Mark 4:35-41 (12th Sunday Ordinary time, year b)
Recently, I have been reading and reflecting on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment. His message has challenged me. Before, I did not think that caring for the environment was a central part of being Catholic. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think that environment issues were unimportant, I just thought that they were secondary. Pope Francis has made me reconsider my mentality. His model for how we should relate to the environment is St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, the name of the document, Laudato Si (“Praised be to you”), are the first words of a canticle composed by the saint. For St. Francis, conversion is not just about growing closer to God and other people. A necessary part of following Jesus is developing a better relationship with the environment.
The first step in this conversion is reexamining how we view our relationship to the rest of creation. Sometimes we think in the following way. The earth belongs to us. We are its masters. Humans are separate from the rest of creation. The rest of nature is good only in so far as it is useful to us. The reason we should take care of the environment is so that we can continue using it in the future. Today’s gospel upsets this way of thinking. The disciples are in a boat crossing the sea and Jesus is in the back of the boat sleeping. Suddenly they are caught in a violent storm. The wind howls around them and the waves batter the boat. The disciples fear for their lives. They are helpless in the face of these forces of nature. They recognize clearly that they do not control creation. They ask Jesus for help and with a word He calms the wind and the sea. Nature obeys Him. The disciples then exclaim, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” In their hearts they already know the answer: Jesus must be God, the creator of the wind, sea and all that is. Only the creator is master of creation.
We are not God. We are part of creation, not its master. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1) and belongs to Him. It was here before us and was given to us to care for. St. Francis understood that the earth, our common home, “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (Laudato Si, 1). All other living beings have their own dignity and purpose in the eyes of God. They do not exist solely for our use. God wants us to be stewards and not masters of the environment. We are to care for the earth, not control it.
We have failed to be good stewards of creation. The earth, our sister, “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (2). In writing Laudato Si, Pope Francis has done his homework. He has entered into dialogue with the scientific community in order to understand the various ways our actions have harmed the environment. Climate change, which adversely affects all forms of life, is caused in large part by human activity. Deforestation has scarred our landscape. We have polluted the earth, dumping chemicals, waste and garbage upon it. As a result, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (12). Because of poor stewardship, the planet’s biodiversity has decreased. Many plants and animals no longer exist. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (33).
Although our failure to care for the earth, our common home, affects us all, the poor suffer most. The goods of the earth are intended for all. However, we who live in wealthier countries take far more than our share, leaving little for the poor or future generations. If everyone in the world were as wasteful as we are in Canada, the earth would soon be destroyed entirely. Environmental damage disproportionately affects the poorest. Their lands are the most scarred as a result of our poor stewardship. They have less access to natural resources. Many do not even have a reliable source of water. This is a violation of a basic human right.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis presents what he calls an integral ecology. “Everything”, he writes, “is interconnected.” (70). In our life, the following are all linked: our relationship with God, our relationship with the environment and our relationship with others, particularly the poor. When one relationship is weak, the other two suffer. For example, when we are not close to God our hearts become empty and we try to fill them by consuming more and more. This leads us to carelessly pillage the earth. The resulting environmental damage harms others, especially the poor. On the other hand, when one relationship is healthy, the other two improve. For example, when we see the beauty of creation it draws us closer to God, the creator. When we view the earth as a gift, good in itself, we freely share it with others, especially those most in need.
Pope Francis calls us all - individuals and governments - to ecological conversion. It is unacceptable to ignore problems any longer; action is required. We must choose to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49). On the national and international level, binding processes must be established that safeguards the environment and holds violators accountable. For there to be lasting change, ecological conversion must occur on a personal level. “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change” (202). Ecological conversion means living a simpler life. It is choosing to stop buying more stuff, and rejecting the “throw-away culture” in favor of the conviction that “less is more” (222). Ecological conversion means living a life more focused on nature. It is choosing to bring our family to the park rather than a mall for recreation. Ecological conversion means living a life more focused on relationships, learning to “to think deeply and to love generously” (47). It is choosing to look up from our phones and have real interactions with people, face to face. Ecological conversion means considering how our actions affects the environment and others, especially the poor. It is choosing to do things “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, and turning off unnecessary lights” (211).
Laudato Si has challenged me to consider how my relationship with God, the environment and the poor are all interrelated. It has pushed me to make concrete changes in my actions. Pope Francis wrote the document to provoke us. Throughout, he asks us to consider an important question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (160) Do we want to leave an environment that reflects the beauty of God or one that is scarred from neglect? Do we want to leave behind the values of greed, disconnectedness and wastefulness or of concern for all, especially the poor? What kind of world do you want to leave behind? All of us are called to reflect and to take action.