movement urge us to do three things. First, we must educate ourselves about the issues, reading Francis’ Laudatio Si and becoming as informed as we can, and then to pass that information on to others. Next, we must pray. As Catholics we believe that prayer has the power to make a difference. And finally, we must act both personally (by working to reduce our own carbon footprint) and politically (by calling on governments to change their policies and corporations to be held accountable. Ultimately, this movement seeks to transform Francis’ encyclical from ideas into action, to work urgently to transform our culture from one of exploitation to one of stewardship, care and mercy.