Pope Francis wrote his encyclical “Laudato Si’” for “every person living on the planet” not only to read but also to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” In an effort to keep the conversations going, The Visitor is publishing a six-part faith formation series in which guest writers help to “unpack” what the Holy Father said in the letter and offer reflection questions and actions to respond to his message. This useful guide is intended to help readers grasp the letter’s overall content and encourage further study and dialogue in homes and parishes. This is the last article of the series.
By Father Joseph Backowski
At the heart of Christianity, there is a continuing call to conversion. There is in Christianity both the call to individual conversion and the call to communal conversion. Of course, communal conversion can only happen if large groups of individuals undergo individual conversion.
At the heart of chapter 6, Pope Francis calls for a communal conversion. This is not uncommon in salvation history. Take, for example, Jonah’s call to Nineveh for conversion. The reason a communal call for conversion is made is that many of us must undergo conservation conversion if we are to reverse unhealthy resource management trends, and so that individuals who do embark upon this effort not be swallowed up by those who wish to remain obstinately consumerist!
Pope Francis points out that we have been conditioned to be consumers. When we sense emptiness we feel the need to buy material things: food, clothes and recreational items. The difficulty with this conditioning is that it both fails to satisfy us and it destroys the beauty that surrounds us that can lead us back to the Creator for whom we really long!
In ecology, there is a term we call “desertification”: the process by which a region slowly moves from being fertile and able to sustain life to becoming dry and arid and mostly incapable of sustaining life. Quoting Pope Benedict, Pope Francis points out, “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
Desertification of the soul and the land is not of God as we see the contrary in Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12. Where God’s grace is allowed to work, abundant life springs forth from all things.
Our consumerist approach to ecological management tends to leave soil and other resources subject to the elements of desertification. We see this happening around us. Some examples: Recently purchased land is being forced to “cash flow” in a way not in keeping with its purpose; stately oak forests removed to plant a few more kernels of corn; fisheries being poorly managed not for the sake of the fishery. This is evident when we hear of all the economic arguments given for maintaining fish.
Brothers and sisters, resource management is about balancing our needs, which includes business and profit along with nourishing our soul which is done through the careful preservation of beauty! These two realities are not mutually exclusive.
Thus, what Pope Francis is calling for is a conversion from our consumerist ways to habits of sustenance. Beholding the world through an eye of sustenance preserves beauty as a means of fulfillment. It is the idea that something that is not owned or possessed by us can still sustain us, maybe not our stomach but our soul. This is a result of all things having their origin in God. He has revealed himself both in the Old Testament, the New Testament and in all creation. Our Lord, of course, understood the healing and soul nourishing power of creation when he walked this earth (Matthew 14:23).
For this reason, we can in good conscience continue to maintain wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Its economic value may seem to be greater in dollars in the marketplace. Yet, no extra dollar earned can replace the healing that can come through wilderness.
Steps to take
So as Catholics how ought we begin to undertake this ecological conversion Pope Francis calls for?
First and foremost, we need to again allow ourselves to be in touch with beauty. Beauty can permeate our lives if we allow it to. Yet, paradoxically, encountering beauty can be messy and time consuming. Snowshoeing through a quiet woodlot in the middle of winter is a sweaty job, but there we find beauty in both silence and the pure snow.
Also, stopping to dig a few recently planted seeds while crop scouting. It is sure to yield some dirty fingers at a very intense time of year, but taking some time to contemplate the mystery of that germinating seed reveals the beauty of new life.
Finally, we ought to look to our homes and families. The children: While plenty of fights and name-calling can occur, what can replace the beauty of coming to know and form a new life capable of heaven itself?
Once we begin a regular habit of being nourished by beauty, we are going to be more willing expand and to preserve it.
What are some of the ways we can do this?
Our European green lawns can be partially converted to vegetables and native grass and flowers. Consumption of soil resources, gasoline and time pulling dandelions is lessened and our bodies and souls nourished.
Some of our farm fields have unproductive areas: compacted headlands, rocky gravel and significant areas of wet ground. These areas could be planted to shelterbelts of native shrubs and grasses. This will restore the soil, lessen crop input costs, help protect farmed soil and lessen the chances of damage to large equipment that trees can cause — all while providing habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and other animals.
Finally, especially for those who no longer farm and may be looking to sell their land, it can be easy to sell land in the consumerist manner: sell it to the highest bidder. Yet this seldom puts more families on the land. The question that one should ask is: Who can this land be sold to so that it will sustain both bodies and souls! There are some young families who would love to live on farms on the land, but there are few of us who are humble enough to sell for sustenance instead of consumerism.
Our Lord encouraged us: “Do not be afraid.” Ecological conversion is a huge task, but our Lord came into this world in the midst of messy beauty: a starlit night with smelly animals in a cave. A messy situation, a beautiful family, a beautiful story: sustenance for body and soul!
CALL TO ACTION
We must all examine our land-use practices. Are we consuming our land, or are we allowing it to sustain ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the human family? Our land use and land-sale practices must promote family life at the human level if we are to live well as people of God.