[REFLECTION] St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and climate justice
St. Francis of Assisi. VATICAN MUSEUM VIA VATICAN NEWS
By Msgr. Euly B. Belizar, Jr., SThD
September 30, 2022
As I write the ravages of Super Typhoon Karding (with the international name of “Noru”), a tropical storm that went through “rapid intensification” into unleashing category 5 winds, are still being daily reported in the Philippines. Damages are assessed. Relief and rehabilitation are on-going. As if on cue, Hurricanes Fiona in Canada and Ian in Florida, including other states as well, also grabbed headlines for their category 4 winds that left trails of destruction and horror on both persons and properties in the Americas. To almost everyone the ferocity and intensity of current typhoons and hurricanes are only a few signs of what the monster called “Climate Change” is capable of. Yes, a monster we humans have created. It is currently terrorizing us not only with ever intensitying hurricanes and typhoons but also with record high temperatures, raging forest fires, high volumes of rain and massive floodings, accompanied by ever mutating viruses and diseases.
Pope Francis raised a wake-up call addressed to all humankind through his 2015 encylical “Laudato Si” (“Praise be to you”) on the urgency of coming to the rescue of and care for our “common home”. His aim was not only to help mankind come together for the planet to avoid disaster of cataclysmic proportions. The pope was also clearly inspired by the “Canticle of the Sun” or also called “Canticle of the Creatures”, a prayerful poem by St. Francis of Assisi. When meditated on, it reminds its readers of how creation must elicit in us awe and wonder that we express by songs and prayers of praise addressed to the Creator. Deeply moved, St. Francis in the canticle sees creation as providing us humans glimpses of the beauty and the glory of the Creator. The Holy Father considers this link between the environment or creation—in the language of the Scriptures—and its Author as crucial. “If we approach nature and the environment without this 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, 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” (Laudato Si, no. 11).
It is not that the contemporary world lacks awe and wonder. What ails us is the disconnect between the creation which we acknowledge and the Creator that our ordinary discourse largely ignores. St. Francis in his canticle re-echoes the exclamation of the psamist: “In His hand are the deep places of the earth; The heights of the hills are His also.The sea is His, for He made it; And His hands formed the dry land” (Ps 95:4-5). Or the wise counsel of Job: “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).
In the mind of both St. Francis and Pope Francis, this practical disconnect in contemporary humans between the Creator and his creation is accompanied by a sense alienation between humans and alienation between humans and other creatures. The developed counries are alien to the developing ones, the poor to the rich, whites to people of color, humans to non-humans. In contrast, St. Francis sees profound “fraternity” in our harmonious cosmos where even the sun becomes our “brother” and the moon, our “sister”. Because of alienation, humans act as masters, which also means exploiters of created things in ways that know very few limits to the dictates of selfishness or greed. On the other hand, recognizing this fraternity is the key to sobriety and restraint that could take root in people willing the good of other creatures, not least fellow humans, that is, the generations now and in the future.
St. Francis points to the goodness of the Creator revealed in his own creation. Part of the canticle expresses this: “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs” (excerpt). To the Holy Father this goodness unwraps the reason for the care we humans must extend, as our collective responsibility, to the earth, our “common home”. Says he: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for the coming generations” (LS 67).
The fraternity of God’s creatures is St. Francis’ basic vision of a transformed world. This is ruined only by sin. And this is why in his canticle, after praising God for Sister Death, which brings us to God, he denounces those who allow sin, particularly mortal sin, which separates us from God, to rule their life and their death: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those who will find Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.”
In the eyes of Pope Francis sin lies at the heart of climate injustice. This is where we are. We are in a state of a broken fraternity in regard to our relationship with other creatures. To the the pope harm on the environment comes from sin that is essentially a pattern of “broken relationships” “with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (LS 66). Humans have broken these relationships in part because we, according to the Holy Father, “presum[e] to take the place of God and refus[e] to acknowledge our creaturely limitations”. He emphatically corrects the false meaning people have imposed on the biblical teaching that the human being was created in “God’s image and likeness”. He says that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and likeness and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ’till and keep’ the garden od the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving” (LS 67).
Caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving—these are the real imperatives of climate justice on us from the Scriptures. They express the ancient fraternity among God’s creatures and lead the way back to it. Pope Francis, relying on St. Bonaventure, acknowledges that St. Francis has an important role in the efforts toward climate justice. “It is significant,” says the current pope, “that the harmony which St. Francis of Assisi experienced was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence” (LS 66).
St. Francis, in a word, is not only patron of climate justice. He is also, in a particular sense, its model.
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