Inspiration and motivation

In Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, he expresses the urgency of addressing the issues which confront us in caring for our planet. He wishes to create a new worldwide dialogue, in which we all contribute our talents toward developing a sustainable approach to living. 

In 1987, in “Our Common Future,” Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Many of our practices today are not on this path. If our current levels of consumption of natural resources are followed by other countries, we would need several earths to meet those wants. We only have one earth. The pope reminds us, however, that God does not abandon us, and that change is possible. Humanity still has the ability to come together to build a sustainable world. 

The pope invites us to look at the life of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. He was born in Assisi, Italy in 1181 into a wealthy family. His mother named him Giovanni after St. John, but when his father returned from France, he renamed his son Francesco, because he wanted his son to reflect his love for France. As a young adult, Francis was known for his partying. He described himself as living in sin. He had dreams of becoming a knight, but God’s calling eventually turned him away from his riches. He was publicly disowned by his father for selling his cloth to pay for repairs of a church. Now having nothing, Francis was still very happy. He led a very austere life. He cared for those in need and treated all with respect. Others heard of him and followed him. Francis considered all of God’s creatures part of his brotherhood, and he was known to speak to animals. He is considered the founder of the Franciscan orders and the patron saint of ecologists and merchants. He died in 1226 at the age of 45. 

The pope describes St. Francis as practicing an “integral ecology” in which he shows us “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” The word “ecology” was coined by German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel, around 1870. It is derived from the Greek words “oikos,” meaning household, and “logos,” meaning the study of. Ecology literally means the study of our home. It describes the relationship among organisms and their relationship to their physical environment. The pope states that, “If we approach nature without the openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, and ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” 

 Indigenous peoples give us an example of what it means to live in a sustainable way. Often they share a sense of oneness with Creation and hold much information about the natural world around them. In the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History a display about Native American relationships with the environment quotes a tribal elder: “We had to show respect for the water, to the salmon, and to everything that the Creator sent us. We would respect the cedar that gave its life for our canoe, the salmon that gave its life so we could eat.”

 When Europeans came to the New World the sustainable philosophy, along with the native peoples, was pushed aside, and replaced with one of exploitation. Europe had decimated its natural resources for years and the resources in America seemed limitless. Fortunately, there were, and are, those who have worked to protect our home and its people, and the pope expressed his gratitude for their efforts. In parts of the world the poor are still being pushed aside in the name of “progress” and profits. In many places the dumps, landfills, industrial developments, and power plants are built in poorer neighborhoods, subjecting their residents to their toxic emissions and residues. 

So how are we to build a sustainable society? Our first step is to see ourselves, as St.  Francis did, as partners with our environment. In 1935, pioneering wildlife ecologist, Aldo Leopold, advised, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Nature has been honing its sustainable systems for millions of years, while, in geologic terms, we have just arrived on the scene. It is time now for us to use our brainpower to understand the workings of nature and find the answers that God has put in front of us. The pope stated that St. Francis “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of His infinite beauty and goodness.” 

We must also be willing to learn from, listen to, and protect, each other. Yes, I am my brother’s keeper, and my wants cannot overshadow your needs. Change won’t always be easy, but if we are part of the problem, we are also part of the solution. Join me, as we take time, as St. Francis did, to learn about Our Common Home.

Professor Rak is a Fall River native and parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish there. He has been a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College for 18 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a master’s degree in marine biology from UMass Dartmouth.

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