Faith Alive

Making room for ecological conversion this Lent

Faith Alive! 2016 No. 10 — Lent: Ecological conversion


Throughout Christian history, Lent always was viewed as a time for conversion, a time for a change of heart that clears the way to a life that is more compassionate, generous and committed to Christ’s ways of expressing love, as witnessed in the Gospels.

Today, however, an “ecological conversion” also deserves to find a place in our spirituality, Pope Francis believes.

“We come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion,” he explains in “Laudato Si’.”

Making room for ecological conversion this Lent

By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

The world’s vast deserts enjoy a reputation as arid, harsh, inhospitable places. Nonetheless, millions of people rather happily inhabit desert regions.

Still, a familiar image from the annals of literature and films quickly comes to mind when the word “desert” is heard. It is an image of fearsome places where a person might well become hopelessly lost and where thirst and sandstorms prevail.

Increasing the size of our geographical deserts is no one’s goal, I suppose. But it is the increasing size of deserts of another kind that has concerned recent popes. These deserts mirror the arid, dry qualities of the planet’s geographical deserts, and they represent a major concern in Lent.

They are called “internal deserts.” They stake out claims within people’s lives, proving harmful to them and expanding their reach into the surrounding world.

That is why Pope Francis expresses concern about them in “Laudato Si’,” his 2015 encyclical on the environment. “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast,” the encyclical states, quoting Pope Benedict XVI.

In his 2005 inaugural homily, Pope Benedict said that because internal deserts “have become so vast,” the vast treasures of the earth “no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”

Pope Francis fears that “violence present” in human hearts gives rise to “the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” With his encyclical, he hopes to motivate Christians to “a more passionate concern for the protection of our world.”

He strikingly affirms that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Does it sound strange to hear care for the environment described that way, as a key concern for Christians? Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, discussed this in a Jan. 27 speech prepared for the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, Philippines.

The sacraments are central in the life of the church. But central to the celebration of the sacraments are the good things of the earth, Cardinal Turkson pointed out. He said, “A premise of the celebration of sacramental liturgy is that we use the good things from this earth to worship God.”

Among these good things are the bread and wine brought to the altar for every eucharistic celebration. “Every time we take bread and wine in the act of doing the Eucharist we articulate the theology of the goodness of creation,” the cardinal remarked.

In fact, he indicated, “God’s goodness is the source of the things of this earth used in liturgy.” Moreover, “through sacramental liturgy human persons put their lives and the world itself into proper perspective.”

A proper perspective on the world for Pope Francis reveals that believers “do not look at the world from without but from within.” This perspective encompasses an awareness “of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings,” the encyclical emphasizes.

Bearing in mind the internal deserts that inhabit and inhibit the lives of individuals and communities, Pope Francis concludes in “Laudato Si'” that the contemporary “ecological crisis” also delivers “a summons to profound interior conversion.”

When we are enriched inwardly, in other words, we will be able to interact better with other people, including the poor, and with the world itself. Wasteful habits and overconsumption of the earth’s resources then will be addressed, and efforts will be undertaken to counteract “the throwaway culture that affects the entire planet.”

Throughout Christian history, Lent always was viewed as a time for conversion, a time for a change of heart that clears the way to a life that is more compassionate, generous and committed to Christ’s ways of expressing love, as witnessed in the Gospels.

Today, however, an “ecological conversion” also deserves to find a place in our spirituality, Pope Francis believes. “We come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion,” he explains in “Laudato Si’.”

He observes that “some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent.”

What is needed, therefore, is “an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them,” Pope Francis stresses.

But more than individual conversions will be required. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks,” Pope Francis makes clear. Thus, ecological conversion must also become “a community conversion.”

For Pope Francis, the earth itself today “is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” His firm wish is that “an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems.”

(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)

A challenge to better protect all of God’s creation

By Mike Nelson

Catholic News Service

I vividly recall one reader assessment of the Catholic newspaper I edited. He was a priest, and his very to-the-point opinion went like this: “We don’t need it. Shut it down and save some trees.”

I like trees as much as the next person, but I took umbrage at this priest’s opinion, more for his evident disregard for useful information than for his environmentalist slant.

Today, newspapers are increasingly read online and decreasingly delivered to people’s homes. I would imagine a good number of trees are thankful for this, though plenty of print journalists, even those of us who are “tree-huggers,” have mixed feelings.

Thinking about this carefully, though, I realize I can never assume my life and needs are all about me. Preserving our environment is about managing our God-given resources in a way that respects not just God’s creation of natural materials, but the creation of our fellow human beings.

Pope Francis made clear during last Pentecost, when he promulgated “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” that all of us are responsible for creation and for one another.

“Care for nature is part of a lifestyle that includes the capacity for living together and communion,” the pope wrote in the encyclical. “Jesus reminded us that we have God as our common Father and that this makes us brothers and sisters.”

Recent popes (John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) and other world religious leaders have expressed concern and lament for how modern society has contributed to what Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople called “the disfigurement and destruction of creation.”

Repeatedly, Pope Francis cites St. Francis of Assisi, his guidance and inspiration, as the example “of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” It is, in fact, St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures” that suggests the encyclical’s title: “Praise be to you, my Lord.”

I find this especially compelling, for this beloved saint was chosen by our son as his confirmation name. And in my life, I’ve known no one who cares so deeply for creation as our son. Not only does he care profoundly for his fellow humans and all creatures, but he is an uncommonly dedicated conservationist.

He dutifully makes sure that any container is either reused or disposed of in a recycling bin. He lets no household water go to waste (a very big deal in drought-ridden Southern California) and forever reminds his parents, by word and deed, that God’s creation is sacred.

I try to follow his example. In my work, I’ve regularly turned old press releases into notepads that preclude the need for steno pads. As a lunchtime brown-bagger, I’ve made sure my brown bag got more than one use, often more than several. And if I eat at a restaurant, I make sure my recyclable paper goods go to the nearest recycling bin available.

And guess what? Just recently I converted one of our daily newspaper subscriptions to online only, which may horrify fellow print journalists but will certainly save, I imagine, a tree or two over the course of a year.

There is more I could do, more we could all do to respect what God has created. Pope Francis addressed his letter to “every person living on this planet” in the hope of generating widespread dialogue, and action, on how our behavior affects our planet’s future.

As we journey through Lent, we can contemplate ways of being better disciples of the Lord, and that means contemplating conversion — in our habits and hearts — that can help us care for our common home.

That means we are challenged to be better to one another, but also to better to “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us,” as Pope Francis points out.

(Nelson is a freelance writer and former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)

A conversion of heart for the planet’s sake

By Daniel S. Mulhall

Catholic News Service

During Lent, Christians examine their conscience to consider the steps they can take to change their lives to better follow Jesus. In his recent encyclical letter “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis has called us to examine our conscience about our relationship with the earth and how we treat it.

Reflecting on the contents of this letter and its challenges for how we live on this planet seems a valuable Lenten exercise.

The encyclical takes its name from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, beginning with the words, “Praise be to you, my Lord.” The pope, citing his namesake, notes that St. Francis thought of the earth as his sister “with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” and sustain us.

The pope then says that “this sister 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.” No longer seeing ourselves in a personal relationship with the earth, too frequently we “see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

The earth, says Pope Francis, has been wounded by our sin and “is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).”

We have forgotten that we are only a part of God’s creation, and we are “dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters,” as Genesis 1 and 2 remind us.

In calling us to a conversion of heart, the pope quotes the spiritual head of the Orthodox churches, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, saying that we are called to “repent of the ways we have harmed the planet,” and “acknowledge ‘our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.'”

We must come to understand that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

The pope challenges us to consider the “ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems” and to look for solutions first in the heart.

Again citing Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis asks us to “to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing” and to develop “an asceticism” that empowers us “to give, and not simply to give up,” and to develop “a way of loving” that allows us to move gradually “from what I want to what God’s world needs.”

While the encyclical provides specific detail for living an ecologically sound life in keeping with Catholic social teaching, its core can be found in these words from the ecumenical patriarch quoted by Pope Francis:

“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

(Mulhall is a catechist. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.)


In “Called to Ecological Conversion,” a 2011 document for the Catholic Theological Union, Franciscan Sister Dawn M. Nothwehr wrote that “most North American Christians have lost … intimacy with the created world. We are not able to immediately recognize creation as God’s self-revelation complementing familiar biblical witnesses to God’s grandeur.”

She continued: “In fact, we have come close to obliterating much of the natural world, marring it to the extent that it can barely eke out a mere whimper in praise of God’s glory rather than a ‘shout of joy.'”

Sometimes it seems easier to deny or ignore what we’ve done, she wrote, “but that’s not what Christians are called to do.”

She said the U.S. bishops, in a 2001 statement, called for dialogue and “‘prudent and constructive action to protect God’s precious gift of the earth’s atmosphere with a sense of genuine solidarity and justice for all God’s children.’ The hope is that we know what significant life changes we must make toward halting global warming now!”

She added that “the biggest ‘fix’ that is needed is the transformation of the human heart and engagement of a lively moral imagination.”


Villagers paddle past mangroves along a branch of the Pomeroon River in 2015 in the interior of Guyana. Pope Francis challenges us to consider the “ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems,” and to look for solutions first in the heart. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)