Earth Day Reflections on Environment and Pandemic

Stephen Mangione & Jocelyn Thomas Features

Hundreds of scheduled festivities in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were canceled throughout the world due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which ironically has cast the spotlight on another global emergency that’s been threatening the environment: the climate crisis.

This year’s Earth Day, celebrated annually on April 22, was supposed to be special – marking half a century since millions of Americans mobilized for the protection of the planet on that same day in 1970, effectively launching the environmental awareness movement. But the pandemic forced the cancellation of events, from Florida to California.

Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak, Pope Francis – who has become one of the most outspoken pontiffs on the need to protect the environment – likened the pandemic to recent wildfires and floods, as perhaps one of nature’s responses to the world’s indifference to climate change and the ecological crisis.

Pope Francis has called this global health crisis an opportunity for ecological conversion and a reassessment of priorities and lifestyles. This is not the first time the pontiff has focused on the environment. His encyclical, Laudato Si’ — which the Franciscans welcomed in 2015 — addresses the deteriorating relationship between humankind and nature, and his Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon synod warns against the crimes and injustice of national and international economic interests that threaten to destroy millions of people, cultures, rainforests and the environment.

Recently, friars and partners-in-ministry around the Province shared their thoughts on the pope’s comments about the pandemic and global ecological crisis. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, they also shared their concerns about the environment, climate change, and humankind’s treatment of the earth.

Tom Gallagher, OFM – Hartford, Connecticut
Tom is a member of the Provincial Council and is pastor of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.

Pope Francis links the fires in Australia, the melting of the glaciers, and the current coronavirus pandemic to nature’s response to climate change. It is a point that he clearly raises in Laudato Sí. His vision is one of an integral creation. We are all part of the great organism that constitutes our environment. Pope Francis has often called us to mutual care for each other, for the earth, the water, and for the air we breathe. He challenges our myopic vision of ourselves as above the rest of creation, or as manipulators of creation, that causes a breakdown in the very system we depend on for life. The hierarchical model of ourselves over creation and of one group of people as more significant than another fractures the integral relationship that enlivens all of us. The point that I see is a call to conversion of heart and way of life that engages us with the care for creation, for the least ones, as a way of caring for ourselves.

I am amazed at the stories and images that reveal the return of beauty to our world. The skies are clearer in many places of the world, the animals are roaming freely in the National Parks, and the beauty of spring abounds. In Hartford, it is much quieter than normal. We can hear the birds singing and bells from other churches pealing. But a concern for me is the plight of the homeless and the people who live on the margins. With physical distancing, shelters are more limited and soup kitchens are not able to keep up with the needs presented.

As I write, I can see and hear the rain and the hail. In the middle of this storm, people will come to our door for sandwiches, socks, and rain gear. People have been generous in their response to the needs of our sisters and brothers, but the needs are overwhelming because of the pandemic. This is the social area of concern that Pope Francis constantly notes. He challenges us to care for all of creation with a special love for the least ones.

Gary Burton, OFS – Triangle, Virginia
Gary is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Virginia, and is a member of HNP Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Directorate.

I agree with Pope Francis regarding the melting of glaciers and the fires in Australia – signs that nature is warning humankind that we must change our behavior and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the root cause of global warming. However, more data and information need to be collected, analyzed, and evaluated in order to draw conclusions and a determination of the true origin and root cause of the coronavirus. Only time will tell whether it was an unintentionally released manmade biological agent, as recent reports suggest.

I am most concerned about the principle of inter-generational solidarity, which Pope Francis promoted in Laudato Si’. The current generation is not showing enough responsibility to ensure that future generations don’t inherit a depleted and contaminated earth unable to sustain life. All countries must act now to repair the continuing damage that’s been done. And maybe, just maybe, the goodness that will come from the destruction of this pandemic will be that all societies learn how to work across geopolitical boundaries to solve a problem that affects all of humankind. I pray for this and for all of the victims of the coronavirus.

Ignatius Harding OFM – Triangle, Virginia
Stationed at St. Francis of Assisi in Triangle, Virginia, since summer 2017, Ignatius served in Bolivia for 45 years. His many years of living outside of the United States have given him a deep appreciation and understanding of an intercultural world vision.

In this 5th anniversary of his encyclical, Laudato Si’, we are reminded how Pope Francis has been so in-touch with reality and the spirituality of the Gospel – how he sees the connection so clearly between the common destiny of all peoples and creatures, and the universe as a gift from God that must be cared for by everyone. I agree that the coronavirus could be rooted in our ecological problems. When I was a missioner in Bolivia, we used to visit communities on the other side of the Andes – climbing to the top of the snow-capped mountains where the White Water River originated. They called it White Water for a reason – the water was pristine. But the further we descended to the other side, when we would get to the mining towns, the river was filled with trash, logs, and oil slicks. I remember it being a harrowing sight, because two days before at the peak the water was so beautiful and clear, that you could see the trout swimming. It is heartbreaking what we are doing to the environment in places like that.

Pope Francis is challenging us to change our own lives. We are one human family – what happens in one place touches another. I try and bring these beautiful words into my own heart, and it’s also my hope that we as the Franciscan fraternity can live these words. We are not only the messengers, but, as Franciscans, we should be living them. Our fraternity in Chicago has evaluated its carbon footprint – where the food they eat is produced, how much energy they use, where their clothes come from. These are the things we all have to examine, personally and as a fraternity. Sometimes we don’t realize that we are contributing to ecological problems. This pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on how we are affecting our environment, whether our lifestyle is contributing to the goodness of nature or destroying it.

Maryann Crea – Durham, North Carolina
Maryann is a minister for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham and is a member of the Province’s  JPIC Directorate.

It seems that Pope Francis was saying that because of our focus on the coronavirus, we have taken our eyes off the persistent and predominant ravages of climate change. The pandemic has uncovered the pathetic condition of our social structures, which are meant to support and serve the common good, but instead serve the wealthiest and most powerful interests, rather than the most vulnerable in our society. Look at the failures of our health care system, homeless sleeping in the streets, overflowing prisons and detention centers, economic disparities, lack of funding for education, and the perennial attempts to limit and suppress voting, remove government oversight, and dilute constitutional rights.

I am concerned about carbon emissions from coal-burning energy plants, transportation, and fracking because they are warming oceans and destroying sea life and coral reefs. Permafrost is melting, ancient pathogens are being released into the atmosphere, and we are seeing more superstorms and a rise in sea level. I have become more aware of my own use of plastic and other pollutants, energy consumption, water conservation, and the use of chemical cleaning products. The pandemic can teach us much about care for creation – for starters, the reduction in auto traffic has reduced air pollution. I am hopeful that everyone sees the brokenness of our economic and political systems, and that it’s not so hard for us to cut back. Perhaps we will realize that it’s possible to sacrifice so that those on the margins can simply survive. As we learn that consumption is not the goal of life, we can see more clearly that change is possible and, most of all, that we can preserve the planet for our children and grandchildren.

Joe Nangle, OFM – Washington D.C.
Joe is a past missioner in Bolivia and Peru and co-director of Franciscan Mission Service. He is currently engaged in social justice issues as a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., and ministers to the Hispanic community of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Virginia.

Pope Francis has been leading the way on the need to protect the environment and care for creation. He provides a vision for the new world and what’s to come if we don’t act now. His longtime concern about the exploitation of the Amazon and its critical importance to the global ecosystem is significant to what he is saying now about our need to respond to these warning signs of climate change and pandemic. He is setting a very positive agenda even during this global crisis. In his daily sermons during this Easter season, Pope Francis is saying that just as Easter and the Resurrection means a new day in human history, so too does this pandemic.

The greatest challenge for humanity around the world and in the United States is to follow the Pope’s lead in making this a new day. My greatest fear is that when we get over this pandemic, our country will go back to business as usual – America first, closing our borders, and engaging in the things that contribute to global warming. Pope Francis is asking for globalization because humanity is one family. What happens in the Amazon, or Africa and the U.S., affects the whole earth. Closing ourselves off and returning to business as usual not only has bad environmental implications, but it will harm populations in underdeveloped countries that don’t have the resources to get through pandemics and other catastrophic natural disasters.

Fran D’Amico – Meriden, Connecticut
A member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish’s Committee for Social Justice, Fran is an avid birder and dog-lover.

The world’s population is facing two crises – COVID-19, and another that has been around a lot longer, climate change. I am not sure I agree that coronavirus was brought about by climate change. But it is clear that both are compounded by divisions of socioeconomic status and skin color, and that if we do not address all of these issues, the entire human race will pay the price.

Nature is a mirror that reflects the consequences of our refusal to work together to protect our earth and global society. We need to recognize this and unite in our humanity. We must reconsider how we treat each other – and we must realize that if we can work together instead of just for ourselves, we can heal our earth and each other. Mars is not the answer. Like a shirt that I still have from a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert says, “The answer is still peace, justice, and equality and all of us working for these things together.”

Gene Pistacchio, OFM – Boston, Massachusetts
As Provincial Spiritual Assistant for the Secular Franciscans, Gene collaborates with regional spiritual assistants in the Secular Franciscan community from Massachusetts to Florida. Since September 2011, he has served in the Franciscan spiritual companionship ministry at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston.

I believe that nature, in some way, is reacting to the current ecological deterioration that we witness daily. With the depletion of our natural resources, we are in need of the “new enlightenment” and “ecological conversion” that Pope Francis professes. Whether this pandemic is a direct consequence of climate change remains to be seen, although it does challenge a reassessment of the priorities and lifestyles of humanity. It will have long-lasting consequences on our work choices, lifestyles, and core values. Whichever values we choose as individual nations and as a global entity, we must recognize that everything and everyone is intricately related. It reminds me of St. Paul (Romans 8:19), who considers the created world to be intricately linked to each other’s destiny. Racial, religious, political, and economic realities need not blind us to one another, but rather serve as enlightenment for a unified global community oriented around the needs of people and planet. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, recognizes that our present individualism, greed, and consumerism lead us to “unsustainability.” He calls on the human community to deeply respect Mother Earth as our natural home. Our earth will take care of us if we nurture her with creativity, humility and gentleness in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Perhaps this pandemic is providing a glimpse of what a restored globe can look like by witnessing the sudden unexpected drop in carbon emissions, smog, and water pollution. It becomes obvious to me that nature will do her part, but will we do ours?

What concerns me most about our climate and environment is its lack of sustainability if humanity does not change the way we live on this planet. Scientists around the world have given us a window of opportunity to re-orient our way of fueling our economy. It is very distressing to witness governments, particularly our own, not taking our scientists seriously at a very crucial time when change can bring us abundant hope for our survival. At our own peril, we are failing to protect our children’s children by our slowness to respond intelligently to the crisis already occurring. Our most vulnerable populations are already experiencing vast flooding, mudslides, volcanoes, hurricanes, fires, and droughts – all of which are causing unprecedented migration, immigration issues, depleted food sources, and destruction of homes and shelters. Poor and marginalized populations around the world are the first to experience these devastating consequences of a violently changing climate that ultimately threatens the peaceful sustainability of life on our beautiful blue planet!

Marie Dennis, OFS – Washington, D.C.
Marie is a Secular Franciscan, member of HNP’s JPIC Directorate, and senior advisor for Pax Christi International. She has lived in the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., since 1987.

Pope Francis speaks about the pandemic as a moment for conversion and a time when the world community can see in new ways the tremendous threats facing all of humanity and our common home. These global threats of climate change, contagions, and loss of species and habitat create deep insecurities. I just hope we are listening carefully to the pope’s challenge – and to scientists who believe this pandemic to be a warning, and that more deadly infectious diseases exist in wildlife. COVID-19 has upended communities around the world, threatening lives and livelihoods, exposing the deep injustice and violence that leave too many people, communities, and countries vastly more vulnerable than others.

My concern is that further outbreaks, global warming, and the destruction of the natural world will continue if we persist with things like mining, military exercises, war, and other activities that drain resources and have a tremendously negative impact on the physical environment. Responding to the pandemic, both short- and long-term, requires a fundamental shift from the unjust systems that destroy, dehumanize, and diminish, to a culture that seeks the fullness of life for all. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis highlights the need for new convictions and attitudes: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.”

Patrick Tuttle, OFM – Greenville, South Carolina
Patrick has been stationed at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Greenville since 2005, and has been serving as pastor since 2007.

I believe Pope Francis to be a comprehensive thinker and a God-send, calling us to duty, that is, freedom only exercised with a concomitant responsibility. I also believe Pope Francis to be the real deal. He does what he preaches. Dr. Martin Luther King said he did not fear the tyranny of the minority, but rather the apathy of the majority. We have enjoyed unusually clear skies and a quiet and intentionality that we did not have before the pandemic stay-at-home order.

I am concerned with all of the very clear effects we are seeing from the temperature of the earth and its waters becoming too warm. We recently had a rash of tornados that spun up from the Gulf of Mexico, which had the warmest waters on record last week. Nine people dying one town away from Greenville might seem small to some, but the storm did similar damage with the tragic loss of human life – and billions of dollars in property loss – from Louisiana to Connecticut. But I suppose a small, white minority in leadership believe wars and storms are very good for the economy. Massive regulation relief and relaxation under the current administration is doing much harm to the environment.

Russ Testa – Silver Spring, Maryland
Russ is the director of the HNP Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Silver Spring.

Pope Francis reminds us of the relational nature of all creation that is part of our Catholic moral tradition and central to our Franciscan sensibilities. What inspires me is that he always elevates those persons and parts of creation that are most marginalized. But it’s not just his words, it’s also his actions and symbols – like the image of the Holy Father walking in the rain through an empty St. Peter’s Square for the March 27 Urbi et Orbi blessing, and this year’s Good Friday Stations of the Cross, with the Cross carried by medical and prison personnel and whose reflections were written by persons in prison. These actions showed faith far more than words. Pope Francis unlocks, and invites us to unlock, the spiritual creativity in all of creation.

I am struck by a report that says we will have a reduction this year of perhaps 5 to 7 percent of greenhouse gases. To keep the rise of the average global climate temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs this same reduction in greenhouse gases every year until 2030. This shows us just how much work we need to do. The near-total collapse of the economy caused by the pandemic is what will get us to this projected reduction in 2020, but it is obviously not a viable strategy. We have to see this as a push to make viable changes in our public policies and lives. If we want to keep the climate crisis from overwhelming creation as COVID-19 has, we cannot return to the same “normal” that existed before the pandemic. 

 – Compiled by Jocelyn Thomas and Stephen Mangione

Editor’s note: Information about events commemorating Earth Day 2020 can be found on the Earth Day 2020 website.