Beach Chapel of St. Denis Parish in Manasquan, New Jersey
As much as we love summers at the shore in New Jersey, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy remains etched in our memories. How could we ever forget that natural disaster of late October 2012 and the destruction left in its wake? Our first reading this evening from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians puts it in perspective as it cautions us: “When people are saying ‘peace and security,’ sudden disaster comes upon them … and they will not escape.” We encouraged one another in the aftermath, especially the families most effected, that we were and remain “Jersey strong,” and that, working together, we would rebuild the shore. Still, almost three years later we continue to heed St. Paul’s urging to “encourage one another and build one another up.” It’s what we do in New Jersey. It’s what we do and, more importantly, who we are as Christians, as Catholics.
Sandy has been called a “superstorm,” the most destructive hurricane in New Jersey history, the largest Atlantic storm on record. It was a natural disaster and all of us learned just how fierce nature can be. It is not as though we were not warned that it was coming; we were. We simply did not anticipate what nature can do to us.
On May 24 of this year — five years to the day that I learned that I would become your bishop — Pope Francis issued his second encyclical letter, “Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home.” He focused our attention as Catholics, as inhabitants of this earth, on another type of disaster, this one man-made and not natural. Calling our planet “Sister Earth,” the Holy Father wrote — not about what ”nature can do to us” but, rather, what we do to nature, to our “common home” — to a planet that “cries out because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” Pope Francis is sounding the alarm, the warning. We cannot, we must not remain unprepared for this storm of our own making.
Pope Francis is not the first Successor of Peter to call our attention to the environment. His predecessors Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have each provided similar warnings. Pope Francis, however, has spoken out in an unmistakably urgent way. In the past few years since his election, he has gained the respect of all people of good will — Catholic and non-Catholic, believer and non-believer alike. People listen to him. “The earth,” he noted in the encyclical, “is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.” It is not the “sharing” or the “benefit” that concerns him. It is, rather, the attitude seemingly ingrained in human society that God’s gifts, the fruits of his creation, are limitless and inexhaustible, things to be squeezed and squandered with little regard for the consequences. That’s the issue! The negative effects of our unrelenting assaults on the environment, what he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” extend far beyond air, water, oil, energy, land and climate. These assaults are symptoms of a “throwaway culture” that places little value on the human beings and their sacred, God-given dignity and worth. The crisis we experience in the environment and ecology has become symbolic of what we do to and how we treat one another on the face of God’s good earth, what the Holy Father calls “human and social degradation.” If we are so careless about human life, how could we expect to care about the resources given to support it? And, conversely, if we are so careless about the earth, our “common home,” how could we expect to care about the people who share it?
The nay-sayers will counter, “The Pope is not a scientist … His words are inflammatory, merely an invitation to enter into the politicized debate over climate change and global warming. These issues are admittedly complex and multifaceted. While science cannot or should not be ignored and political exchange has its rightful place, the Pope is calling all people of God will — believer and non-believer alike — but especially Christians and Catholics to be good, responsible stewards of creation and of our “common home.” That call is not a negligible part of our faith and morality, regardless of what the Pope’s critics may say. He is our spiritual Father, our Teacher and faith and morality, roles that are uniquely his as the Vicar of Christ on earth. If the believer ignores responsibility for the world in which we live, the resources it provides and the people with whom we share them, what can we possibly expect from those who do not believe? If we show no regard or respect for the divine plan for creation, what can we say of human plans, human possibilities, human hopes for a sustainable future?
Pope Francis has asked all people, especially Catholics and the Orthodox with whom we share so much in common, to respond to the crises we face, precisely as people of faith. For that reason, he has invited us to enter into this World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation “to reaffirm their/our personal vocation to be stewards of creation.” Authentic, true prayer deepens our faith. Authentic, true faith moves us to conviction. Authentic, true conviction leads to action. Today is a day for us to examine our consciences, to decide what action we must take here and now, not when it’s too late.
If we kneel in prayer before the God of creation and fail to rise as its stewards and his servants our efforts, our “cries” will neither reach heaven nor renew the face of the earth and generations to come will never see or enjoy what today’s psalm calls “the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.” We cannot let that happen. Creation is God’s work, God’s gift. Care for creation is our work and our gift back.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton