At the beginning of Advent, Pope Francis called for a Year of Mercy. As part of this year of focusing on the mercifulness of God, all people were invited to give special emphasis to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which are (Corporal) feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead, give alms to the poor, (Spiritual) counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the sorrowful, forgive injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and the dead. One of the central Biblical images of the Corporal Works of Mercy is found in the Gospel of Matthew. In this passage, Matthew presents a scene of final judgement in which those judged worthy of eternal glory are those who perform basic works of mercy and love.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
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.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25: 31-45)
One of the Works of Mercy that has been a personal interest of mine over the years is the issue giving drink to the thirsty. Living in a part of the United States in which drinking water is clean and in abundance, it is easy to forget the struggles many face to fulfill this most basic human need. As of late, the question of clean drinking water has met our county in light of a deteriorating infrastructure that has led to unusable water in places like Flint, Michigan. On the international scene, many are aware of the desperate conditions that exist in places like Darfur where the morning routine includes a four mile walk to get clean water for the day. These struggles have inspired many to work tirelessly to provide clean water to those in need. Whether it be the efforts of Catholic Charities to help the people of Flint, Michigan obtain clean drinking water or the efforts of Catholic Relief Services and the WASH program to bring clean water and sanitation to sub-Saharan Africa, I am proud to be part of a Church that so readily involves herself in embracing the commitment called for by Christ to give drink to the thirsty.
This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with astronomy? As you will learn in one of the videos below, a major difficulty with a water crisis is that it often forces us into a "reactionary" position in contrast to a "proactive" position. All too often, the full breadth of the crisis isn't fully understood until tragedy strikes by way of animal or human illness (or worse). In light of these challenges, we need to find ways to get ahead of these ecological problems. Pope Francis called for this type of approach in his Encyclical, Laudato Si'.
Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it. The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues; this teaching is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges. (Laudato Si'. 63)
This call for all people of good will to employ every tool available to address our ecological crisis is where astronomy enters the scene. I have written on this subject in the past, but NASA has a number of projects that are monitoring water, soil moisture, and drought conditions. Through these scientific research programs, we can get a better understanding of what is happening to water levels globally and help avoid crisis situations that are within our control. Below are a couple of videos explaining how NASA is studying our water.
NASA HICO Program
NASA GMP Program
One of the themes I constantly seek to weave into my posts for The Catholic Astronomer is how faith and science can work together as dialogue partners. When it comes to giving drink to the thirsty, the two fields can do far more than mere dialogue. The best of our humanitarian efforts along with the best of astronomy can work hand in hand to ensure one of the most basic needs of humanity: water. In this Year of Mercy, may we seek new, exciting pathways to bring together not only faith and science, but all disciplines, addressing the basic needs of life so we can focus more on exploring who we are as a people and work toward improving human dignity throughout the world. And may we see in the act of giving drink to the thirsty both a scientific exploration and a moral mandate to love our neighbor through this simplest of gifts.