(Sunday Homily) Why Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change? He’s A Prophet in Our Midst

Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 38: 1, 8-11; PS 107: 23-26, 28-31; 2COR 5: 14-17; LK 7:16; MK 4: 35-41.

Thursday Pope Francis published his long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change. The document is called Praised Be: on the Care of Our Common Home (PB).

Today’s liturgy of the word is perfectly synchronized with the encyclical’s release. Its elements emphasize God’s sovereignty over nature, its overwhelming beauty and might, the power of Christ-Consciousness to save from nature’s fury, and the new order of God’s Kingdom proclaimed and embodied in the Master from Galilee. Moreover, in articulating today’s themes, the humble Pope Francis distinguishes himself as a “great prophet,” in whom “God has visited his people” – the refrain in today’s Alleluia Verse.

Begin by considering the readings; afterwards we’ll turn to the encyclical and to Pope Francis’ prophetic status.

In our first reading, God speaks to Job sitting on a dung hill like the “pile of filth” into which, the pope says humans are turning the earth (PB 21). Like us, Job is trying desperately to figure out why bad things are happening to his world. Significantly, the Divine One speaks out of a storm and declares God’s sovereignty over nature – its seas with its threatening waves, the sky with its dark clouds, storms with their winds, thunder and lightning.

That theme of God’s sovereignty over nature is picked up in today’s responsorial which emphasizes the fearful might of the world’s oceans. Psalm 107 calls the sea an “abyss” – a threatening black hole. It is the work of the Lord who on the one hand causes storms to arise, but on the other restores calm to the waves and brings relieved travelers back to safe haven. Again, it is God, not humans who controls nature – a major theme of Praised Be.

Then in today’s Gospel selection Jesus calms the sea when it threatens to sink the boat he and his friends are using to travel to the “other shore.”

It’s the identity of Jesus’ followers as “Other Christs” called to do what Jesus did that is emphasized in today’s reading from Second Corinthians. There the apostle identifies Jesus as the herald of a completely new reality. The old order is no longer relevant, Paul says; it has entirely passed away. It’s that reality that followers of Jesus’ Way are to embody and usher in.

All of the themes in today’s liturgy of the word find echo in Pope Francis’ encyclical. Consider them one-by-one:

  • God’s Sovereignty over nature: Here Francis bluntly states that the pervasive understanding that God gave humans power of dominion or destruction over the earth “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible” (67). According to Francis, God denies any pretense of absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).
  • Nature’s overwhelming beauty and might: The very title of the pope’s encyclical reflects this point. “Laudato Si” are the first words of a prayer composed by Francis’ namesake, the great Italian mystic, Francis of Assisi, identified by the pope as the patron of ecology (10). Of St. Francis the pope writes, “Like it happens when we fall in love with someone, every time that Francis looked at the sun, the moon, the smallest animals, his reaction was to sing, sharing in the glory of all the other creatures. . . he entered into communication with all of creation.” At the same time the Pope Francis argues that today’s climate chaos with its fearful storms, droughts, and extreme temperatures represents the earth protesting against “the violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin.”
  • The power of Christ-consciousness to save us from nature’s fury: St. Francis, the pope notes, was a mystic like Jesus of Nazareth (98). He had Christ-consciousness. It allowed him, like Jesus, to speak to elements that most humans understand as impersonal (98). So like Jesus speaking to the wind and waves in today’s Gospel, Francis conversed with animals and regarded the sun as his brother and the moon as his sister. Only the adoption of such sensitivity and reverence, the pope says, can restore balance to our planet (11).
  • The new reality to which we are called: “An economic and technological development that does not leave the world a better place and with an integral superior quality of life cannot be considered progress” (194). So Francis proposes a new model beyond the worship of the “free market.” Its exact shape must be worked out through a process of international dialog (180). However it necessarily includes an international body with legislative power to control excesses of production and consumption connected with unfettered capitalism.”

In providing such clear direction, Pope Francis’ encyclical solidifies his identity as a “great prophet.” As it turns out, he is the only world leader capable of turning the planet around. His power combines the exact virtues required for such a herculean task:

  • Consciousness: Pope Francis’ consciousness is unique. Virtually alone among world leaders, he sees climate change, poverty, morality and spirituality as inextricably interconnected.
  • Courage: Among his peers, Francis’ courage is unparalleled. By comparison the “leader of the free world” (not to mention climate change denialists) looks like a timid child bowing and scraping before the world’s wealthy few – indecisive about Keystone XL and arctic drilling. Moreover, the pope intends to take his message of interconnection directly to the lion’s den. He will speak not only to the United Nations, but will confront a U.S. Congress largely hostile to his position on climate chaos.
  • Credibility: As a scientist with an advanced degree in chemistry and as titular head of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Francis has access to the world’s finest scientific minds. He has done his homework. He addresses not just climate change, but problems undeniably caused by human activity – “water poverty,” food waste, waste in general, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, human trafficking, income gaps between the global north and south, the rampant elimination of innumerable species, and war.
  • Charisma: The world loves Pope Francis. No other world leader more widely admired or more capable of influencing people regardless of nationality or creed. It is interesting to see Catholic politicians like Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Bobby Jindal speak condescendingly about a religious leader’s forays into fields “beyond his expertise” – as if they were better informed and could out-Catholic the pope. This is a battle they cannot win.
  • Constituency: Pope Francis is the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. There are more than 70 million Catholics in the United States – not to mention the millions of non-Catholics who admire the pope. Can you imagine what would happen world-wide (politically and environmentally) if even a small percentage of them took the pope’s words to heart? What if they radically changed their behavior (and voting) patterns to save the planet for future generations and prevent the poor from suffering the worst effects of industry-induced environmental degradation?

Praised Be leaves none of us off the hook. Rather the virtues just enumerated provide guidelines for each of us. As Paul’s “other Christs” and as humans in general (62) we are called to “Franciscan”:

  • Consciousness: Each of us can become expert. Just reading Praised Be will take us a long way in that direction. Do your part for the planet; read the encyclical now. It is the best, most comprehensive and accessible text available on the most important issue facing our world. (Good supplemental reading is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.
  • Courage and credibility: Good information breeds these qualities. Like the pope we all need to fearlessly confront our uninformed, misinforming, head-in-the-sand politicians and demand that they serve us, our planet, children and grandchildren. Enough of letting them confuse us with their obfuscations.
  • Charisma: Few in the world can claim anything like Pope Francis’ charisma. But his fearless outspoken truth-telling is contagious and can infect us all by association. We must follow his example and use our innate talents to spread the message of Praised Be.
  • Constituency: Whether Catholic or not each of us needs to join Pope Francis’ constituency. In my own parish, our Peace and Social Justice Committee plans to buy copies of his encyclical for every parishioner over the age of 16. Beginning in September (about the time of the pope’s visit to the U.S.) we’ll initiate a parish-wide study of the encyclical. We’ll gather to watch Francis’ speeches to the U.N. and our Congress. Praised Be provides a foundation for turning every Catholic Church into a peace and social justice dynamo.

Again, today’s Alleluia Verse proclaims “A great prophet has risen in our midst. God has visited his people.” Today Pope Francis is that prophet. That’s why we should listen to him and follow his example.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Why Listen to Pope Francis on Climate Change? He’s A Prophet in Our Midst”

  1. Amen to Francis. If the Catholic Church wishes to achieve relevance to the modern world, all who represent it must get behind him and make the changes necessary. Not to do this is to forfeit the opportunity to make a tremendous benefit to us in this critical time.

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