For many people, 2020 was a lost year. Many of us stayed in our homes, didn’t see our families, found new ways to work and attend school and keep our wheels turning, learned all there is to know about Zoom. Still more of us lost our jobs, suffered grave illness, grieved the death of family and friends, could not pay our rent or mortgage, succumbed to addiction, even became homeless.
2020 was also the year of Laudato Si’, and it’s easy to dismiss care and concern for the earth when so many other worries and events have taken over our lives. It’s been easy to lose sight of something that didn’t feel all that immediate.
And yet, as we approach the end of the Laudato Si’ year, if we look at all these things together, we can see there’s a connection running through them that is very real and very immediate indeed. “Nothing in this world,” writes Pope Francis, “is indifferent to us.” The connection between our care for the earth and our care for other people, as well as our care for our spiritual lives, is profound and irrefutable.
It is Pope Francis who draws our attention to the model of our sense of connectiveness:
I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Pope Francis has never lost sight of the interwovenness of God’s creation, and he calls us to remember where we came from and where we’re going. His is not a plea from on high, a homily of instruction and advice; this is someone who has lived precisely what he’s urging us to consider living.
And in a sense, one of the words that really leaps out is…friendship.
Before he was elected pope, Francis lived in a modest apartment in Buenos Aires, rather than in the archbishop’s mansion; he took public transportation rather than using a church limousine; he cooked his own food. Yes, these were symbolic gestures. But symbolism matters.
And it was more than symbolism that drove him to befriend the people he met on the streets, to listen to them, to touch them, emphasizing that the Gospel teaches charity, not hypocrisy, as he himself said, “giving to someone who cannot pay you back, serving without seeking a reward or something in exchange.” In order to truly find that peace, the pope said, each Christian must have at least one friend who is poor.
Think about that for a moment. We should all have at least one friend who is poor. Not someone we fling coins at in the street, not someone we serve at our soup kitchens… someone who is a friend. A person we consult, listen to, value.
“The poor are precious in the eyes of God,” Pope Francis says. “They remind us that that’s how you live the Gospel, like beggars before God.”
“So,” the pope continues, “instead of being annoyed when they knock on our doors, we can welcome their cry for help as a call to go out of ourselves, to welcome them with the same loving gaze God has for them. How beautiful it would be if the poor occupied the same place in our hearts that they have in God’s heart.”
How can we make that beauty reality? It begins with friendship, with doing what Sr. Thea Bowman used to describe as simply crossing to the other side of the room and engaging in the conversation there.
Once we see other people as friends, then we can start to see how all our decisions affect them, and we can start finding our way back to friendship and communion. We can start thinking of including others rather than excluding them.
It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.
The isolation we’ve experienced as part of the pandemic has allowed us to focus inward, to our own experiences, and not have to think about others who have less and are suffering more. Human beings can never be an afterthought. Everyone on earth was made in the image of God and is beloved by God. When we pollute other areas of the world, we’re telling God that the people who live in those regions are, in our opinion, of less value than we are. By saying we don’t care, we consign them to invisible lives filled with misery.
The most vulnerable around us are the ones most affected by a changing environment, cautions the pope:
Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.
Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.
The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.
It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.
Throughout his life, Pope Francis has extended a hand of friendship to everyone, from the most powerful to the most vulnerable. In finding our way back to friendship, we’re finding our way back to the Gospel, to the shores of Galilee when Jesus extended his own hand of friendship to all. In finding our way back to friendship, we’re claiming our inheritance as children of God, beloved of our Father, whose brothers and sisters encompass the world.
“Everything is connected,” writes Pope Francis. “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
We had to deal with the pandemic. We had to change our lives, grieve and bury our dead, and find a way out of it. But it is time now to once again hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” We need to find our way back to what matters.
We need to find our way back to friendship.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Prayer for the People of the Earth
Blessed Lord, it seems that
we encounter you in a church.
which is good; we know you’re there.
We sometimes forget you’re
everywhere else, too.
In the beauty of the earth
you gave us
(a gift we often have not
taken care of)
In the fragility of a flower
In the song of a bird.
You created the cosmos and the earth
and gave us each a small part of the stars
in our bodies
and in our hearts.
We have left a life sustained
We now live in the era of the self.
We have created systems that foster
innovation but promote competition
We see ourselves as separate beings,
experiencing our human condition
separate from everyone else.
Disasters that take place far away
hold no meaning.
We forget people who don’t
have enough to eat
when we plan our own healthy meals.
Lord, you know this well:
when we feel disconnected, we lose
our compassion and empathy for things
not directly concerned with our advancement.
We lose touch with the divine.
We all share the same human journey,
we experience the same universal
emotions, joy and grief,
pain and surprise.
We all call earth home.
We breathe the same air,
eat food grown in the same soil,
drink water from the same oceans.
Some of us live well
in solid homes with solid incomes
go on vacations, buy anything
More of us live not so well
in homes that can be devastated
We don’t go on vacations.
We don’t make purchases.
Our children go to sleep
From your hand,
our planet sustains us
gives us a place to
live and prosper.
We treat it as though there
were several other planets
we could use when we’re done
with this one.
Help us reconnect, O Lord.
Help us rediscover our first loves
love of the soil
love of each other
love of your creation in all