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Restoring Right Relation

Often, Christians find Pope Francis’ promotion of integral ecology at odds with the biblical command to subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures. Yet, a careful look at the Book of Genesis offers much to consider in regard to relationships among creation and how God intended creation to exist.

Ecologically-relevant verses are found throughout scripture, but as Pope Francis asserts in “Laudato Si’,” there is reason to start at the beginning: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality.”

“Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth” (Gn 1:28). Upon an uncritical reading, this verse seems to support human control over non-human creation. But, when placed in context with other biblical narratives, the verse no longer reads as a God-given mandate for human superiority. A critical look at the words from which “subdue” and “dominion” are translated paired with awareness of how these words are used elsewhere in scripture yields a different interpretation.

Elsewhere in scripture, the word translated into English as “subdue” describes cultivation of land and preparation of space for worship. There is great significance in this interpretative shift from subdue as meaning to overpower and control to subdue as meaning to cultivate for sustainability and ease of worship. Knowing this broader biblical context allows for reconsideration of the way in which humanity is asked to interact with non-human creation. Instead of exercising superiority over the earth with exploitation and destruction, humanity is called to cultivate a sustainable living space that allows for worship of God.

The word translated as “dominion” can also support a holistic, interconnected and mutually-dependent relationship among creation when the command to “have dominion” is considered in conjunction with scripture stories that elaborate upon its meaning. For example, the story of the great flood shows humanity tasked with “dominion” of creation.

Humanity must ensure survival of all.

Considered within this context, “dominion” transforms from a word conveying a relationship of domination and control into a word conveying a relationship of care, concern and respect. The survival of non-human creation is prioritized not because of any value or benefit it holds for humanity but simply because all creation is of God and deserves to live. Furthermore, when considered within the context of the great flood story, God’s command to humans about the relationship between human and non-human creation does not present a passive relationship, where human and non-human creation merely coexist, or even a relationship in which humans consciously refrain from destroying or harming non-human creation. What God’s command calls for is conscious, compassionate action on the part of humanity to see to the survival, livelihood and flourishing of non-human creation. This is quite a big responsibility, of which the failure to fulfill has disastrous consequences.

Pope Francis reflects, “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole [is] disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God.” When humans act as if humanity is other than creation instead of an integral part of it, all of creation suffers, including humans. 

He continues, “Responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world. ... The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings.”

Creation was designed in a way that allows it to survive, to grow, to adapt, to flourish!

The human, in the image and likeness of God and as part of that design, is called to cultivate creation for life and worship (subdue) and ensure its ongoing survival (have dominion). While this relationship between human and non-human creation (and God) is often abused — even ruptured — reconciliation, a return to right relation, is always possible.

As demonstrated by the story of the great flood and exclaimed by Pope Francis, “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”

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This article was originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

Catholic Schools Care for Creation

In response to Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne's call for a Year of Creation focused on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home," Catholic schools in Vermont immediately sprang to action planning a statewide day of creation education, action and prayer. On April 12, each Catholic school participated in Catholic Schools Care for Creation Day. Initiatives included immediate tasks and long-term projects.
 
Responding to the call to care for creation is part of the Catholic schools’ mission “to instill faith values in students and to create a desire to make a positive difference in the world.” Some schools began the day of service with Mass or another form of prayer. Others read and reflected upon quotes from “Laudato Si’” throughout the day. It was important for students to understand that this day wasn’t just in service to the world, but to their neighbors and to God as well.
 
“Care for creation is a matter of social justice because the ones who are most affected by pollution and climate change are the poor of the world,” Bishop Coyne said. “I hope many Catholics will take advantage of the opportunities being offered throughout the diocese to celebrate this Year of Creation.”
 
Vermont Catholic schools emphatically embraced the opportunity to spend some extra time beholding God’s creation and ensuring that it remains bountiful for generations to come.
 
Read about each school’s Care for Creation Day projects below. For more about the Year of Creation: vermontcatholic.org/yearofcreation.
 
Students at St. Monica-St. Michael School in Barre learned about reusing and recycling materials with an eco-fashion show, where students designed and modeled clothing creations made from materials found in recycle bins. As part of an ongoing project, students planted seeds in recyclable containers that will later be transferred to the school garden. Once in the earth, the seedlings will grow into food that sustains bodies. Students and their families share in the cultivation, growth, harvest and consumption.
 
Students at The School of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales in Bennington used old newspapers to create biodegradable flower vases. The potted plants will be gifted to elderly individuals in the area and can be placed directly into the ground.
 
Everyone who attends St. Michael School in Brattleboro was encouraged to use sustainable transportation on April 12. Many walked, biked or carpooled to school. Members of the school community worked together on waste reduction strategies that could be implemented, with specific grades focusing on recycling and compost efficiency. Other grades focused on area beautification with litter pick-up and gardening. Others created an awareness and education bulletin board for visitors and as a reminder for everyone at the school.
 
Each classroom at The Bishop John A. Marshall School in Morrisville has prominent recycle and compost bins with a smaller trash bin alongside them. The school no longer provides single-use plastic straws or water bottles. There are water-bottle filling stations for reusable water bottles. Lunch trays are biodegradable. All of this is part of the school’s ongoing sustainability efforts.
 
Students at Christ the King School in Rutland led a prayer service designed to help people understand how they can contribute to ecological justice. Throughout the year, students will work with Marble Valley Grows to plant a garden and participate in tastings to promote the Farm to School programs. They will also learn about and begin a composting program for the lunch room.
 
Students at Christ the King School in Burlington and Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland spent their mornings cleaning up local parks and beautifying creation for area residents to enjoy.
 
Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury recently received a grant that allows them to begin construction on an outdoor nature classroom. After “greening up” the local area on April 12, students and staff gathered in the gym to plant seeds. Later in the spring, flower seedlings will be donated to the local eldercare home and vegetable seedlings to the community garden. Some of each will be reserved to plant in the outdoor nature classroom upon its completion.
 
Students at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington helped to return the local ecosystem to balance by removing invasive species from a trail on school grounds and cultivating the land for new growth. Money collected from a dress-down day on the April 12 was donated to Pure Water for the World, a Rutland-based non-profit dedicated to sustainable, safe water solutions.
 
At St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski, students learned about the impact of separating food waste and began implementing a compost program in their cafeteria and classrooms.
 
  • Published in Schools

Live "Laudato Si'" this Lent

Fast. Give. Pray.


Fast
 
…from meat. Learn about connections between meat consumption and ecological justice at Fast for Climate Justice: Global Catholic Climate Movement.
 
…from carbon by making responsible lifestyle choices. Instead of driving alone, join or organize a carpool. Have an energy-efficiency audit done on your home and follow through with suggestions. Explore renewable energy opportunities for your home or workplace. Try to reduce your overall use and consumption of goods.
 
…from plastic. While much plastic is recyclable, producing plastic requires use of crude oils, which depletes the Earth of natural resources. Instead, opt for glass, metal, ceramic, wooden or clay re-useable replacements.
 
…from waste. Even if it’s just for one day or one meal, attempt a zero-waste lifestyle. (Holy Family-St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction hosts two zero-waste events each year!)
 
 
Give
 
…to local farmers and artisans buy purchasing their products instead of purchasing from big businesses, which require excess packaging materials and fossil fuels for shipping and often don’t observe Fairtrade practices.
 
…to a community garden (or organize planting one) to help address local hunger.
 
…to local, state and national parks to help protect God’s creation and provide areas to behold natural beauty.
 
…time to learn about living more ecologically and socially conscious, then put what you learn into practice.
 
…togetherness. Shop for, prepare and eat a family meal together, instead of purchasing fast food or ready-made meals, which require excessive, single-use packaging.
 
 
 Pray
 
…for ecological justice, that we may return to right relationship with all creation.
 
…for the grace to grow in virtue, which helps us to make more ecologically and socially conscious decisions.
 
…for the vulnerable, especially those affected by disease and severe weather due to climate change.
 
…for the Church, that it may use its prophetic voice to encourage action for ecological justice.
 
…in thanksgiving for food; for those who grow, raise, prepare, transport and distribute it; and for healthy and clean soil, water, air and environments required for its growth.
 
…in praise for something beautiful that inspires wonder and awe.


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Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.
 

Pope proposes care for creation as a new work of mercy

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Calling for concrete actions that benefit human life and the environment, Pope Francis proposed adding the care and protection of creation to the traditional list of corporal and spiritual works of mercy. 

As a spiritual work of mercy, the pope said, care for creation requires "a grateful contemplation of God's world," while as a corporal work, it calls for "simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness." 

The pope reflected on the need for an integral ecology in Christian life in his message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Sept. 1. 

The message, titled "Show Mercy to our Common Home," reflects on the day of prayer as an occasion for Christians to "reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation" and to thank God "for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care."

Presenting the pope's message at a news conference Sept. 1, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the day of prayer follows the example of the Orthodox Church, which initiated the prayer day in 1989. 

Pope Francis' message, the cardinal told journalists, calls on Christians to be "honest with ourselves" and acknowledge that "when we hurt the earth, we also hurt the poor" and thus commit "a sin against creation, against the poor and against those who have not yet been born."

"This means that we must examine our consciences and repent. I realize that this is not the way we traditionally think about sin. These are sins, Pope Francis says, that we have not hitherto acknowledged and confessed," Cardinal Turkson said. 

In his message, the pope said concern for the planet's future unites religious leaders and organizations and draws attention to "the moral and spiritual crisis" that is at the heart of environmental problems. "Christians or not, as people of faith and goodwill, we should be united in showing mercy to the earth as our common home and cherishing the world in which we live as a place for sharing and communion," the pope said. 

Pollution and global warming, due partly to human activity, he said, has turned the beauty of God's creation into a "polluted wasteland" that impacts the world's poor, who have suffered the brunt of "irresponsible and selfish behavior."

"As an integral ecology emphasizes, human beings are deeply connected with all of creation. When we mistreat nature, we also mistreat human beings," the pope said.

The Year of Mercy, he added, offers Christians an opportunity to experience not only an interior conversion but also an "ecological conversion," one that recognizes "our responsibility to ourselves, our neighbors, creation and the Creator."

The first step on the path of conversion is to reflect on the harm done to creation by lifestyles inspired by "a distorted culture of prosperity," which brings about a "disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary," he said. 

Ecological conversion, the pope said, requires a serious examination of conscience, recognizing one's sins "against the Creator, against creation and against our brothers and sisters," and sincere repentance.

Sincere conversion and repentance are shown by a firm resolve to change course and bring about concrete actions that respect creation, such as energy conservation, recycling and caring concern for others.

"We must not think that these efforts are too small to improve our world. They call for a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread and encourage a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle," he wrote.

A change of course also requires governments to take steps to protect the environment. While praising the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, Pope Francis called on world leaders to honor their commitments in halting the rise of global temperatures and on citizens to hold them accountable and "advocate for even more ambitious goals."

Pope Francis said that adding care for creation to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy acknowledges human life and everything that surrounds it as "an object of mercy."

"In our rapidly changing and increasingly globalized world, many new forms of poverty are appearing," Pope Francis said. "In response to them, we need to be creative in developing new and practical forms of charitable outreach as concrete expressions of the way of mercy."
  • Published in Vatican
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