To parish representatives taking part in a virtual retreat organised by the Canonesses of St Augustine at Boarbank Hall, UK
Thank you for the invitation to join you this evening as we reflect together on Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ with a focus on the theme ‘Your Parish and Your Planet.’
I am a fan of the American country singer Diana Jones. One of her songs is a lament, what she calls a love song to the Appalachian Mountains. These stretch almost 2000 miles, from Newfoundland in Canada, to central Alabama in the United States. The mountains are being mined for coal and introducing the song at a live performance Diana said this: ‘They’ve mined the mountains, they’ve strip-mined the mountains, and now they’re doing something called mountain top removal… It just sounds so horrible and it is. They take dynamite and they literally blast away the tops of the mountains that have been there forever. Then they go in with huge machines and scoop out the coal. The call it coal mining without getting your hands dirty, but I think you get your soul dirty when you do something like that.’
The song is very beautiful and the lyrics powerful, but it was that phrase ‘you get your soul dirty’ which really struck.
When Pope Francis speaks about caring for our common home he summons us to an authentic stewardship of our planet, ‘our sister, Mother earth,’ and all with which God has endowed her. (LS 1-2) How we act towards the dignity of creation, and the dignity of each person, touches our soul. From deep within, we ask the God of love, in the Pope’s words, to ‘awaken our praise and thankfulness’ for creation; to ‘show us our place in this world as channels of love;’ to help us ‘avoid the sin of indifference;’ to ‘seize us with power and light;’ to ‘help us protect all life,’ so as ‘to prepare for a better future, for the coming of [God’s] kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty.’ (Prayer of Pope Francis, LS 246)
In Scripture ‘the term ‘soul’ often refers to human life or the entire human person.’ But it ‘also refers to the innermost aspect of [human beings,]; to ‘that which is of greatest value [in us,] that by which [we are] most especially in God’s image.’ ‘Soul’ then ‘signifies the spiritual principle’ in each person. (CCC 363)
When Pope Francis calls us to ‘to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (LS, 49) he is appealing to the deepest part of our being. Our concern for the whole of creation must resonate within us, created as we are in God’s image and likeness. It must touch our soul and stir up a profound awareness of our responsibility to protect and nurture God’s gifts. We can either choose to embrace God’s gifts of creation and life, attuning our soul to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor; or we can choose to reject God’s gifts, refusing to hear the cry of the earth and the poor. We find echoed here the choice set forth in Deuteronomy: ‘Today I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God.’ (Dt 30: 19-2) Life and blessing require our care for the earth and for the poor.
In his reflection Let us Dream – The Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis invites us to take the implications of contemporary discipleship seriously. ‘Jesus restores dignity to the people,’ he writes ‘in acts and words that perform God’s closeness. No one is saved alone. Isolation is not part of our faith. God attracts us within a complex web of relationships and sends us out into the middle of the crossroads of history.’ (104) How vital that, together, we listen for, and hear, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, not passively, but actively. That we understand God’s closeness to the earth and to the poor. That we imitate the Lord Jesus in actions and words that restore dignity. That we are missionaries, sent out, in our time and place, to stand in solidarity with the earth and all our brothers and sisters upon it.
We often feel powerlessness before gargantuan global challenges to the environment and human dignity. We may become involved in campaigns for change, and rightly so. We may unite with worldwide movements seeking to counter the threats posed to creation and human flourishing, and the intimate link between them. But for some, perhaps many, the sheer enormity of the problem is a discouragement. What difference can I make, especially when multinationals and governments seemingly make little or no effort to reduce their negative impact on environmental destruction and human devastation?
Here is one answer from Pope Francis: ‘Saint Therese of Lisieux,’ he says ‘invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.’ (LS, 230)
Here is a project which every person, every disciple, every parish can take up. We can, and should, raise awareness and act for change. We can, and should, make ethical choices about how we use energy, how we recycle, how we serve sustainability in our homes, schools, and churches. But there is also a work for each individual though ‘simple daily gestures.’ Little things make a difference. Little things give witness. Little things change perspectives. Little things bear fruit, maybe small fruit, but fruit nonetheless.
When we challenge a ‘throwaway culture,’ (LS 16, 22, 43) when we propose alternatives to a disposable mind-set, whether of human life or rights, of the earth’s resources, or of justice and peace, we honour the soul of each person and the soul of our planet. Moreover, we honour God, the maker of both.
Pope Francis calls us to an ‘integral ecology,’ a way of seeing life and our world which is whole and entire. Our English word ‘whole’ comes from the Old English word ‘hal’ meaning unhurt, uninjured, or undamaged. The Greek word ‘oikos,’ from which ecology comes, means ‘house.’ It speaks here of our planet as a shared dwelling place, where everyone belongs as part of the household. We can image this in our parish communities, where those who are hurt, injured, and damaged, find a home, where those who are broken find wholeness. ‘Integral ecology’ is a fundamental disposition towards the wholeness of others and of creation.
Pope Francis speaks of ‘simple daily gestures’ which are not beyond any of us, nor beyond our parish communities. Gestures which ‘sow peace and friendship.’ Gestures which overcome ‘violence, exploitation and selfishness’ through how we treat each other, especially the weakest, the poorest, and those most difficult to love. Violence, exploitation and selfishness all involve the misuse of power. But our Saviour, the one in whose footsteps we walk, came among us as one who serves. There is no place for violence, exploitation or selfishness if we are busy washing feet. The gestures, the words, the actions, of the Lord Jesus were never empty, but resonant, pregnant, with the kingdom.
The call to care for our world and every person does, and should, stir our soul in response to God’s gift of creation and life. A popular hymn begins ‘O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hand hath made.’ It has the rousing refrain, ‘Then sings my soul… how great Thou art.’ As we dream of a better future, we can be encouraged and emboldened to sing from our souls, through action and word; to sing into being the wondrous Canticle of Creation: Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation…I give thanks to you,
I will serve you in all humility. Amen.