Why Introduce Works of Mercy About the Environment?

This past week, Pope Francis introduced two new works of mercy, both of which pertain to care for our common home. The spiritual work of mercy introduced is to practice grateful contemplation of the world God created, discovering in creation a truth God seeks to express to us. The corporal work of mercy is rooted in small gestures to build a better world, breaking the cycles of violence, exploitation, and selfishness. Both of these works of mercy call us to care for our common home and thank God for the gift of our good earth. (Messaggio del Santo Padre Francesco per la Celebrazione della Giornata mondiale di preghiera per la cura del creato, 01.09.2016)

This addition of works of mercy by Pope Francis raises some logical questions: Why did he do this? and What does this mean for the Church? For starters, it is important for us to reflect upon why Popes make these kind of changes in the first place. When a Pope adds something to the moral or spiritual life of the Church, he isn't necessarily creating something new. Rather, Popes often point to something our faith has always believed, but never formally expressed as a teaching or practice.

For example, when St. John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary, he did not do this as an act of creating something completely foreign to the nature of the Rosary. Rather, he recognized that, through this devotion that meditates upon the life of Christ, there were key moments of Jesus' life and ministry that were absent. As Christians, all of us are called to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, St. John Paul II wasn't really changing the Rosary, but rather deepening it through calling us to include in this meditation time to reflect upon the baptism of the Lord, the wedding at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, the transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. All of these mysteries are already well known to Christians. However, St. John Paul II gave them special emphasis through including them formally into the Rosary.

I (St. John Paul II) believe... that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ's public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion. In the course of those mysteries we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light:“While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5). (St. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. 19)

Another example of a Pope who supposedly created something new in the life of the Church was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. To those who were not familiar with the academic writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, his first Papal calls for ecological justice and making Vatican City the first zero carbon-footprint nation was a shock. To those who were familiar with his writings, one could hear the faint echoes of his early works on Sacramental Theology and his deep love for Eastern Christianity. Many attributed the idea of a "10 Commandments of the Environment" to Benedict XVI, however he never put his thought into such a list. This presumption comes primarily from the popular book titled, Ten Commandments for the Environment: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks Out for Creation and Justice, in which Woodeene Koenig-Bricker arranges the Pope's writings on the environment into ten themes or "commandments." These themes are based on a speech given in 2005 by then secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, entitled "Ethics and the Environment." In this speech, Bishop Crepaldi lays out  "ten commandments" for the environment. Below is a summary of those themes from a ZENIT article from November 12, 2005.

1) The Bible lays out the fundamental moral principles of how to affront the ecological question. The human person, made in God’s image, is superior to all other earthly creatures, which should in turn be used responsibly. Christ’s incarnation and his teachings testify to the value of nature: Nothing that exists in this world is outside the divine plan of creation and redemption.

2) The social teaching of the Church recalls two fundamental points. We should not reduce nature to a mere instrument to be manipulated and exploited. Nor should we make nature an absolute value, or put it above the dignity of the human person.

3) The question of the environment entails the whole planet, as it is a collective good. Our responsibility toward ecology extends to future generations.

4) It is necessary to confirm both the primacy of ethics and the rights of man over technology, thus preserving human dignity. The central point of reference for all scientific and technical applications must be respect for the human person, who in turn should treat the other created beings with respect.

5) Nature must not be regarded as a reality that is divine in itself; therefore, it is not removed from human action. It is, rather, a gift offered by our Creator to the human community, confided to human intelligence and moral responsibility. It follows, then, that it is not illicit to modify the ecosystem, so long as this is done within the context of a respect for its order and beauty, and taking into consideration the utility of every creature.

6) Ecological questions highlight the need to achieve a greater harmony both between measures designed to foment economic development and those directed to preserving the ecology, and between national and international policies. Economic development, moreover, needs to take into consideration the integrity and rhythm of nature, because natural resources are limited. And all economic activity that uses natural resources should also include the costs of safeguarding the environment into the calculations of the overall costs of its activity.

7) Concern for the environment means that we should actively work for the integral development of the poorest regions. The goods of this world have been created by God to be wisely used by all. These goods should be shared, in a just and charitable manner. The principle of the universal destiny of goods offers a fundamental orientation to deal with the complex relationship between ecology and poverty.

8) Collaboration, by means of worldwide agreements, backed up by international law, is necessary to protect the environment. Responsibility toward the environment needs to be implemented in an adequate way at the juridical level. These laws and agreements should be guided by the demands of the common good.

9) Lifestyles should be oriented according to the principles of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline, both at the personal and social levels. People need to escape from the consumer mentality and promote methods of production that respect the created order, as well as satisfying the basic needs of all. This change of lifestyle would be helped by a greater awareness of the interdependence between all the inhabitants of the earth.

10) A spiritual response must be given to environmental questions, inspired by the conviction that creation is a gift that God has placed in the hands of mankind, to be used responsibly and with loving care. People’s fundamental orientation toward the created world should be one of gratitude and thankfulness. The world, in fact, leads people back to the mystery of God who has created it and continues to sustain it. If God is forgotten, nature is emptied of its deepest meaning and left impoverished. (A Christian View of Man and Nature: Ten Commandments for the Environment, Written by Staff. ZENIT.ORG November 12, 2005)

Though Benedict XVI did not add "new commandments," it is clear when reading his writings on our common home that care for creation is a moral imperative. Benedict XVI often refers to how respect for human dignity demands a respect for the environment, creating a sense of Human Ecology, in which a stable ecology is foundational for building human dignity and a world of peace.

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. (Pope Emertis Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate. 51)

The view from atop Kitt Peak.

The view from atop Kitt Peak.

This call for a Human Ecology is key to understanding Pope Francis' new works of mercy. The traditional works of mercy derived from Scripture emphasize some of the most crucial teachings of Jesus. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we are presented with an image of the final judgement. Starting in verse thirty-one, Jesus is separating the sheep (those found worthy of eternal glory) from the goats (those who face eternal judgement). The key distinction between the judgement levied to the sheep and goats are a series of works of mercy.

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' (Matthew 25:34-36)

This and other passages from Scripture point to the Biblical framework that led to the formal list of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Corporal Works of Mercy                                                              Spiritual Works of Mercy

Feed the hungry                                                                             Instruct the ignorant
Give drink to the thirsrty                                                               Counsel the doubtful
Shelter the homeless                                                                      Admonish the sinner
Clothe the naked                                                                            Bear wrongs patiently
Visit the sick and imprisoned                                                        Forgive offenses willingly
Bury the dead                                                                                Comfort the afflicted
Give alms to the poor                                                                    Pray for the living and the dead

When looking at Pope Francis' new works of mercy, I can't help but notice that, in order for many of the traditional works of mercy to be accomplished, we must first ensure the foundational material necessary to accomplish these works: A stable environment.

How can we feed the hungry if our lands cannot produce food? How can we give drink to the thirsty when our water is undrinkable? How can we instruct the ignorant when the basic instinct to survive in a baron wasteland makes education impossible? How are we to bear wrongs patiently when a lack of the necessary resources to survive creates an understandable panic and fear that tomorrow many never come?

I am blessed to live in circumstances in which these questions are speculations and not reality. However, how much of the world already lives in this reality? How much of this world is in an ecological crisis? And what will be our response, even if it is in the simplest of ways?

In light of this, I find the theology of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis' introduction of new works of mercy as working hand-in-hand in a way similar to how St. John Paul II expanded the Rosary. What we find in these "new" works of mercy is nothing new at all. However, the works of mercy are self-evident truths that we have always known, but need to give special attention to in light of our current ecological crisis.

With this Message, I (Pope Francis) renew my dialogue with “every person living on this planet” (Laudato Si’, 3) about the sufferings of the poor and the devastation of the environment. God gave us a bountiful garden, but we have turned it into a polluted wasteland of “debris, desolation and filth” (ibid., 161). We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behaviour. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (ibid., 33).

Global warming continues, due in part to human activity: 2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still. This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather events. Climate change is also contributing to the heart-rending refugee crisis. The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.

As an integral ecology emphasizes, human beings are deeply connected with all of creation. When we mistreat nature, we also mistreat human beings. At the same time, each creature has its own intrinsic value that must be respected. Let us hear “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, 49), and do our best to ensure an appropriate and timely response. (Messagio del Santo Padre Francesco per... September 1, 2016)

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has struggled with the question of how to advance society without destroying the natural resources of our common home. Pope Francis' new works of mercy should provide a sobering moment of reflection, making us realize that what we once presumed as part of our faith, care for our common home, is now getting lost amid environmental exploitation and ramped consumerism. Put another way, Popes only establish new norms and practices when it is absolutely necessary. Pope Francis' establishment of care of our common home as new works of mercy shows us that our current ecological crisis has come to the point that we need to be reminded of our moral duty toward the environment.

Spiritual Exercise: How will you exercise these new works of mercy in your daily life? Pray with this question, and, together, may we allow the Lord to stir in us an ecological conversion of heart. And let us remember that this conversion is not only called for by current and past Popes, but by the God who loves all things into existence as gift and calls us to be good stewards of creation.

Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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