Ask the deeper questions about what matters and who matters, says Pope Francis

The future of the world matters and those most at risk.  Help people be seen – faces of people with their own distinctive lives, gifts and longings, not faceless audiences, categories and objects.

La Croix, Sept 2019

The Catholic Week for the Environment draws together movements that are not always seen as natural mates: the environmental movement and the Catholic Church. This week both are preaching the same message.

They share, too, the same challenge: to persuade people to take their message sufficiently seriously that they will demand and secure change. Both have a strong message about the crisis facing the world through global warming.

The message, however, is not accepted urgently and broadly enough to lead to decisive action.

Churches have from their beginning struggled to communicate their message about salvation effectively to hearers weary of it. Their experience may also be pertinent to the challenges of addressing the environmental crisis.

The approach of Pope Francis is of particular interest. He has insisted that the urgent need to care for the natural world of which we are part is not a disputed question but a Christian duty. He has appealed to the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, whose name he took when he became Pope.

That link with a saint of the 13th century is worth pondering.

Francis of Assisi is popularly known best for his love of nature. It is embodied in early stories of his preaching to birds and winning over wild animals, and in the Canticle to the Sun in which delight in the beauty of the natural world is linked to his Christian faith.

His ecstatic wonder at the created world, however, was part of a broader and sharper-edged spiritual vision, expressed in his call to follow Jesus in a life of radical poverty.

It led him to gather followers who shared his vision. They lived and travelled without possessions among ordinary people and so by their lifestyle commended the faith by which they lived. They spread their message primarily by a dedicated and radical communal life and only then through words.

Many Church authorities of the time saw Francis as no more than a romantic and potentially anarchic force.

But Innocent III, the hard nut Pope of the time, saw in his movement possibilities of reaching the often disaffected rural poor whom the ordinary structures of the church failed to touch.

The Gospel came alive when it was the Gospel for the poor and embodied in a way of living and acting.

Pope Francis has certainly embodied respect for the environment and respect for people who endure great poverty. He lives simply and reaches out to people who are poor and disadvantaged, including people who seek protection, are imprisoned, suffer from mental and physical illness, and are in great poverty.

He insists that these are the first people to be affected by climate change. His advocacy is centrally though symbolic gestures that draw their power from his authenticity.

Reaching out to accompany people who are disadvantaged

This Franciscan style is certainly pertinent to the challenges facing the Catholic Church today and perhaps also to environmental movements.

One of the questions for discussion in the Plenary Council asks how God is calling Catholics to be a Christ-centred Church in Australia that is missionary and evangelising. Or, in simpler terms, how to share the faith they own.

The danger both in the Catholic Church and in environmental movements is that, in considering the communication of their message, they will ask only ‘how’ questions, without asking the deeper questions about what matters and who matters.

They will then focus on the training of communicators, technologies of communication, distribution of resources and assessment of institutional priorities.

The people with whom they try to communicate will then be seen, not as faces of people with their own distinctive lives, gifts and longings, but as faceless audiences, categories and objects.

The alternative way, that of the two Francises, is to focus on the people who matter and to go out to them empty-handed as fellow human beings who matter and to trust that the unspoken power of one’s message will communicate itself through the joy it gives us.

In the Catholic Church that means reaching out to accompany people who are disrespected, disadvantaged and despised — people who seek protection, suffer from mental illness, are imprisoned and are unemployed, for example.

These are the people to whom Jesus came and must be the Church’s people too if preaching and teaching are to have any credibility.

This may have some pertinence for the environmental movement, too.

When asking how to persuade people of the message they might first return to ask what matters and who matters. The answer is surely that the future of the world matters, and that all human beings matter, particularly the poorest who are the most at risk. The task will be to go out to accompany them so that their voice is heard.

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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