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Do we have the Prophetic Courage to participate in the ‘Laudato Si’ Year?

The Encyclical which came months before the landmark 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference 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

 Do we have the Prophetic Courage to participate in the ‘Laudato Si’ Year?

By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ

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 authentically and 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 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”. 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”.

In the first Chapter, he states that “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation”); 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 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” . In making such statements, in 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 a Gallup Poll conducted in the United States a little after the Encyclical was released, showed that Pope Francis’ ratings had plummeted by more than 18% points among fairly large sections of Americans and particularly, among 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. Not a lip-service exercise! 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,”, then taking a stand in solidarity with them is risky.

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 calls upon Catholic priests and asks them to engage with the faithful on environmental issues. A few months ago on 9 January, addressing the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Vatican 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 certainly good and could hopefully lead to something more sustainable, ‘Laudato Si’ is in essence, much more different! It is radical in nature, it shakes one out of one’s complacency. by touching every single dimension of our human existence, it is about discipleship in today’s world, about sticking one’s neck out!

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”.that the Earth was not an endless deposit of resources to exploit.

Several forests like the Aravallis in North India which acts as a water recharge zone, are green lungs which shield the dust that blows from the Thar desert. Like Aravallis and other rich biodiversity of India like Dehing, Patkai, Dibang, Talabira and Western Ghats are indiscriminately being opened up to industries and mining.

So, for this ‘Laudato Si’ Year, given the mandate we have from the Holy Father himself, it is critical for us in the Church of India to reflect upon, to do some honest soul-searching and to act urgently on some key questions, which include: Have we internalized the document, individually and collectively? Are we proactive in communicating to others the radical content of this document? Do we refer to ‘Laudato Si’ in our homilies, talks? Have we organized public seminars and debates on it? Have we translated ‘Laudato Si’ into our vernacular languages; and if so, is it accessible in the public domain to ordinary people? 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 realize the seriousness of the ecological sin and ecological conversion Pope Francis is talking about?

Not being able to say an unequivocal “yes” to the above is a clear indicator that we have not mainstreamed the spirit, the mandate and the directives of ‘Laudato Si’; in short, we are betraying it! The only truly authentic and meaningful way, to observe the ‘Laudato Si’ Year is to internalize the document and to act on it. Pope Francis has given us a very meaningful prayer:

“Loving God, 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 our Lord, under the loving gaze of Mary Help of Christians. Amen.”

In this powerful Encyclical, Pope Francis asks all of us, 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?” As disciples of Jesus, as Church in India, we must demonstrate that unflinching PROPHETIC COURAGE to answer this question and ACT NOW!

(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a social activist and prolific writer with dynamic concern for human rights, peace and environment. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

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