For much of June, the Catholic Church and the rest of the world prepared for Pope Francis' anticipated encyclical entitled "Laudato Si," or"Praised Be." The pontiff discussed climate change, the dire state of the environment, social inequality, Catholics' responsibility to be good stewards of the environment and all of humanity's duty to promote ways of life that foster respect for creation.
The day of the encyclical's release, Bishop Richard J. Malone spoke of the importance of Pope Francis' message during a press conference held at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Members of the Diocesan Care for Creation Committee, a group formed in 2006 under Bishop Edward U. Kmiec to spread local awareness of environmental issues, and Franciscan priests and sisters joined him.
"It's really an exciting day for the Catholic Church around the world and for us, of course, right here in Buffalo, and for all people. This is the long-awaited day of the publication of the Holy Father's encyclical on care for the environment," Bishop Malone remarked. "It's not that it's all new teaching - the teaching of the Catholic Church on care for the environment goes way, way back into biblical times, into the Book of Genesis."
Bishop Malone noted in the story of Creation, God asked the human race to care for what He had created. More recently, St. John Paul II called upon all of humanity to treat the environment with care as one of its obligations. Pope Benedict XVI, to whom some referred as the "Green Pope," oversaw the installation of solar panels in the Vatican and tried to raise consciousness among the public, he added.
"Pope Francis, who has such a wide embrace of what his pastoral ministry is, it's an embrace of mercy, not just for the human race but for the whole world, mercy for creation," Bishop Malone said. "He has really developed this in a much more profound and detailed way than any of his predecessors, and I think it's going to be a challenge not only to Catholics and other Christians, but a challenge to the whole world to learn and pay close attention to what the Holy Father is saying - basically, that the earth is our home, that we are not somehow, as human beings, separate from the earth. There's an intertwining of humankind, human life and human activity with all of creation, and we have an obligation before God, if you want to talk in religious terms, to care for it."
Bishop Malone said Pope Francis took his papal name because of his love for St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment and animals, who devoted his life to be able to "embrace all that is vulnerable," which is why Franciscan fathers, brothers and sisters of the diocese have kept this theme alive.
"This is an exciting and happy time to hear the good news of Pope Francis' encyclical," Sister Sharon Goodremote, FSSJ, chair of the Diocesan Care for Creation Committee, added at the press conference. "It is 'praise be to you, O Lord,' and it does come from St. Francis' Canticle, which is a wonderful prayer where he calls everything in creation 'brother' and 'sister.' I think this whole encyclical is saying to us: we need to be brother and sister to each other. The sisters and friars behind me, but also all congregations of religious men and women, have really taken up the call to do something for creation."
In the encyclical, Pope Francis warned of the severe consequences of unchecked human exploitation of the environment and resources, lamenting, "(Our Sister, Mother Earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will."
"In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment," Pope Francis wrote. "Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked."
The pope associated social inequality with disregard for the environment, since the poorest populations are most likely to be hit hardest and first by the loss of natural resources, such as water, fish and other wildlife, food and shelter. However, Pope Francis reiterated merely reducing the overall number of humans on the planet would not help, since a minority of the population is causing the majority of the problems.
"To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues," the pope continued. "It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption."
Ultimately, Pope Francis recommended reduced reliance on fossil fuels and praised the work of various environmental agencies in bringing climate change and other environmental issues to the forefront of debates and increasing public awareness about them. He supported attempts by people to make environmentally friendly choices and reject the rampant consumerism that leads to such serious problems.
He also encouraged everyone to reduce their consumption of plastic and paper, use less water, separate garbage, cook only what they can reasonably eat, respect and care for animals, use buses or other public transportation when possible, and turn lights off when not in use. He praised such lifestyle changes as using less heat and wearing warmer clothing, even if one could afford to use more energy.
According to Bishop Malone, the encyclical will likely spark a great deal of scientific debate and other discussion, since "there is a lot of science in the encyclical" and "the pope has access to some of the best scientific minds in the world." Pope Francis also makes the point that he wants to encourage dialogue to keep the human race from acting in ways that continue to damage the environment.
Prior to the encyclical's release, members of the Care for Creation Committee, along with other groups concerned about its content, met at St. Joseph University Church in Buffalo to plan activities and work to promote environmentalism. The Care for Creation Committee has held workshops on climate change, created a curriculum for Catholic schools to include lessons on caring for creation in their religion and science classes, published bulletin announcements and met specifically to discuss the encyclical. The group has worked with Catholics, other Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others interested in the issue.
"A lot of people don't realize this: the earth is really in crisis," added Sister Eileen O'Connor, RSM, a member of the diocesan committee, last month. "The pope said, in the encyclical, this is not necessarily about technology or even science. This is our moral responsibility. It's a faith responsibility, particularly as it affects the poorest among us, especially in developing countries and island countries."
"The pope is really calling us to be with one another as Francis was with one another," Sister Sharon said. "Oftentimes, when we're talking about the environment and the things that are happening in the environment, we tend to be 'them against us.' He's saying we need a better conversation than that. We need a conversation where we really respect one another."
Listen to the bishop's press conference below: