Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
Even though concerns about what was happening to our environment began to appear in Church documents as early as 1971, I have argued that the Catholic Church’s teaching on ecology was certainly not a central element in its preaching of the Gospel of Jesus. This might be about to change during the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis.
During the Mass to mark his inauguration as Bishop of Rome on March 19th 2013, he focused on the role of Joseph as ‘protector “of Jesus and his mother.” But he expanded the notion of ‘protector’ to include concern for creation. “The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human (task), involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!”
He went on to make a direct appeal to “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives”
He made it clear that protecting creation was an integral part of his service as Bishop of Rome. “To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly.”
On March 16th 2013, Pope Francis addressed around 6,000 journalists who were in Rome to cover the Conclave. He told them that he choose the name of Francis of Assisi, because “Francis was a man of poverty, who loved and protected creation.”
On March 22nd 2013 in his address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. “Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges: these, as it were, are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries here represented to take up. But it is a difficult journey, if we do not learn to grow in love for this world of ours. Here too, it helps me to think of the name of Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using it for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”
On Palm Sunday March 24th 2013, he mentioned some human vices which destroy individuals, communities and the natural world. “Love of power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation! And – as each one of us knows and is aware – our personal sins: our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbour and towards the whole of creation.”
Protecting creation was also part of this Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World) Message on Easter Sunday morning. “Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish….May the risen Jesus bring comfort to the victims of natural disasters and make us responsible guardians of creation.”
Pope Francis’ concern for the endangered earth is rooted in his experience in Latin America. He chaired the committee which drew up the final recommendations from the Fifth General Conference of the Council of Latin American Bishops at Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. That document speaks of the pain of Pachamama, Mother Earth and criticizes extractive industries (mining and logging), and agribusiness corporations for failing to respect the economic, social and environmental rights of local people, especially the indigenous people.