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.