Last month, University of Georgia student Mark Milby presented a talk at the Catholic Center’s “Soup and Bread” series about how his Catholic faith has shaped his life and about how the teachings of the friars at the center have been so positive that he “will never be the same again.” He mentions David Hyman, OFM, John McDowell, OFM, and Thomas Vigliotta, OFM, director of the Catholic Center, who submitted this reflection to the Communications Office.
This reflection, with its discussion about the environment, is timely as we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.
ATHENS, Ga. — Some years ago, prominent theologian Thomas Berry warned us that we were in the midst of what he called “the greatest change in humankind.” In his plea, he even called readers to put down the Bible and stop focusing solely on Christ and nothing else. Instead, he asked us to take a moment to look around and to listen — to the Earth and to one another — for “the human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will both perish in the desert.”
This is how my Catholic faith has shaped my life, and how — as a young adult about to graduate — my career path.
I entered the University of Georgia as a hopeful young scientist with a religion problem. Although my mother raised me Catholic, I had spent many years at other churches for their teen programs and youth groups, which were decidedly cooler than my own hometown church. These served me well for a while, until college brought me face to face with some tough questions. Why can’t I be a Christian scientist? Why has no one here heard of Christian ecologists?
To make a long story short, fellow Catholic Centerian Michael Cahal dragged me to Mass every Sunday, and I’ll never be the same again. Here are a few things Fathers Jack, Tom, and David have taught me through the Franciscan tradition:
· Caring for one another, especially the poor, is caring for Christ himself.
· Caring for the earth does not imply taking your eyes off God — quite the opposite in fact.
· Loving your enemy actually means loving your enemy.
· While not impossible, it is difficult to stay spiritually connected to the poor and the earth and while having
a lot of money.
· Creation — the world around us and all in it — is God’s first revelation.
· St. Francis is a role model of reflective action.
Hope and Responsibility
Talking about the environment can be depressing. It shouldn’t be, really, but it is. Have you ever been to one of those animal rights festivals or film screenings? I can’t stand them: an hour and a half of animals being tortured and slaughtered and the message at the end is always “write to your legislator” or “donate now.”
I’ve realized the reason those events are so hard for me to attend is because they are completely devoid of hope. Isn’t hope what human beings thrive on? Hope that tomorrow will be better? Hope that you or someone else who made a mistake can and will change? In recent years, this new “environmental movement” has had too little hope attached to it as well.
Facts about the environmental crisis are tough to hear, but when you work or study ecology they are impossible to ignore.
We mistreat the earth. And when I say we, I mean Americans. The United States consumes 25 percent of the world’s energy although it makes up only 5 percent of the population. Every year, one American produces over 3,285 pounds of hazardous waste. Nearly half of America’s rivers and lakes are too polluted even for aquatic life. Within six months, 99 percent of what we purchase today will be in a landfill. Every American child in his or her lifetime will consume more energy than 50 children in India. We, as individuals, contribute more greenhouse gas emissions daily to the atmosphere than entire towns in China or Africa.
In the face of all this bad news, the Catholic Church brings even more to the table. It tells us we have to take responsibility. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI told us that “God entrusted man with the responsibility of creation” and that the Bible never gives us any right to degrade any environment. Rather, the pope said, the destruction of the environment was primarily due to materialism: living in a “materialistic world” where “God is denied” has led to the environment’s current state. “In a world closed in on its materialism,” he said, “It is easier for the human being to make himself the dictator of all other creatures and of nature.”
Faith and the Environment
Recently, in his speech “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “Man’s inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace and to authentic and integral human development — wars, international and regional conflicts, acts of terrorism and violations of human rights. Yet no less troubling are the threats arising from the neglect (and misuse) of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us.”
In his talk, the pope concludes that preservation of “creation … has now become essential for the pacific coexistence of mankind.”
The message I take away from this is that by over-consuming resources, we’re not being good, practicing Christians. This makes sense Biblically since Jesus frequently tells his followers to drop their possessions and hold on to God alone. This also makes sense ecologically since the only way seven billion people can live together on one planet is if we are all mindful of our impact.
It’s a simple, yet hard-to-hear truth: The current American way of life cannot be sustained. We consume more than our share of resources. It’s just not Christ-like that we get so much while billions go hungry, or that later generations get the short end of the stick because we used up the majority of resources.
So, where’s the hope? Well, that’s precisely why I love this stuff. It is inherently hopeful.
We’ve all heard the phrase “going green,” but what does it mean? Many people are tired of it, perhaps from getting hounded by people like me or perhaps because they associate the “eco-friendly” lifestyle with one that is less comfortable, less satisfying or even more guilt-ridden. Fellow Catholic Centerarian Drew Haro downright blew my mind a few weeks ago as we were lamenting the negativity of environmental issues, commenting on how it’s easy to get bogged down in guilt. He said, “But you know, Mark, this stuff really isn’t about guilt. It’s really about believing in a better future and then doing it.”
Drew nailed it on the head. “Going green” is inherently hopeful. It acknowledges that the future can be better and that we have the power as individuals to get us there. It is action-oriented, it is positive, and it is humble. It’s simple — by deciding to act on these issues, you must first acknowledge your own impact, and accept the possibility that you take too much.
As our worldly environmental movement tells us the issues and bogs us down with depressing facts and figures, it’s our Catholic sense of hope and stewardship that lifts us — unmires us from the fog of guilt — and sets us into action. As Catholics, we are already equipped with an environmentalist’s finest tool belt — humility, passion and a loosened grip on worldly things. The Church has been teaching us since birth to let go of worldly possessions and desires, so that by now our “tool kit” should rival that of John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot and Wangari Maathai. St. Francis encountered the pain of the world, and was inspired to pray and act with compassion. We too must encounter ecology, theology and reflective action.
This is why I share my belief in the “green” movement. Buried in it is my career path — my calling, if you will — and being a Catholic has absolutely transformed my frame of mind toward it and the world. In a way, loving Franciscans are the best audience for this sort of stuff. I wouldn’t trade the theological dialogue I’ve had over my years at the Catholic Center for any ecology research experience, because what I’ve done here has helped form the way I’ll tackle these issues for the rest of my life.
I’ll end with my answer to the most common question I get: “Where do I start?” “How do I begin?”
My answer goes like this: In 2007, Pope Benedict said, “Our earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive.” Please reflect on that this Lenten season. Begin living a more simple life, one where you share the goods of Creation more equitably, by first listening. Take note of your impact, of how much water or energy you use or trash you produce. Listen intently to the world, humbly reflect, and take action.
Try concluding a listening practice with St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun. While you hear it, I encourage you to contemplate how Francis might have had to listen intently to his world in order to feel and pray.
— Mark Milby, a senior at the Odum School of Ecology who hopes to do advocacy work after graduation from University of Georgia, is a recipient of the Udall Scholarship, a distinguished environmental honor, according to Thomas Vigliotta.
Editor’s note: Reflections from other partners-in-ministry about Franciscan values are welcomed by the HNP Communications Office. Questions and submissions should be e-mailed to Jocelyn Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.