On John Prine’s 1971 debut album, there is a powerful song called ‘Paradise’. The narrator of the song describes an idyllic town in Eastern Kentucky called Paradise. A coal company comes in with “the world’s largest shovel” and begins to dig for coal. It torches the land while calling it the “progress of man.” The son of the narrator asks his father if he will take him to visit Paradise. The father delivers the sad news to his son that they are too late, “Mister Peabody’s coal trains have hauled it away.” As a kid from Scranton, the capital of Pennsylvania’s coal country, I grew up seeing firsthand the damage this kind of “progress of man” can do after decades of coal mining. The landscape and its people have been forever scarred by the unchecked desire for profit. One can see the physical damage, such as piles of coal ash and mine waste, or the collapse of mine shafts that affect buildings and roads. There is not just physical damage, but there are also significant health issues that still threaten residents of coal country. This is just one small example of how environmental issues can impact so much.
These issues of care for the environment and care of people are at the very heart of what we should be celebrating Earth Day, which occurred last week on April 22nd. It is a celebration of not just all the great and wonderful gifts our planet has given to us, but of its people too. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and begin to remove our masks from our mouth and nose, we have the opportunity to remove the mask from our eyes and hearts to the plight of the planet and its inhabitants. Pope Francis offers a fresh view of how we can interact with our natural world in his encyclical Laudato Si'. Drawing inspiration from his namesake and building off the foundations of his papal predecessors, the Holy Father calls on all of humanity to integrate the care for creation into all aspects of our lives. We must do so with our economies, our faith life, our politics, and our daily life. He calls on us to recognize society’s role in the denigration of our environment and to begin the process of healing the earth. He says we can do this by advocating for the poor who are disproportionately affected by climate change, improve the goals of our economies, and take political and personal action to repair the damage done. Pope Francis reminds us that this is all at the heart of our faith. Our love and care for the other must include the environment that our neighbor lives in too.
One of the most striking aspects of this wonderful document, to me, is how deeply Pope Francis ties to our faith this cause of care. He says that this kind of care demands a change of hearts. We must reevaluate our daily lives to see what we can do to improve our earth. Some actions can be as simple as making sure that we are turning off the lights, while others require massive societal change such as the move away from fossil fuels, but both are important. Both can be achievable if we can commit ourselves to each other and to our earth. God will guide us to this grace, for it is through God alone that we can achieve our goal.
“God, who calls us to generous commitment and to give him our all, offers us the light and the strength needed to continue on our way. In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!”-Laudato Si', 245
For more resources on Laudati Si', please click here.
“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. (2)” – Pope Francis, Laudato Si’
This past weekend in the United States we celebrated Earth Day. Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a call to action to bring greater awareness to environmental issues. It continues to serve as a reminder to us of our place on the earth and our responsibilities as its current inhabitants.
The Catholic Church has taken a strong stance on the importance of preserving our planet and has highlighted the necessity of caring for creation as one of the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. A document of the USCCB teaches that: “To ensure the survival of a healthy planet, then, we must not only establish a sustainable economy but must also labor for justice both within and among nations. We must seek a society where economic life and environmental commitment work together to protect and to enhance life on this planet.”
Pope Francis has also taken steps to highlight the necessity of caring for our environment. In 2015, he released his papal encyclical on the environment entitled Laudato Si’ – On Care for our Common Home. In this encyclical, he points out our moral obligation as Catholics and as humans to care for our environment.
But what can we do as people of faith to preserve the earth? What steps can we take in our daily lives to protect the world God gave us?
Go outside. Experience the beauty of the earth by taking some time to be in nature. Go for a walk in your neighborhood and look at the diversity of the flowers and trees. Spend some time in prayerful contemplation near water, in the mountains, or in your own backyard.
Read Laudato Si’. Pope Francis’s encyclical highlights the ways we are required as Catholics to work to save and protect the environment. He puts into words the importance, particularly at this point in history, of caring for the earth. He highlights specific problems that threaten the environment and offers suggestions for action. The Catholic Apostolate Center has a resource page on Laudato Si’ that includes a general overview of the encyclical, as well as other helpful links, news articles, and documents supporting or explaining Catholic teaching on caring for our environment.
Pray with the Psalms. In particular, I invite you to pray with Psalms 8, 22, 24, 50, 65, and 84. Adding these words of Scripture to our regular prayer will help to inspire a greater desire to do more to preserve our environment.
Turn off your lights and water when you are not using them. Do these and other small actions in your daily life to minimize your carbon footprint.
Learn about St. Francis of Assisi. When he was elected pope in 2013, then-Jorge Bergoglio took the name of Francis because he was inspired by the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi. When writing Laudato Si’, he again took great inspiration from St. Francis: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (11)