I know there is a picture somewhere of me and some of my fellow Bishop Turner High School students digging a hole to plant a tree in celebration of the first Earth Day. That was 44 years ago in 1970. The Vietnam War raged on, student protestors were killed by police at Kent State, and Apollo 13 abandoned its mission.
Back then everybody drove gas-guzzling V8s, water and air was regularly polluted by industry without care or consequence, and no one really talked about "the environment." That first Earth Day began a movement and a raising of public awareness that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air and Water Act.
We will again celebrate Earth Day on April 22, and it should give us an opportunity to assess where we are in our relationship to God's creation. It is probably also a perfect time to do that during Lent because we undoubtedly have some penance to do for the way that we treat the environment.
The hard truth is that we generally live like all of the earth's resources are free, unlimited and ours for the taking. We act as if there is an endless supply of anything that comes out of the earth or is produced by it. And we generally have little hesitation in using environmentally violent means to acquire whatever it is that we "must have" from the earth - from blowing off the tops of mountains for coal to fracking levels of shale beneath the surface for natural gas.
And when the earth or the animals who live upon it do not produce enough, or quickly enough, we rush in with chemicals for faster crops, or hormones for larger animals, or artificial enhancements to water and air. Our need for consumption seems to know no bounds.
Our faith calls us to a different perspective by lifting up the moral dimensions of these issues and actions and how they affect the most vulnerable among us. The Catholic Climate Covenant organization, for example, points out that our cars, power plants, energy consumption and waste all contribute to a larger carbon footprint - the amount of damaging carbon gasses that are released into the air causing climate change.
And, as it is with such wide-reaching wrongdoings, the poor and most vulnerable are the ones who suffer the most from our misuse of the world's resources. This is why the U.S. bishops can talk about the issue in terms of "environmental justice" and why Pope John Paul II linked the problem to the same lack of respect for life and human dignity that shows itself in so many other areas of human interaction.
Lent and Earth Day together give us an excellent opportunity to re-examine our attitudes and uses of resources, and to make changes in our lifestyles and our actions where necessary. The Catholic Climate Covenant offers us to take a St. Francis Pledge on their website that would commit us to five actions.
We are called to pray and reflect on our duty to care for creation; to learn about the causes and moral dimensions of climate change; to assess how we personally contribute to the problem by our own consumption and waste; to act to change our choices and behaviors; and to advocate for Catholic principles in environmental discussions with special attention to the needs of the poor.
This Lent we can pledge to reduce, reuse, recycle - and repent.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.