Earth Day 2008 and Franciscan Peacemaking

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM Features

The annual Earth Day celebration of the United States, this year commemorated April 22, has special significance for the Province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate.  Below is an Earth Day reflection by a JPIC Directorate member. Information about how Holy Name’s ministries observed Earth Day will appear in a future issue of this newsletter. Information about how the JPIC Directorate works to draw awareness to its initiatives including caring for the earth will soon be available on the Province’s Web site.

Last Sunday morning, I stopped by to listen in on a post-confirmation youth faith formation class.  A young man, about 17 years old, raised his hand and stood up, his face registering both a deep concern and passion.  “I know it takes an unbelievable amount of oil to produce all the water bottles that we Americans use.  It’s like you could keep more than 1 million cars on a road for a year,” the young man said.  A girl next to him nodded, adding that this was very bad for the oceans and rainforest.

That class, given by a member of the Environmental Stewardship committee of our parish — a week before the Earth Day — focused on the connection between the Christian faith we profess and the daily choices we make in regard to food, water and energy consumption.  I was surprised and impressed by the level of conversation in that group.   Several young men and women knew that biofuels, which had been promoted as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, turned out to have disastrous consequences on the rainforest, the global climate, and also to on the world’s poor.

The youth was not only talking about the environmental issue; at the end of the class they were making commitments.  A 16-year-old girl said, “I used to eat a lot at take-out restaurants before I knew that the Styrofoam containers never decompose and that much of the meat is from factory farms, with the rainforest being destroyed to grow the food for cattle.”

As I listened to these young people, I realized that we, as friars, have a lot to learn from them.  Though most of us find it easy to speak about the Franciscan view of creation, we are not very keen on expressing those insights through concrete actions.  All too often, in our personal and communal lives, all creatures of our God and King that we sing about become distant abstractions.  We are hesitant — or simply too busy — to get entangled in details of the web of life.

But St. Francis — like the young people in that post-confirmation class — would move away from these abstractions and instead focus his attention on the specific details of God’s creation.   Such a strong preference has later found its expression in Duns Scotus’ notion of haecceitas — “thisness.”

How can we as friars help bridge a gap between this insight that come sto us from the Franciscan intellectual tradition and our everyday lived experience?  Perhaps, it could be as simple as inquiring about where does an apple, coffee or beef that you and I consume come from.  For example, I recently found out that an apple grown in Washington and eaten in N.C. is typically shipped 3,000 miles and uses up to two cups of gasoline to get to a store in Durham.  So, whether I purchase an apple from Washington, New Zealand or one grown locally is not inconsequential.  Likewise, we can ask about an impact of our consumption of water in plastic bottles — most of which end up polluting the air and the oceans for up to 1,000 years?   As members of a religious community, we have a unique opportunity to influence minds, hearts and daily habits of dozens of thousands of people through our words and actions.  For this reason, I say that our Franciscan attentiveness to God’s creation and to its broader context could have a far-reaching ripple effect; that is, if we choose to do so.

Despite some daunting environmental challenges that we face, I am, nevertheless full of hope.  I constantly remind myself that hope is God’s gift that I can either accept or reject.  Once I accept it — and I have to continue do that on a regular basis — then I go looking for signs of hope around me.  Allow me to highlight a few of those.

Examples of Hope
First, over the past two years, I’ve had an opportunity to collaborate with a lay person from my parish in designing and facilitating eight adult faith formation sessions seminar bringing into focus the environmental issues in light of Christian faith and a Franciscan view of creation.   In addition to this being a transformative experience of ecological conversion for me, it has also attracted 30 people to take and complete the seminar — a large percentage of them young adults previously not involved in the Church.  Several of them are now helping to organize the first eco-fair at my parish.  I’ve been also encouraged by the fact that the message of the faithful stewardship of God’s Earth is being well received by the Latino community of the Church where I minister, especially by the youth.  Last month, two Latina teenagers took part in the eco track at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C.  They, along with their friends are now taking responsibility for the Latino part of the eco-fair.  Next month, a group of 10 Latino youth will be putting together with me a presentation on faith and environmental stewardship for a diocesan gathering that is expected to draw about 700 Latino youth from different parishes in June of this year.

The second sign of hope I see has to do with the fact that we as a Province through the Visioning and Planning process are considering reaching out to young adults, and developing strategies to effectively embark on peacemaking efforts.  The mounting evidence indicates that there can be no just and lasting peace within the human family without simultaneously working for peace between us and the rest of the planet.   It was clear to me that the young people from the post-confirmation class at my parish knew that.  So many young people are searching to integrate their busy lives and to be accompanied in that process by credible witnesses to the Gospel — the Good News that extends holistically to all of God’s creation.  In addition, I perceive that this process of responding to the one of the major signs of the times of today and of carving out our ecological niche in our diversity of ministries, might further enrich and animate our fraternal life — not to mention attracting future vocations.

The third and final sign of hope that stands out in a rather dismal future horizon is that the Franciscan Family around the world is beginning to listen to the groaning of God’s Earth and respond.  Just to give one example:  Last February,as a representative of the Province’s  JPIC Directorate, I participated in the meeting of about 30 friars from Brazilian and Bolivarian Conferences that met in Manaus.  (I represented our JPIC Directorate).  The purpose of this gathering was to develop a draft of the proposal for the Amazon Project that our Order is preparing to launch next year at the anniversary of the 800 years of our founding.  The impulse for that initiative came as a result of the consensus that had emerged at the large gathering of the members of the Franciscans family from North, Central and South America (several of our friars took part in that conference in Chile this past January.)  Likewise, the recently-formed Franciscan Action Network (FAN) with its over 40-member entities has made a decision to focus in a particular way on peacemaking actions around the issues of eco-justice.  Our Franciscan brothers from the underdeveloped world are counting on FAN to be an instrument through which the cry of the poor and the groaning of the Earth would find a response in a form of a well-coordinated action.

Spiritual Crisis
As you and I become more familiar with the global climate change, deforestation, air and ocean pollution and other threats to the life-support system of our planet, let’s keep clearly in mind that ecological crisis will not be resolved by just technological fixes.  The present ecological crisis, as John Paul II once said, is a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis that  must be addressed by challenging the hierarchy of many values in our society and its dominant worldview.

In her keynote address at 2004 Globalization Assembly, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Ingham, CSJ, stated that we, as Franciscans, ought to play a key role in the process of bringing to birth this new vision.  The rich heritage of the Franciscan intellectual Tradition, our diverse ministries, and our institutional infrastructure enable us to offer a significant contribution in opening up of new possibilities and shaping a much better world. The last words in Sr. Mary Elizabeth’s keynote address were, “…the third millennium may well be known as Franciscan millennium.”  The young people of my parish give me a reason to believe that this indeed might be the case.  Will we follow their lead?

—  Fr. Jacek ministers at the Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, N.C.