What church would you dig?
I am sure we all know young people who are disillusioned with organised religion right now. Perhaps you have them in your family. Perhaps you were or are one yourself! Speaking at a school a few months ago, I chatted to an eager student who was fascinated by anything related to social justice but turned off by anything hinting at God or the church.
To my surprise, I saw her again recently at a sustainability expo put on by some uni-age adults. She was certainly the youngest there but not too shy to contribute or to remind me that she had enjoyed the ‘first half of my talk’. At the expo, we shared our connections with creation, as well as information and ideas about how to tread more lightly on the earth. From there we moved on to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, speaking about how it is being promoted at the highest levels of church leadership, and how it names ecological awareness and action as an urgent moral imperative that is fundamental to our Catholic faith. The student responded to the whole group, voicing the view of many young people: This is the kind of church that she would dig. This is what speaks to her. Praised be!
The next day I was at a forum for Melbourne parishes on responding to Laudato si’, hearing many inspiring stories of how the document is being put into practice around Melbourne. Some parishes were reflecting on the encyclical a paragraph at a time or raising awareness through their liturgies; others were holding waste-free events, leading workshops, recycling batteries and ink, conducting energy audits, installing solar panels or guiding nature walks. What struck me most was the multigenerational approach. One parish group organised a waste-management talk for their school’s Year 6 class. Then the class decided to start up a War on Waste (WOW) group to run Laudato si’ activities and create posters. Praised be!
In each case, these actions merge spiritual and scientific awareness. It is what Pope John Paul II calls ‘ecological conversion’ (General Audience
, 17 January 2001, §4) and Pope Francis calls ‘care for our Common Home’ (Laudato si’
, 2015). They draw on the ancient wisdom of our tradition: that God created a good universe and entrusted humans with its care (Genesis 1:31; 2:15). While creation reveals God to us, it also suffers, and relies on us to bring about the glory of the children of God (Romans 1:20; 8:21). Although the ecological emergency is a new brew, the thinking with which we are addressing it is vintage indeed. Let us call it the yeast
of St Francis.
Let’s turn our minds back now to the early thirteenth century. Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, the future St Francis, was a young man committed to high living and romantic chivalry. Like that young student, he didn’t find Jesus’ life particularly appealing. However, he underwent a religious conversion, turning away from his comfortable apathy and towards those who were poor, adopting their way of life in solidarity with them. He dared to dream of a new way of being Christian and rebelled with the weapons of peace. Jesus’ message came alive for him in the touch of a man with leprosy and in the gift of freedom for captured birds. As a young man, he gathered others to live in gospel simplicity, begging and preaching for their sustenance. They did not seek positions of authority; their lives of integrity guaranteed their authenticity. So from this lowly viewpoint, Francis was able to look up in wonder to his Creator. Instead of ruling over the earth, he serenaded it, seeing in it a sister and mother capable of human nourishment and divine praise. From this stance of humility, the Canticle of the Sun was born. Praised be!
So his voice rings down to us in kinship with all of creation—may God be praised for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth, Sister Death. In October we celebrate the feast of St Francis, the patron of animals and the environment. We cherish his words, and through the generations men and women have passed on his charism. His influence continues to spread far and wide, as a witness to Jesus that is deeply rooted in our lived experience. His actions speak louder than his words; his radical living out of the gospel stands stronger than the church he rebuilt. He is both rooted in the Christian tradition and idealistic—a challenge to the powerful and a hope for the powerless. Francis’ influence lives on in us today as yeast: an agent of inspiration, of the Spirit, of the reign of God in our midst. Praised be!
Witnesses at a time of crisis
In this quirky and extreme Italian saint, we surely find just the attitude that is needed on a larger scale today. Pope Francis has yeasted the dough of his landmark encyclical with the words of his canonised namesake. Laudato si’ begins with the prayer, ‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs’ (§1). This prayer of gratitude soon leads to real lifestyle change in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. This change is both ecological and social; we are charged to ‘hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ and know that the earth herself is ‘among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor’ (§§49, 2). St Francis remains an inspiration, but this generation inhabits a new world with a new culture, and we are called to be its new witnesses.
We are facing a true ‘ecological crisis’ (§15)—one that is growing impossible to ignore. While Laudato si’
for our common home, the title of the 2018 Vatican conference on this theme is more dire and direct: ‘Saving our Common Home and the Future of Life on Earth’. For already we see ice shelves melting, people fleeing low-lying islands, pollution reaching toxic levels and numerous extreme natural disasters. Australia is now battling droughts and bushfires in winter
and 93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef has been devastated by coral bleaching. (James Cook University news release
, 20 April 2016). In the words of a young woman from the Marshall Islands, ‘Even though there are those hidden behind platinum titles who like to pretend that we don’t exist … we deserve to do more than just survive; we deserve to thrive’ (Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, ‘Dear Matafele Peinem’
recognises that ‘Young people demand change’ and ‘Intergenerational solidarity is not optional’ (§§13, 159). Pope Francis and the leaders of many Christian churches have responded to the earth and young people by embedding creation into our very lives of prayer and devotion. This feast day concludes a new liturgical time for our church: the Season of Creation. From 1 September (the Day of Prayer for Creation) to the feast of St Francis on 4 October, we have the ‘opportunity to worship the Creator and protect the good gift of creation’ (Season of Creation
So on this feast day, may we give witness to Jesus as we listen to the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor. May we feel the earth’s beatitude and also its fragility. May we be moved to action, to save our Common Home while there is still time. We will need to be creative, like the parishes I have mentioned, in translating Laudato si’s moral imperative into our everyday spiritual and material lives. We have no other choice.
These efforts will bear much fruit, not just for our planet, but also for our church. Young people will discover in us signs of hope as we work together to address the biggest challenge of the times. They will know when we are really listening and will want to be involved, like that eager student. May the spirit of St Francis grow in us like yeast, leavening the dough and calling us to new life. Praised be!
Questions for reflection
- What is my own experience of being connected with God’s creation?
- What do I hope for future generations in our world?
- How might my parish respond to the calls of Laudato si’?
- Carretto, Carlo. I, Francis: The Spirit of St Francis of Assisi. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.
- Francis. Laudato si’. Encyclical Letter. 2015.
- Global Catholic Climate Movement. catholicclimatemovement.global. 2018.
- Sabatier, Paul. The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St Francis. Edited by Jon M. Sweeney. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2003.
- Season of Creation. seasonofcreation.org. 2018.
Elizabeth Young is a Sister of Mercy and pastoral associate at All Saints Parish, Fitzroy. She is currently finishing her Master of Theology and is a member of Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.