Back in the summer of 2015, a manatee was spotted swimming in the Delaware River near Bordentown, New Jersey — a long way from the waters of its native Florida. “I hope that poor creature brought an oxygen tank,” I thought at the time, recalling the oily murk of the river at a spot near my house.
Since the early 18th century, the Delaware has been plagued by pollution, thanks to rapid industrialization and population growth along its banks. By World War II, the waterway was essentially an open sewer whose very smell sickened nearby residents, and whose toxic currents turned ship hulls brown.
Much has been done to restore the river, but the task of reversing the environmental damage incurred by our way of life remains a daunting one. Although we as Christians praise God for the wonders of his creation, we often fail to see how we’ve marred the divine masterpiece.
Air, water and soil are soured by emissions and runoff. Landfills overflow with plastics that will not break down for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Whole species of animals and plants are strangled by our greed and apathy.
A few weeks before that manatee drifted up the Delaware, Pope Francis released his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, in which he pleaded on behalf of an earth “burdened and laid waste” by “our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (Laudato Si’, 2). Addressing his words to “all people,” the pope implored humanity to reexamine and reform its treatment of “our common home” (LS, 1).
Pope Francis drew on Scripture, science, saints and sages — as well as the work of his three predecessors — to support his premise that our stewardship of creation is a spiritual and moral responsibility, one that has profound implications for almost every aspect of our existence. The pope wasn’t simply asking us to put those empty soda cans in the recycling bin and ease up on watering the lawn. He was calling us to what St. John Paul II had described as a global “ecological conversion” (LS, 6).
How we use the gifts of God speaks volumes about how we view ourselves, others and the Lord himself. Pope Francis affirms Benedict XVI’s insight that “the book of nature is one and indivisible” — environment, family, society, culture and sexuality are all interwoven (LS, 5).
Even when you buy an ordinary consumer good like a cell phone, you’re making a choice that ripples across the planet: the cobalt required for most lithium batteries is usually mined from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where tens of thousands of children labor in dangerous conditions to help fuel the rest of the world’s insatiable desire for devices.
Yet three years after Laudato Si’, we’re still reluctant to realize that — as French president Emmanuel Macron told Congress this week during a state visit to the United States — “there is no Planet B.” Either we reform, collectively and individually, or we perish.
The residents of one Japanese town exemplify how it is possible to work together in sustaining the abundant resources with which our God has blessed us. Built near the convergence of three rivers, Gujo-Hachiman is known for its pristine waters, which course through the town in canals and fountains that are still used for everyday tasks such as cleaning vegetables and doing laundry.
One travel journalist asked the local tourism coordinator, Makoto Mishima, how the residents managed to preserve the purity of the village’s water. His answer was as clear as the currents that sparkled at his feet.
“My father, my grandfather, and my forebears protected the waters for us,” Mishima replied. “If upstream water were dirtied, that would upset the people downstream. So when we use water, we always think about the people who will use it after us. Living with water means the community coming together.”
In Japanese, such a sentiment is translated as isshin-dotai, meaning “our hearts as one.” In these Easter weeks, as the early church unfolds in the new life of the Resurrection, we read in the Scriptures that “the community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).
And that includes the earth, our shared home, which was “spread out … on the waters” by the Lord, whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:6; LS 72).
Surely so gracious a gift deserves nothing less than our hearts as one, united in deepest gratitude and diligent care.
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