I originally wrote this reflection about a month ago but was unable to finish it sufficiently due to an unplanned trip into hospital, motherhood and ongoing PhD research. I believe however that this has had its advantages as the extra time has given me opportunities to bear witness to many more experiences and reflections on my chosen topic. The topic is a biggie, and one on which goes beyond us as individuals affecting our whole global community. It has led us to question much of what we considered to be normal, including our relationships with each other and with God. I, like many, have spent the last four to five months living in a strange and different world because of a global pandemic, and this has led me to think more about our planet and the connections between the vast and varied community who call it home. As a Catholic and a student of Catholic doctrine I was drawn to reflect on Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si – On Care For Our Common Home. This was the Pope’s call for humanity to listen to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and reminds us that we are all connected.

In his recent letter marking World Environment Day on 5th June 2020, the Pope warned that:

“This is not a time to continue looking the other way, indifferent to the signs that our planet is being plundered and violated by greed for profit, very often in the name of progress.” [1]

The purpose of the letter was to remind people of their connectivity with the world and was a to call to Christians to show respect for the planet, rather than try to dominate and manipulate it to suit our needs. The Pope calls on humanity to change its attitude from one of self-fulfilment to one of care and nurture. This call was one which Pope Francis expressed and documented five years previously in Laudato Si. His reminder, on World Environment Day, of the urgent call from the planet appears to have come at a crucial time in the relationship between humanity and the earth. At the initial time of writing we were in the midst of a lockdown due to the global spread of Covid- 19 in the UK, which led to huge changes in all our lives, including working from home, home schooling, being unable to see family and friends, or attend public gatherings. During the pandemic, data from across the world showed a huge drop in global air travel; around 90% –[2]  ,as well as far fewer people driving their cars or travelling by public transport. People began to notice that these unexpected changes in human habits were having a positive impact on our planet, with air pollution levels falling in major cities across the globe, as well as a revival of cleaner river and seas. With people being forced to remain at home, twinned with an unusually hot spring, millions of people were spending more time in their gardens, and with the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions, people began to spend more time in public parks, green spaces and on beaches. With this time outside, many found a renewed relationship with nature, having the time to notice bird song, see animals nesting, notice subtle changes in weather and in the colour of our plants and trees. We generally became more mindful about our natural surroundings.

The lockdown has also meant the closure of our holy buildings and a hiatus in public worship. Church services were streamed online, and people of faith had to carry out their worship elsewhere. It has been a time which has seen family worship taking place at home, groups of Christians worshipping outside in open spaces at a safe distance from each other, and the celebration of major religious festivals such as Passover, Easter and Eid taking place in new and different ways. The timing of the 5th anniversary of the encyclical Laudato Si, and a renewed call from Pope Francis for us to listen to the earth and to the poor came during this new and strange time. The impact of Covid-19 was dramatic, and potentially positive on our planet and has been equally potentially devastating amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in our societies. These sudden and different effects on our world and its peoples made the call from both more deafening and, for me, two questions arose.

1) How, as a human race could we continue to ignore the cry of the natural world, and the vulnerable people with whom we are, by virtue of being human, totally connected?  

2) How would people of faith come to terms with having to develop a new way of worshipping and speaking to God when their physical holy buildings were closed to all but a solitary priest preaching to an empty building?

These are questions which resonate beyond a Christian setting, but I feel are ones which are fundamental to the core of Christianity and examine how we look after each other and our planet and how we behave in our communities and speak to God. In terms of spending time with, and speaking to God, I am sure that many, like myself, have been able to develop a deeper relationship with our creator and a greater sense of awe and wonder in the beauty around us. The natural world offers us a powerful connection to God and its appreciation is a way in which we can daily practise awe and wonder. Time spent being mindful of our natural surroundings is time spent with God. He speaks to us through our senses. When we hear the ocean, we hear God. When we touch the grass, we feel God. Pope Francis quotes a letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Laudato Si and reminds us that;

“…nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine.” (LS 85)[3]

 And in fact, Pope Francis was almost prophetic about the effects of the lockdown in Laudato Si when speaking about Christian Spirituality encouraging a:

“contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption…It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.(LS 222)

The Pope calls for an ecological and a community conversion which:

 “entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:3-4). It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.” (LS 220)

Journalists and politicians speak about a ‘new normal’, with no one knowing what this will look like or how our relationships with each other and our planet will change. We don’t know what commitments will be made by governments to protect both our vulnerable people and our vulnerable planet, and if there will be any action following this time of contemplation. There has been a great deal of conversation, but will we see any action?

Another reason that I was pleased to postpone finishing this article was that I was lucky enough to attend a virtual conference on 18th July organised by the National Justice and Peace Network, and to hear the experiences of four people who have been working within communities during this difficult time, listening to the forgotten and often silenced voices. In amongst all the pain and suffering of the pandemic, organisations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, Westminster Cathedral, and Caritas, amongst others, were on the streets feeding and clothing the homeless, caring for refugees, the unemployed and the poor, actively doing Jesus’ work on earth. Whilst others such as CAFOD were striving to support and speak for the poor and vulnerable, being Jesus’s hands in the poorest parts of the globe. We as humans are blessed to have these people but it is not enough. Without the support from governments and organisations globally, and without changes in attitudes from those who exist to self-serve and profit from the destruction of our planet and our communities, there will be no ‘new normal’.

Pope Francis calls on as Christians, as humans, to act now to protect our home and our poor and vulnerable. To understand the urgency of the situation, and therefore to act appropriately, people must first truly understand the connectivity with our planet and our fellow human beings. Laudato Si sets out what it calls ‘Lines of Approach and Action’ in which the Pope highlights the need for dialogue and a global consensus to address the current problems, and, more importantly, to act. At the core of Christianity is the teaching of Jesus for us to love our neighbour and as a starting point we need only to follow these beautiful words of guidance from The Catechism of The Catholic Church;

“God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other” [4]

Our world has felt so much pain and is calling out to us for healing. Maybe the way for us to move forward and begin the process is to live in a more connected way with nature and each other, to share in and deepen our relationship with God, and to heed Pope Francis’ plea to “Foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness”. (LS 220)

(photo credit https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/elegantfigures/2013/04/22/earth-day-and-night/)

[1] https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-06/pope-francis-sends-message-to-colombia-world-environment-day.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-52323416

[3] Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Social Affairs Commission, Pastoral Letter “You Love All that Exists…All Things Are Yours, God, Lover of Life.” (4 October 2003),1.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 340.

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