Promise of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Stirs Winds of Hope

Sister Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD
June 2, 2015

The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing… through the middle of the street of the city. On either side…is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2)

News of Pope Francis’s upcoming environmental encyclical is stirring winds of hope. Our pope is full of surprises and challenges that inspire bold, prophetic action. Many speculate on content and what it will mean. How will the Vatican’s voice contribute to the United Nations environmental work and the year-end universal climate change agreement in Paris? What do we hope Pope Francis will say to Congress in September? What does each of us need to hear, and what actions can we take in response?

As both a scientist and woman of faith, excitement is an understatement of my anticipation of the encyclical. As the first rumors grew in crescendo, I even pinched myself—just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. It seems we are really at a time like that of Anna and Simeon being presented with the Christ Child (Lk 2: 25-37)—seeing something in our day I wasn’t sure that I would ever see. Both in the environmental challenges of our time, and the coming together of many to strive for collective solutions. And as with Jesus in his day, the hope and promise of the incarnation—God with us—was borne into a world in dire need of the message and promise of change.

The impact of the encyclical is extending far beyond Catholics engaged in environmental concerns. A religious statement on the environment is drawing excitement from other Christian denominations and world religious traditions. It is seen as an opportunity for internal education of members as well as raising our collective voices for the integrity of all creation—and about the impact of our lack of care of environmental degradation on the economically poor and vulnerable locally and globally.

The secular environmental community is also buzzing. At the Ecological Society of America 100th anniversary meeting this August in Baltimore, scientists and faith leaders from diverse traditions will share in several sessions aimed at exploring how scientists and people of faith can collaborate to achieve justice together.

Why is an encyclical important?

Such an ecclesial event gives us the opportunity to have a great impact in our church and for our faith witness to environmental justice—the importance of caring for all of nature and addressing the huge global challenge of climate change.

  • It is an opportunity for our witness of faith and justice values and their application— to educate and engage others of diverse talents—both internally and externally, on a critical justice issue.
  • It is an opportunity to take action where we can as individuals, groups, communities—in local to global ways.
  • It is an opportunity to collaborate with other faith traditions and likeminded individuals to truly build a world of justice and peace—an environmentally sustainable future for all.

Through the lens of the encyclical, we can be inspired and empowered to action in each of our roles—from the level of the individual, our local communities, our networks of religious families and organizations—to a global impact.

My story and the importance of people of faith and scientists working together

I professed first vows as a Marianist Sister in 1982, and following the call to be a bridge-builder between science and faith communities, I then did graduate work in biology, and also religious studies work on this relationship, meanwhile watching the faith community begin to explicitly articulate environmental care.

I then specialized in climate change and plant ecology in my science doctoral work in the 1990s.

At global climate change research conferences, I witnessed firsthand the growing consensus of scientists on the reality of climate change, and the high statistical improbability that the higher temperatures and related events were merely due to chance. As scientists, our quest is ongoing, data is subject to rigorous review, and hypotheses are tested repeatedly. We’re good at facts and data and complexity. Yet, we’ve realized we can’t stand silent as we piece together vast environmental changes underway that human actions can shift. As scientists, we’ve gradually realized the importance of contributing to the public policy process from our science expertise, and of learning how to communicate what we know to the general public in understandable ways.

I’ve been inspired by the 1991 Open Letter to the Religious Community, where 32 Nobel laureate and other eminent scientists recognized common interests of the two groups and the need for both scientific and ‘sacred’ understanding: “Many of us have had profound experiences of awe & reverence before the universe. We recognize that what is regarded as sacred is most likely to be treated with respect. Efforts to safeguard planetary environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred and as a universal moral priority.”

From this, The National Religious Partnership for the Environment was born (engaging the four major bodies that were nationally organized at the time: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; National Council of Churches; Evangelical Environmental Network; and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life).

Environmental Professor Gus Speth expresses faith engagement as critical in his 2007 statement: “I used to think the ‘big three’ were climate, biodiversity, and pollution, but after many years of work

I think pride, apathy, and greed are even bigger. We need cultural and spiritual transformation, and science doesn’t do that—the church does that.”

What wisdom can trees offer us for approaching the encyclical event?

In my own pondering I’ve often been drawn to think of the image of trees as a wisdom guide to the experience of this upcoming ecclesial event—in the richness of their spiritual symbolism (from Genesis to the cross to Revelation), their grandeur and longevity of the plant kingdom, and their universality. On a more personal note, their deep roots (with just as much biomass extended below as above ground) remind me that there is more to discover and know in my own identity and role in acting on behalf of all the earth’s creatures. I was well into adulthood and decades of science research conducted with plants before I realized I was following my lineage of peasant-farmers, and that my family tree name itself derives from the Polish jablon, which means apple tree. Perhaps each of us has these identity/awareness moments in our own journey.

Why are statements on environmental care particularly important at this time? Caring for all of creation, or earth stewardship, is part of ancient biblical teaching. When most of the population was rural or more directly connected with the agrarian seasons and rhythms because their family or cultural group was directly providing the food and shelter, there wasn’t as much need for explicit mention. And this care was implied in other principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

However, with the shift to the cities of the past century, there is greater need to be explicitly reminded of our roots and interconnections with the nonhuman world. Additionally, the discoveries in science over the past several decades—of understanding the origin of the universe, the functioning of ecosystems, and all the fields that contribute to the science of climate change—show our interconnection and reliance upon the components of the physical world around us.

I expect that in the encyclical, Pope Francis will guide Catholics to a better understanding of this opportunity to care for creation and our sisters and brothers. I trust that science will have informed the context of the encyclical. As the science has become clearer about humanity’s impact on the natural world, the Church’s voice has become clearer. Recent popes and the U.S. bishops have spoken on the need to address climate change and care for creation: Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI rooted care for the environment in the need for solidarity with other people and with God’s creation. Both popes warned about human contributions to heat-trapping gases and climate change, as did the U.S. bishops in their 2001 statement that called for prudent action on climate change.

I expect that Pope Francis will make a strong case for the moral issue of our call to care for the poorest and most vulnerable people among us, and will link this to forming solutions to confront climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has issued assessments on the status of climate change over the past 25 years, has connected to the theme of global environmental injustice—enunciating that the poorest people are the ones least responsible for climate change and suffer its worst consequences. The basic human right of access to clean water, food and shelter is threatened by our planet’s warming, and with increased snowmelts, droughts, storm severity and frequency, we are seeing a disproportionate impact on areas of the world already challenged by food shortages, water procuration and heat-stress events.

Solving climate change protects God’s people. Whether it’s someone in Ohio suffering from asthma, someone in Quito suffering from a mudslide, or a Pacific Islander experiencing salt water intrusions destroying arable land, climate change hurts humanity. I imagine the encyclical will emphasize the important perspective of loving our neighbors, and connecting loving our neighbors with protecting them from climate impacts, including increased disease, extreme weather and food insecurity.

Science of ecology can guide us in finding our right relationships

We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth,” said Pope Francis on January 15. Our rightful place within creation respects and protects the interconnections of the vast web of life. The word ecology derives from the Greek oikos or house—the same root as the house churches of the Acts of the Apostles.

Our modern notion of our household has been expanded by science, however. We now know that the same molecules of air that we breathe are those inhaled and exhaled by the apostles and their ancestors. And Jesus and our founders and some characters with whom we might not like to be associated! In fact, the air from an hour of our community prayer will pass through the breath of every child born that year during their lifetime. There are no border crossings. When I reflect on this the world becomes smaller, more intimate. I’m more able to see that my actions and the actions of my local community can have impacts all across the globe.

This interconnection and interdependence apply also within the more local level of ecosystems. An ecosystem is a geographic area with all the living organisms present and the nonliving parts of their physical environment. It involves the processes of movement and storage of energy and matter through living things (plants, animals, microbes) and activities.

The entire ecosystem—be it woods, prairie or pond—is greater than the sum of its parts, and it functions as a whole, keeping a balance. As ecologists we have been studying ecosystem properties and the great benefits to humankind of free services—from purification of air and water to protection from floods, radiation, heat and erosion, to serving in pollination, seed dispersal and soil formation. Unfortunately, these services are not accounted for in our economic system of land sales, and take a great deal of time to restore when destroyed. This, in turn harms humans who are part of the whole ecosystem. As humans, we are intrinsically part of this natural world.

In our work at the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC), we engage in restoration ecology to restore ecosystems and the relationships between land and people. Land service volunteers (one-time to regular) work with us, in conscious mutual service. Our planting native plants suited to the light and soil moisture habitats helps restore these services by attracting native insect  pollinators and other wildlife and by building up the soil, ultimately creating healthy and diverse ecosystems.

Land restoration and conservation must be a centerpiece of our response to climate change. Protected lands already provide habitats for 80% of the world’s protected species. Land conservation is also a proven strategy for removing carbon pollution—which drives climate change—from the atmosphere. In the U.S., natural lands already capture nearly 15% of our carbon dioxide emissions. Protecting more land will both expand this bank and preserve habitat. Conversely, when land is converted for development, more carbon is released and this increases the heat-trapping blanket effect of the atmosphere, which causes global warming. The land loses its ability to act as a carbon sponge. MEEC has been educating and taking action on climate change and energy issues, collaborating with the networks and resources of the Catholic Climate

Covenant, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Justice Conference of Women Religious and Interfaith Power and Light, to name a few.

I’ve been particularly empowered through Nuns on the Bus Ohio—with its vision of Moving Ohio with Passionate Voices for Justice. Our mission: Inspired by Jesus, motivated by Catholic Social Teaching, impelled by a vision of an interdependent creation, in solidarity with those at the margins, we network and advocate for a just and peaceful world. Our network of vowed religious women and laity was inspired by our participation in NETWORK’s national Nuns on the Bus tour through Ohio, and we are continuing the journey! We’ve discovered that collaboration among our diverse charisms, and between our often siloed Ohio cities, provides an important witness and support. We chose environmental concerns of climate change and energy as one of our two major foci. In the past year, we have been organizing and bringing the faith voice highlighting impacts on the economically poor and vulnerable through press conferences, letters to the editor, dialogues with elected officials, and educational events to address federal EPA Clean Air rules and Ohio renewable energy and energy efficiency policies.

Our unique niche—Exploring the gift of our charisms

In ecological terms, a niche describes the unique role of a species in its community—where it lives, and its interconnection with other species (e.g., what it eats/consumes and who eats it; what is fed or nurtured by it).

Analogous to this, is the richness of the charisms of our religious families— how the Spirit inspired our Saints and Founders to respond to the needs of the times—with particular gifts and approaches that resonated with the people and the needs, and contributed to the whole. The ecological encyclical and the environmental needs of our day are an opportunity for renewal and to be a lens for reflecting on the gift that each of our charisms can contribute, and how we might adapt them to today’s needs. Together, each of our charisms, like flowers and tree species, make up a beautiful garden of life.

My poem, “Prayer for Our Harmony,” emerged from praying with the earth from my Marianist charism on a 30-day retreat. May our nurturing work with the upcoming ecological encyclical bear much fruit for all of us who together make our common home, earth. In the spirit of joyful Pope Francis, in our earth-care may we echo the Psalmist as “lovers of justice” (Ps 89), as those who make justice their bliss.

Prayer for our Harmony

Mary, daughter of Wisdom
We, your family, are tired
We desire to be your living presence anew

Form us as your rain
Quenching parched souls with hope

Form us as your fire
Illuminating indifferent hearts with faith

Form us as your wind
Refreshing dusty minds with wisdom

Form us as your soil
Embracing all with compassion

In all these ways of life
Form us, so that

Your seed of justice sown deep within us will flourish
Bearing abundant fruit
Of peace and integrity

Joined together with all creation
We will once again sing in harmony

-Leanne Jablonski FMI 1.23.06

Marianist Sister Leanne Jablonski FMI, PhD is a plant ecologist, educator and pastoral minister engaged in climate science, faith and justice outreach regionally to nationally. She directs the Marianist Environmental Education Center; and at the University of Dayton is a coordinator in the Hanley Sustainability Institute and the Sustainability Energy Environment Initiative. (This article first appeared in NETWORK’s Connection magazine.)

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