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by Chris McDonnell
Earlier this year. Rome gave the go-ahead for the diocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil to open the process of beatification for Dom Helder Camara. About time.
If ever a man walked the path that Francis is advocating for his fellow bishops, it was Camara. He was an inspiration not only to his people in Brazil but to the church beyond the bounds of South America.
A man of deep humility, foresight and determination, his ideas gave rise to base communities for Christians and his innovative approach to priestly training was ground breaking.
Following his resignation in 1985, he was succeeded by (an appointment made by John Paul II) a man of very different attitude, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho. Whereas Dom Helder rejected the pomp and circumstance of his rank, always wearing a tattered brown cassock and having round his neck a simple wooden cross, his successor adopted a different stance.
I read an account of an interview with him back in the 90s which was written up in the Tablet, where the interviewer asked Dom Helder if he was upset at the way his work was being dismantled. His reply… “he said nothing, only a tear rolled silently down his cheek”.
He was a humble man who questioned, who moved from the political right in his early years later to significantly embrace the politics of the poor. For this he was also criticised. His oft-quoted phrase “If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist” should not be forgotten for it applies to many societies across our planet today, even in the affluent West.
He spent a period of his life living under the Brazilian military dictatorship whose political stance was opposed to so much that he stood for. But his mission continued. His greatest achievement might well be Celam’s meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968 and the preferential option for the poor that came from its deliberations. How well does the public face of the faith of Francis fit with that aspiration. How fittingly does Helder Camara’s life as a pastor match the image that Francis proposed, of a shepherd who lives with the smell of his sheep “and so brings the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized”.
When he died aged 90, in 1999, his life shone as a testament to faith and still does, his and that of others who have been inspired by his example.
"What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (160). This question is at the heart of Laudato si’ (May You be praised), the anticipated Encyclical on the care of the common home by Pope Francis. “This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal”. This leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the basis of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” “Unless we struggle with these deeper issues – says the Pope – I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results” (160).
The Encyclical takes its name from the invocation of Saint Francis, “Praise be to you, my Lord”, in his Canticle of the Creatures. It reminds us that the earth, our common home “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (1). We have forgotten that “we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (2).
Now, this earth, mistreated and abused, is lamenting, and its groans join those of all the forsaken of the world. Pope Francis invites us to listen to them, urging each and every one – individuals, families, local communities, nations and the international community – to an “ecological conversion”, according to the expression of Saint John Paul II. We are invited to “change direction” by taking on the beauty and responsibility of the task of “caring for our common home”. At the same time, Pope Francis recognizes that “there is a growing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet” (19). A ray of hope flows through the entire Encyclical, which gives a clear message of hope. “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (13). “Men and women are still capable of intervening positively” (58). “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start” (205).
Pope Francis certainly addresses the Catholic faithful, quoting Saint John Paul II: “Christians in their turn “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith”“ (64). Pope Francis proposes specially “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (3). The dialogue runs throughout the text and in ch. 5 it becomes the instrument for addressing and solving problems. From the beginning, Pope Francis recalls that “other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – have also expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections” on the theme of ecology (7). Indeed, such contributions expressly come in, starting with that of “the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew” (7), extensively cited in numbers 8-9. On several occasions, then, the Pope thanks the protagonists of this effort – individuals as well as associations and institutions. He acknowledges that “the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all […] have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions” (7). He invites everyone to recognize “the rich contribution which the religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity” (62).
The itinerary of the Encyclical is mapped out in n. 15 and divided into six chapters. It starts by presenting the current situation based on the best scientific findings available today (ch. 1), next, there is a review of the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition (ch. 2). The root of the problems in technocracy and in an excessive self-centeredness of the human being are analyzed (ch. 3). The Encyclical proposes (ch.4) an “integral ecology, which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (137), inextricably linked to the environmental question. In this perspective, Pope Francis proposes (ch. 5) to initiate an honest dialogue at every level of social, economic and political life, that builds transparent decision-making processes, and recalls (ch. 6) that no project can be effective if it is not animated by a formed and responsible conscience. Ideas are put forth to aid growth in this direction at the educational, spiritual, ecclesial, political and theological levels. The text ends with two prayers; one offered for sharing with everyone who believes in “God who is the all-powerful Creator” (246), and the other to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, punctuated by the refrain “Praise be to you!” which opens and closes the Encyclical.
Several main themes run through the text that are addressed from a variety of different perspectives, traversing and unifying the text:
*the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet,
*the conviction that everything in the world is connected,
*the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology,
*the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress,
*the value proper to each creature,
*the human meaning of ecology,
*the need for forthright and honest debate,
*the serious responsibility of international and local policies,
*the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle (16).
Ahead of the publication of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, experts reflect on the history and significance of the church's role in promoting the stewardship of creation.
Every country, especially those that are experiencing financial crises, such as Brazil in 2015, has a persistent obsession: we have to grow; we must assure the growth of the GNP, namely, the sum of all the wealth produced by the country. This economic growth is fundamentally the production of material goods. It causes a high degree of social inequity (unemployment and reduction of salaries) and a perverse environmental devastation (exhaustion of the ecosystems).
In reality, we should first talk about the kind of development that entails essential non-material elements, principally such subjective and humanistic dimensions as the expansion of liberty, creativity and ways of shaping life itself. Unfortunately we are all hostages of the mirage that is growth. Long ago the balance between growth and the preservation of nature was destroyed, in favor of growth. Consumption is already 40% above the planet's capacity to replace its goods and services. And the planet is losing her sustainability.
Now here's reflection from John Chuchman that might question one of your core Christian beliefs: Is Hope over-rated? It's difficult to know if John is being a bit tongue-in-cheek with this one or deadly serious. It is a reflection that is almost guaranteed to cause you to think.
Hope is Overrated
I'm giving up on Hope.
I have dumped despair,
so I really do not need its struggling opposite,
it seems Hope was simply
a diversionary tactic
that kept me from truly looking at
the causes for despair.
Hope was dangerous
It was defeatist,
relinquishing my responsibility
to speak out and act against
what is wrong.
Hope allowed me to be passive.
Hope required no talent,
not much thinking,
and no expression of
My True Self.
Hope tricked me,
absolving me of Responsibility.
Ben Franklin had it right,
Live in Hope and you'll die fasting.
I refuse to be addicted.