Today's guest blogger is Glenmarian, Fr. John S. Rausch. His reflection truly paints the need for creative missioners to join with us in our care of God's creation in Glenmary's mission areas.
Laudato Si “Praise Be to You, My Lord”
by Fr. John S. Rausch
Lucius Thompson built an addition onto his mobile home in Tom Biggs Hollow in McRoberts, a small coal camp in Letcher County, Kentucky. Strip mining gouged deep scars into the surrounding mountains, and even decapitated some of them by mountaintop removal (MTR.) The constant mine blasting eventually separated his addition from the main structure, so when it rained, he caught the drippings in buckets.
That worried him, but he freaked when his three small grandchildren playing in his front yard came in moments before a strong gusher washed through the hollow with power enough to sweep them away. The destruction of the mountains can trigger threats to human life.
I came to appreciate the glories of creation through the sufferings of people. My training for ministry taught me to help victims of floods, storms and sickness, but frequently I saw the human factor linked to these natural disasters. I began looking over the shoulders of those suffering asthma and cancer caused by the disturbed environment, and glimpsing the beauty of the mountains that in contrast promised health and wholeness. With that I was reborn an environmentalist, preaching care of creation as part of the Gospel mandate.
In 2015 Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, an encyclical letter, quoting the opening lines of the Canticle of the Creatures in Italian by St. Francis of Assisi: “Laudato Si,’ mi’ Signore”—“Praise be to you, my Lord.” Following the saint, the pope recognizes how intricately connected everything is: “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (par. #10.)
Because Pope Francis sees an urgent challenge to protect our common home (par. #13,) it seems appropriate that certain implications flow from this connectedness altering the approach of all believers toward creation. Reading Laudato Si, I found five salient teachings.
1. A spiritual perspective must be part of the discussion on the environment.
There is something beyond the “usefulness” of creation. The “Peoples Pastoral” of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia warns against viewing the mountains simply as a mineral colony and not as the interconnectedness of people and the land: “When the story of these mountains as ‘resource’ takes over the story of the mountains as ‘home,’ we become homeless in our own place and disconnected from Earth and one another” (p.3.)
Pope Francis echoes this sentiment by warning that if we approach creation without a sense of awe and wonder, we will become ruthless exploiters (par. # 11.) As we treat nature, we will treat our neighbors. We cannot have a deep connectedness with the rest of nature, if our hearts lack compassion toward our fellow human beings (par. #91.) Further, anthropocentrism stifles our call to stewardship of creation (par. #67), because it fails to recognize the priority of “being” over “being useful” (par. #69.). Our common home is not simply a resource, but our sister and mother (par. #1.)
I recognized the spiritual perspective of creation during my Appalachian wildflower walks when I recognized that the billions of wildflowers growing in the forests of the world which no human eyes will ever see, all stand interconnected with the earth’s ecology and each gives praise to the Creator! God did not plant wildflowers just for people.
2. The poor are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Concerning Appalachia, since 2007 peer-reviewed studies by university researchers concluded that MTR contributes significantly to higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among individuals living in the mining area. Fine particulates, one-thousandth the width of a human hair, float airborne continuously around MTR sites, promoting the growth of lung cancer cells in nearby residents. Mining makes the profits, while the people face the pollution.
Laudato Si says: “Both every day experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (par. #48.)
3. Everything is connected.
“Environment” in Laudato Si refers to the relationship between nature and society, so the environmental crisis is really a single complex crisis that is both social and ecological. “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (par. #139.)
In Appalachia social planners frequently fail to alleviate poverty significantly through an overemphasis on one aspect, whether education, job creation or welfare reform. A holistic approach must include an array of social indicators incorporated with a respect for creation. Everything in the world is connected (par. #16.)
4.To address the environmental crisis, we need a global dialogue with solidarity.
Pope Francis appeals for a new dialogue that includes everyone (par. #14.) Too frequently in the past, special interests and economic interests have thwarted the common good and manipulated information to protect their own plans (par. #54.) He says that countries that have benefitted from a high industrialization at an enormous cost to the environment have a greater responsibility for providing a solution for the problems they have caused (par. #170.)
In Appalachia I once participated in a dialogue between coal-related executives and church and community workers. The first meeting produced more heat than light, but a subsequent meeting brought a mutual agreement that more coal severance money should be returned to coal counties for development. Years later, now that demand for coal has fallen precipitously because of environmental concerns, these same executives admit little future exists for coal, while they pursue alternative investments. No one industry can simply replace coal, but numerous, modest and creative efforts might build a sustainable future in the mountains.
5. To save the earth, we need a change of heart.
Pope Francis encourages a change of lifestyle that dethrones consumerism as the source of happiness. “Less is more” represents a Christian spirituality that proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life (par. #222.) Living with moderation allows each person to appreciate the little things of life and derive satisfaction from beauty. This integral ecology encourages a kind word, a smile and a small gesture to promote peace and friendship, thus defeating “the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (par. #230.) E.F. Schumacher encapsulated this approach with his saying: “The greatest well-being with the least consumption.”
Traditional Appalachian values reverence family, religion, and neighborliness. The slower pace of rural living allows time for visiting and appreciating nature, and opportunities for helping someone in trouble, whether part of the community or on the side of the road. Indeed, saving the earth might depend on rekindling respect for people and a reverence for the land—traditional values lost amidst the pile of consumer goods that distract us.
Pope Francis ends his encyclical with the meaning of Sunday, and the Jewish Sabbath, which is “meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world” (par. 237.) A day of contemplative rest is not unproductive, but actually necessary to give meaning and appreciation to work, beauty, relationships and community. It will connect us with all of creation and reveal our ecological vocation as co-gardeners with God.