On May 24, 2020, the fifth anniversary of his path-breaking and incisive Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si '-On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis said that the document sought to “call attention to the cry of the Earth and of the poor.” He invited everyone to take part in the Laudato Si’ Year from 24 May 2020 until 24 May 2021 saying, “I invite all people of goodwill to take part, to care for our common home and our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.” One would certainly need plenty of courage to accept Pope Francis’ invitation and engage meaningfully in this important year!
‘Laudato Si’ was the first major Papal teaching on a subject of critical importance namely ‘the environment’. ‘Laudato Si ' meaning “Praise be to you" are the first words of the celebrated ' Canticle of the Creatures' of St Francis of Assisi. The Encyclical which came months before the landmark 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, ( COP 21) which was held in Paris in fact set the tone for world leaders to come to grips with real causes which were responsible for environmental degradation and which ultimately caused climatic changes with disastrous results everywhere.
In the opening statements of the Encyclical, Pope Francis makes his intention clear “ to address every person living on this planet” (#3). He says “ this sister (mother earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (#2).
In the first Chapter, he states that “ we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (#48); he deals here with several ‘aspects of the present ecological crisis’: pollution, waste and the throw-away culture; climate as a common good; displacement and migration caused by environmental degradation; access to safe drinking water as a basic and universal human right; loss of bio-diversity; decline in the quality of human life and break down of society; global inequality. He also denounces unequivocally the use of pesticides and the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops.
Pope Francis strongly notes that “ the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production” (#32). By making such statements and by taking a stand for the ‘care of our common home’, Pope Francis has indeed created several enemies among the rich and powerful-who are bent on profiteering; those engaged in the extractive industry by plundering very precious and scarce natural resources. This was indicative from the fact that the Gallup Poll conducted in the United States a little after the Encyclical was released, showed that his ratings had plummeted by more than 18% points among fairly large sections of Americans and particularly the wealthy and other vested interests.
Pope Francis certainly did not lose any sleep, because there was a drop in his popularity; he has been consistent in his love for the poor and in his commitment to the protection of the environment. Throughout the Encyclical, he insists that we have been called to be stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us. He ensures that ‘ Laudato Si’ focuses on human rights violations and injustices. He does not mince words when he says “ in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (#158).
What is paramount in the final analysis, says Pope Francis is a radical commitment to ensure positive change, which is the need of the hour. For this he says, every section of society must play a definite role in a collaborative and concerted manner. The Pope does not spare the priests of the Catholic Church and he calls upon them to engage with the faithful on environmental issues. Further, he challenges international and national Governments and mechanisms saying, “ the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions” (#175).
In fact addressing the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Vatican on 9 January he said "sadly, the urgency of this ecological conversion seems not to have been grasped by international politics, where the response to the problems raised by global issues such as climate change remains very weak and a source of grave concern."
‘Laudato Si’ does make one uncomfortable! Therefore, there is always the danger that many would like to cosmeticize this powerful document: to tinker with bits and parts, to be selective in its reading, highlighting the ‘easy’ points; to engage in non-threatening activities like growing trees, propagating alternative technologies, not using plastics, to indulge in acts of tokenism like environmental ‘education’, or project work. Whilst all these acts are surely good and could lead to something more sustainable, ‘Laudato Si’ is path-breaking, radical in nature, it shakes one out of one’s complacency by touching every single dimension of our human existence. The Pope invites all to an ecological conversion, to change directions so that we can truly care for our common home. Not to pay heed to Pope Francis’ prophetic words, to rubbish this timely and important message or to relegate it to mere tree-planting and other ‘feel-good’ exercises would certainly be a great disservice not to the Pope, but to Planet Earth : our common home!
On 22 April, Earth Day, Pope Francis praised the environmental movement, saying it was necessary for young people to “take to the streets to teach us what is obvious, that is, that there will be no future for us if we destroy the environment that sustains us” . Recounting a Spanish proverb that God always forgives, man sometimes forgives but nature never forgives, Francis said, “ If we have deteriorated the Earth, the response will be very ugly. “ Adding, “ We see these natural tragedies, which are the Earth’s response to our maltreatment. I think that if I ask the Lord now what he thinks about this, I don’t think he would say it is a very good thing. It is we who have ruined the work of God.” Saying the Earth was not an endless deposit of resources to exploit, he said, “We have sinned against the Earth, against our neighbour and, in the end, against the Creator.”
Interestingly, a lead article in ‘The Hindu’ (23/24 May 2020) says that during lockdown the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEFCC) panels cleared or discussed thirty projects in biodiverse forests. The projects including mining and a highway, were brought up during virtual conferences; but Environmental scientists say that site inspections are a ‘crucial component’ of project evaluation. In fact, the current Government has clearly abdicated its role as the protector of India’s rich biodiversity. Almost several forests from the Aravallis in North India (incidentally the Aravallis are regarded as one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, which acts as a water recharge zone, are green lungs which shield the dust that blows from the Thar desert for most of North India and ultimately saves a vast region from desertification); then there are the rich bio diversity areas of Dehing Patkai and Dibang Valley in the North East, Talabira in Odisha, Hasdeo in Central India, Western Ghats across West and South India – all these are being indiscriminately being opened up to industries. Not only is biodiversity being destroyed but the people living in these forests, the adivasis, and the indigenous peoples, will certainly lose their natural habitat. Already the regime has made its intentions clear: to deprive those who were living in the forests for centuries, of their legitimate rights to these forests.
In another blatantly anti-environmental decision the Finance Minister announced a few days ago, commercial mining of coal by the private sector, ending government monopoly on the sector. When the world is doing away with fossil fuels – India is helping a few rich to destroy our fragile ecosystems and amass huge wealth.
The recent AMPHAN cyclone which has devastated the lives of millions, the COVID - 19 pandemic, the forest fires in Uttarakhand, the swarms of locusts which have destroyed crops in north India, the unseasonal rains and storms in some parts of the country- are no aberrations! These have their roots in our consumerist lifestyles, our callous attitudes towards the environment and our lust for profiteering -which makes us very insensitive to the destruction of our fragile ecosystems.
So for this ‘Laudato Si’ Year, with the mandate from the Holy Father himself, it is critical for us, the Church in India, to reflect, do some soul-searching and act urgently on some key questions:
- Have we internalised the document, individually and collectively: made it our own?
- Are we proactive in communicating to others the radical content of this document?
- Do we speak/refer to ‘Laudato Si’ in our homilies, talks? Have we organised public seminars/ debates/ for a on it?
- Is ‘Laudato Si’ translated into our vernacular languages; and if so is it accessible in the public domain?
- Do we take a stand on human rights violations and injustices (#158)?
- Are we truly concerned about the ‘jal, jungle aur jameen’ of the adivasis? Do we take a stand on the way the Government and the powerful are trying to deprive them of the forest lands? Do we truly identify them, accompany them in their struggles?
- Do we identify/collaborate with important movements like the National Alliance of Peoples Movement (NAPM) and/or with other environmental groups in the country?
- Do we have the courage to take on the powerful vested interests: be it the Government or even some of our ‘benefactors’ who have no qualms of destroying the environment? ((we witness today the destruction of the Aravalli range ,Western Ghats, Narmada valley, Dibang valley, rampant mining, polluting industries – the list is endless)
Not being able to say an unequivocal ‘yes’ to any of the above is a clear indicator that we have not (individually and collectively) mainstreamed the spirit, the mandate and the directives of ‘Laudato Si’; in short, we are betraying it! (Pope Francis has been talking about ‘ecological sins’ and need for ecological conversion)
A fitting way to observe the ‘Laudato Si’ Year is to take the document seriously and to act on it. Pope Francis has given us a very meaningful prayer on the fifth anniversary; we need to say it with one heart and in one voice:
Creator of Heaven, Earth, and all therein contained.
Open our minds and touch our hearts,
so that we can be part of Creation, your gift.
Be present to those in
need in these difficult times,
especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
Help us to show creative solidarity
as we confront the consequences of the global pandemic.
Make us courageous in embracing
the changes required to seek the common good.
Now more than ever, may we all feel interconnected and interdependent.
Enable us to succeed in
listening and responding
to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
May their current sufferings become the birth-pangs
of a more fraternal and sustainable world.
We pray through Christ
under the loving gaze of Mary Help of Christians,
In this powerful Encyclical, Pope Francis asks an uncomfortable question “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (#160) .As disciples of Jesus, as Church in India we must demonstrate that PROPHETIC COURAGE to answer this question and ACT NOW!
( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)