I remember many moons ago when I was a minor seminary student up at St. Pius X Seminary in Scranton, Pa., of happy memory, celebrating Earth Day on April 22 each year. It was a day when at the seminary we joined many throughout the world in demonstrating our support for environmental protection. We would use that day to pray and perform some task that we hoped would engender a greater awareness of the need for us all to protect our planet Earth.
This past May, Pope Francis released his much awaited encyclical titled, “Laudato Si’,” an archaic Italian phrase which means “Praised Be To You,” and it comes from the “Canticle of the Sun,” a song penned by none other than St. Francis of Assisi, the patron of ecology. The encyclical’s subtitle is “On Care for Our Common Home.” The document took more than a year for the pope to put together as he drew wisdom from the work of dozens of scientists, theologians, scholars from various fields and previous popes. In it he critiques consumerism and irresponsible development; he condemns environmental degradation and global warming and calls on the inhabitants of the world to take “swift and unified global action” against these deleterious affronts to Mother Earth.
In an effort to not overstate the church’s position he states, “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” Certainly a theme of his wonderful pontificate!
Just recently, building upon his commitment to encourage the world to champion the cause of environmentalism, Pope Francis has instituted a new day of prayer and celebration for the church called the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation,” to be celebrated each year on Sept. 1. Pope Francis called upon all Christians to work toward a resolution of what he termed the “ecological crisis” facing the world. The day “will offer individual believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation as stewards of creation,” Pope Francis wrote in a statement on the Vatican website.
The day has an ecumenical foundation, as it is another effort on the part of Pope Francis to move closer in unity with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The Orthodox Church established a day to celebrate creation on Sept. 1 in 1989. Pope Francis said that “the celebration of this day, on the same date as the Orthodox Church, will be a valuable opportunity to bear witness to our growing communion with our Orthodox brothers and sister.” He expressed his hope that this day could remind all Christians that we need to work together toward our common goal to save the planet.
“We live at a time when all Christians are faced with the same decisive challenges, to which we must respond together, in order to be more credible and effective,” said Pope Francis. “It is my hope that this day will in some way also involve other churches and ecclesial communities and be celebrated in union with similar initiatives of the World Council of Churches.” He explained that the day will be an opportunity to reaffirm in Christians their vocation as stewards of God’s creation, to recognize their gratitude for God’s earthly gifts and to pray for the protection of the environment and pardon from sins against it.
The World Day of Prayer for the Care for Creation is meant to be celebrated “with the participation of the entire People of God: priests, men and women religious and the lay faithful,” Pope Francis said, and should “become a significant occasion for prayer, reflection, conversion and the adoption of appropriate lifestyles.” He hopes that it will serve as a call to all Christians, a virtual “ecological conversion,” so that their encounter with the Risen Lord is evident in their care for the world around them.
However, Pope Francis’ call to be good stewards goes beyond Christians. With an eye toward several climate change summits scheduled for later this year, his efforts are addressed to “every living person on this planet.” May we heed his challenge and work tirelessly to save this planet earth, our island home here in the universe.