A Season of Creation, a Season of Conversion

by Scott Wright

On September 1, on the occasion of the World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople released a joint statement, calling attention to the responsibility we share to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, which are inextricably linked. Their plea could not have been better timed – or more urgent, particularly in light of the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

As though responding to recent environmental catastrophes, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew called upon the leaders of the world “to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation.”

Just one week before, Hurricane Harvey dropped more than four feet of rain on Houston and the surrounding Gulf Coast, causing catastrophic flooding, and affecting the lives of 11 million people in the nation’s fourth largest city. Half-way around the world, monsoon rains submerged a third of the terrain of Bangladesh under water in the worst flooding in four decades. More than 1,000 people have died in floods this summer across South Asia, affecting 41 million people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Add to this the devastation of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

As Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew write: “The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.”

The Inter-Connectedness of All Creation

There were many stories of neighbors helping neighbors, first responders working day and night to rescue many people stranded on rooftops or waist-deep in water. Such sacrifice and solidarity is inspiring. Even undocumented immigrants generously helped in the rescue efforts; ironically, or tragically, they may not be eligible for disaster assistance.

Houston was a disaster waiting to happen, and for reasons that go beyond its vulnerable location along a low-lying region of the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. Changes in climate had already set the stage for a disaster, with rising sea levels above a foot in the last century, the warmest temperatures on record in the Gulf of Mexico, and more moisture in the atmosphere provoking torrential rainstorms and flooding.

Many federal and state authorities failed to take these changes seriously, turning a blind eye to a disaster in the making. Little was done to prevent development from occurring in the flood plains of the city, or to provide adequate infrastructure for flood protection. And while rich and poor neighborhoods alike were affected, it is also true that many of the poorer residents of the Gulf Coast will likely not be able to afford any loans or government assistance.

Poor people of color are especially vulnerable to the impacts of catastrophic storms, a phenomenon that has given rise to the term “environmental racism.” It was true for African American residents in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the lower Ninth Ward twelve years ago; it is true for Puerto Rican and Caribbean residents devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria; and it is true today for many of the 500,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. It remains to be seen what will happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, as the poor and undocumented struggle to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.

Ecological Conversion and Global Awareness

Today, indifference and apathy toward God’s gift of creation has led to an “ecological crisis” of catastrophic proportions, moving religious leaders like Pope Francis to call for a “profound interior conversion.” To end the evil of environmental destruction, we must start by examining our own broken relationships with God, with one another and with creation, and open our hearts to such an “ecological conversion.” That is the urgent call we receive from Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

But such a conversion of hearts is only the beginning; it must be followed by collective action to awaken a global awareness of the crisis of what one observer calls “a climate breakdown,” and to end our addiction to fossil fuels in order to stop global warming. The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor demand that we do no less. We have an “intergenerational responsibility” to do so, as well, for the sake of our children and future generations.

Since September 1, and continuing until October 4, we invite you to join the Catholic Climate Covenant and the Global Catholic Climate Movement in prayer and in action, to celebrate a Season of Creation. The meaning behind this season is our awareness that the global climate is rapidly changing for the worse, and we are responsible. Our addiction to fossil fuels causes global warming, and has set off a destructive chain of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, severe drought, and disastrous flooding – like the flooding we saw on the Gulf Coast and in South Asia only a few weeks ago.

The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach invites you to celebrate this Season of Creation by asking what does an “ecological conversion” mean for you. We can begin by taking concrete steps, calling on our political and economic leaders to reverse the calls for oil and gas exploration on public lands or in the Arctic and end our fatal dependency on fossil fuels; instead, let us do what we can to promote renewable energy production. More and more Catholic organizations and religious congregations are calling for this, including the Missionary Society of St. Columban.

In the words of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew: “We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized …. There can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change … unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, and we give priority to solidarity and service.”

"Weekly Reflection on Justice" is produced by the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach staff, volunteers, interns, Columban parishioners, Columban Missionaries, and friends of the Columbans. We hope these reflections help to guide you in your own spiritual journey working toward justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.