As the states of Texas and Louisiana assess the damage from Hurricane Harvey, the rest of the nation is in shock over the level of devastation as we have been reaching out to help those affected.
The storm has taken the life of over 50 people and preliminary estimates of the property damage range from $10 billion to $160 billion. Harvey dumped over 40 inches of rain in a short four-day period. Harvey was the wettest tropical cyclone on record to ever hit the mainland of the United States.
Bishop Sullivan in solidarity with the other bishops of our country called for a second collection in all our parishes throughout the diocese. Pope Francis said he was “deeply moved” by the suffering caused by the hurricane, producing what he described as a “tragic loss of life” and “immense material devastation.” He expressed his “spiritual closeness” to the victims, and urged Americans to call upon our tradition of generosity in responding to those in need.
It is with great trepidation that I would like us to reflect on the possibility of the effects of climate change in the world. I know many dispute that the climate is changing. Many climate activists, however, point to the historic rainfall and epic flooding as exactly the type of extreme event forecast to occur as the globe warms due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While climatologists are not positing that climate change was the direct cause of the storm, many believe it almost surely made the storm worse. In fact it was the worst that we have ever seen in the amount of rainfall. And this super hurricane hits just a couple of years after the devastation of the Katrina Hurricane and Super Storm Sandy. And as of this writing another hurricane by the name of Irma is churning in the Caribbean. Sure seems like something is making these storms deadlier and more devastating. Could it be warmer than normal water temperatures that provide heat energy that fuels the formation and rapid strengthening of tropical storms? Warmer air holds more water vapor, which in turn produces more rainfall. And rising sea levels exacerbate storm surge and inland flooding.
This past Friday Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople issued a joint statement on the environment to mark the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The day of prayer for creation was established in 1989 by the Orthodox Church and was adopted shortly afterward by the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and just last year by the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. The very first Patriarchal Encyclical issued in 1989 asserted that the church could not remain idle before the ecological crisis unfolding in the world. It also urged “all those entrusted with the responsibility of governing the nations to act without delay taking all necessary measures for the protection and preservation of the natural creation.”
Pope Francis echoed the sentiments of the first statement by the Orthodox in the closing of his “Laudato Si’,” encyclical letter “on the care for our common home,” with a prayer for God to “enlighten those who possess power and money that they avoid the sin of indifference.” This year the pope and patriarch issued a statement inviting everyone “to take an attitude of respect and responsibility toward creation.” They have been trying to establish an ecumenism of ecology, where people of faith take seriously the call to care for the planet and all creation as a pledge and obligation for future generations. All of us who look to God for our needs and protection are called to work with the Creator in safeguarding and protecting the greatest gift beside our very life, the earth that we all share.
The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on environmental issues, summed up the joint statement in a beautiful way, “This is the heart of the joint message published by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: That our relationship with this world determines our relationship with heaven. The way we treat the earth is reflected in the way that we pray to God. Walking on this planet and kneeling in church are tantamount to the same thing.”
Let us pray for a greater awareness and awakening by the world of the just cause of protecting the environment, the blessed earth given us by God.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.