Everything is interconnected, and .. genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature are inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (70)
Everything is indeed connected, as Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us in his encyclical Laudato Si’. Concern for rising sea levels that threaten coastal communities and concern for migrants and refugees; solving the problems of so much plastic waste and solving the problems of poverty; developing strategies to curb greenhouse gas emissions and developing just economic policies that take into account the marginalized; the assault on biodiversity by human activity and the assault of a viral pandemic on humanity.
Sometimes the problems facing us seem so overwhelming that we have to break them down into more manageable pieces, but we must not fail to see their interconnectedness.
As Pope Francis says, “Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (Laudato Si’, 139)
Perhaps during these days, when so many have stepped back from the normal rhythm of life, we’ve had more time to pause and examine the big picture. Hopefully we have been able to reflect on some lessons that are common to both this coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.
In Time magazine, for example, Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, drew the following “5 Lessons From Coronavirus That Will Help Us Tackle Climate Change”: Global challenges have no borders. Society is only as safe as its most vulnerable people; global challenges require systemic changes; prevention is better than cure; and responses need to be based on science.
Next week, May 16-24, we will celebrate Laudato Si’ Week 2020 to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s encyclical On Care for Our Common Home. The resources for Laudato Si’ Week draw direct links between the current pandemic and our lack of environmental response: The coronaviruses found in bats are ever more likely to jump to other species, including humans, because of the destruction of natural habitats that would otherwise separate us from these animals and due to the illegal trade in wildlife species.
The COVID-19 crisis can become a great wake-up call to act more decisively on the climate crisis if we link economic recovery initiatives to efforts aimed at addressing climate change. As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” (111)
Here in the rural parish where I work in El Salvador, our celebration of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis giving the world Laudato Si’ isn’t what we had planned before the coronavirus appeared.
We remain under stay-at-home orders, unable to go to Mass in our churches and chapels, but still connected through various communication channels, and we are sharing key phrases from the encyclical through them to members of our parish and encouraging family discussion and small actions. We hope that by September we will be able to more fully engage in a celebration of the Season of Creation (set for Sept. 1 to Oct. 4).
At our Monte San Juan Parish near Cojutepeque, we had started an environmental ministry at the beginning of 2015, so when the pope’s encyclical was published in May of that year, we were thrilled to have such a powerful resource, motivational tool, and respected authority to guide and support our efforts.
We spent nearly two years reading through Laudato Si’ as a group and presenting the major points to the congregation during Sunday Masses. It has continued to guide our work over these past five years. Through our parish group, we have begun to raise environmental awareness and to promote reforestation and recycling; we have reduced waste from single-use plastic, addressed water issues and, most recently, worked together with local and national government, community leaders and farmers on developing a watershed management plan for one of our rivers.
While we are proud of the advances we have made, there is still so much more to do. Now that meeting in community groups is not really possible, one of our biggest challenges has been continuing the environmental consciousness raising, which is fundamental to bringing about lasting change in attitudes and habits.
Our pastor has been a key promoter of our efforts by frequently speaking about environmental issues from the pulpit and encouraging the parish council to set environmental goals for concrete actions in our annual pastoral plans. We have often said that the role of the parish here is to be a light, a guide, and a model for society at large, including in the realm of the right relationships with and caring for creation. While we may have made some progress in that regard, we still have a long way to go.
The people here, like everywhere, are longing for the day when the restrictions of the pandemic end and they can return to normal. I, for one, hope that we don’t just return to the pre-pandemic normal. Close human interactions and the freedom of mobility, yes, but I hope we can engage in what Pope Francis calls the “critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, [and] the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress” (Laudato Si’, 16).
Doing so could set us on a path to forge a new mode of living as a true world community in harmony—not only with each other but also with the rest of creation. There is no better starting point for such engagement than a thorough reading of Laudato Si’.
Analyzing the ecological crisis based on scientific research, the ethical and spiritual tradition that provides the basis for our commitment to the environment, as well as the causes of the current crisis, the pope offers proposals for dialogue and action from the personal to the international level.
Though the encyclical lays bare many grave problems and serious challenges, it remains full of hope: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.… Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (13). And he urges us to “sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.” (244)
And so we sing, even while in quarantine, as we celebrate this Laudato Si’ Week and as we move toward a brighter future, where all of humanity and all of creation with whom we share this planet are harmoniously connected!