Standing on the corner, across the street from my home is a remarkable stop sign protruding out of a cement sidewalk. What makes it remarkable is the tree has beaten all the odds by taking root and growing up through the inch-wide metal post and blossoming fully out of the hole at the top. Not only is it alive, it continues to grow larger. Year after year, its roots delve deeper under the cement to gather nutrients and water from the earth beneath. It seems the tree has no plans to stop flourishing.
This is the miracle of life – the power of God’s creation. Yet, a few random trees blossoming forth on an earth covered in cement could never support the billions of people who call earth home. However, it seems this is where we are headed.
“One thing is certain,” said Pope Francis, in a speech to the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. “…[We] can no longer turn our backs on reality, on our brothers and sisters, on mother earth… We are also invited to care for [the planet] to protect it, to be its guardians. Nowadays, we are increasingly aware of how important this is. It is no longer a mere recommendation, but rather a requirement…,” he warned.
The problem of environmental abuse is not a new one. Fighting the problem is a cause that has been taken up by many people, among them, Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson. On April 22, 1970, after years of working to promote awareness of environmental degradation and social injustice, Senator Nelson’s dream of a national day for the environment was realized when some 20 million people met in various locations across the country for the first Earth Day. Because of this effort, Congress enacted some of the most important environmental legislation in the United States.
This year, 2016, marks the 46th Earth Day, which calls people worldwide to positive action in caring for the earth. The theme, Trees for the Earth!, is one of five major themes that will be undertaken across five years, leading to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and a goal of planting 7.8 billion trees.
The trees not only counteract the effects of climate change and improve air quality, but also provide communities with food, energy, and income. The impact is greatest where the people are poor and vulnerable.
For Christians, this call to responsible stewardship of the earth, and for each other, is an ancient one, issued in the Book of Genesis. Here, we are taught about the goodness of all creation, brought into orderly existence through the Word of God. And here, we receive our charge to serve as guardians of all a loving God has created: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28).
Too often, “dominion” has been misunderstood as an “excuse for unbridled exploitation of nature,” writes Pope Francis in his second encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home. But in truth, Scripture tells us to “till and keep” the garden of the world . . . implying a “relationship of mutual responsibility.”
The Psalm of David also reminds us that to have dominion does not mean we own the earth, but rather, “The earth is the LORD’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). And, as Pope Francis points out in his encyclical on the environment, “We are not God.”
Inspired by St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology, Pope Francis believes there is a need for praise: “Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.” “In the words of this beautiful canticle, St. Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (Laudato Si’ 1).
In this encyclical, Pope Francis focuses on relationships – with God, with others, and with the earth. His teaching builds on the long-standing tradition of the Catholic Church for communion, social justice, care of creation and stewardship of the earth; teachings that were preached by previous popes including Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was referred to as “the green pope.”
In the last chapter of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis stresses that education and training are the real keys to transformation and action that will renew the earth. He writes, “Ecological education can take place in a variety of settings: at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis, and elsewhere. Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life” (Laudato Si’ 213).
Earth Day is a wonderful educational opportunity for children and young people and their families to link their faith to a global ecological outreach seeking to serve the common good of all humanity. For additional resources on this topic, including prayers, see:
- Laudato si’ On Care For Our Common Home
- Saints Resource
- Canticle of the Sun
- USCCB: Catholic Social Teaching on Care for Creation and Stewardship of the Earth
- USCCB: Environment/Environmental Justice Program
- Catholic Climate Covenant
Mary Regina Morrell, Director, Wellspring Communications, is a syndicated Catholic columnist and author who has served the Church for more than 25 years. She is a former Associate Director of Religious Education for the Diocese of Metuchen, NJ, and Managing Editor of The Monitor, Diocese of Trenton. Find her at email@example.com and Twitter @mreginam6.Sign Up for Our E-Newsletter!