Francis: The Patron of More Than Just Birds

This evening, the friars in my house celebrated the 35th anniversary of St. Francis being named the Patron of Ecology. As head of the JPIC committee in the house, I had the privilege of preaching at mass based on Gen 2:4-25, Ps. 104:27-30, and Jn 1:1-5. For more information or other reflections, you can go the the Franciscan’s website, francis35.org.

Thirty five years (and six days) ago, John Paul II proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron saint of Ecology with these words:

Among the holy and admirable men who have revered nature as a wonderful gift of God to the human race, St Francis of Assisi deserves special consideration.  For he, in a special way, deeply sensed the universal works of the Creator and, filled with a certain divine spirit, sang that very beautiful “Canticle of the Creatures”.

It is a great honor that we as Franciscans are able to celebrate today such an example, to be inspired by his life and to imitate his joy and reverence towards God’s creation.

It is also a time for clarity, for us and for the world, as to what Francis actually said and did. As we know, Francis is often found with a bird on his shoulder, sometimes even talking to many animals. But is this the Francis that we see as our inspiration, the one the world needs to see? I believe that there is confusion, even in John Paul’s proclamation, as to what Francis can offer the world. There’s something more to Francis than a lover of animals; something more than someone who saw nature as simply God’s gift to humanity.

Francis was a man who saw the world differently than those around him. Everything in creation pointed him to God.

Francis was a man who saw the world differently than those around him. Everything in creation pointed him to God.

As with everything for Francis, his worldview begins from a position of littleness and humility before his Creator. As humans, we are God’s creatures, beings that owe everything that we are to the “most high, glorious God.” Francis would always want us to remember where we came from: God formed us from the dust of the earth. When the Church talks about social teaching, it puts human dignity as the foremost principle, from which all others flow; creation in this sense is as John Paul put it, a gift for humanity. For Francis, it is the other way around: we were created out of the earth, as a part of creation, called to be stewards and caretakers of something much bigger than us. Creation is not subject to us, free to be used and exploited however it best fits us. No, the whole created order is our brothers and sisters, made by the same loving Father, oriented to pleasing him each in its own way. It is out of this great humility that Francis asked with his life, “What does my brother and sister need?” and remained subject to all so as to allow what God had created to act in the way God had intended.

How did God create the world? I think it’s easy to fall into a Deistic, Watchmaker understanding of the world: there was a time at which God made everything, it happened in the past, and now God is off somewhere looking down on everything he set in motion. This, I tell you, is not very Catholic, and it’s certainly not Franciscan. Instead, let us look at the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life.” God the Father created through the Son, in the Holy Spirit; the Father is the one who speaks, the Word is the one sent to the world, and the Holy Spirit is one hearing and responding. This is not something that happened, something that only took place at one point in time; it is the very nature of who God is: eternal self-disusing, creative love. God created, God creates now, and God will continue to renew the face of the earth.

And lastly, no discussion of Francis would be complete without mentioning the pinnacle of God’s creation and love, the Incarnation. As Franciscans and Christians, how can we not be amazed at what God has done: the Creator allowed himself to become the created. In the person of Jesus, we are able to experience God in our concrete, physical reality. It is a reminder to us that all that God has created, the entire material cosmos, is good and worthy of revealing himself. When Francis looked into the world, he saw the means for us to experience the living God. The Sun. The moon. Wind. Fire. Water. Earth. All of creation. These were not inanimate objects to use at his disposal, they were imprints of the one who created them, and vessels for us to experience him. How amazing it is that we can harvest the earth, bake it into bread, and encounter our God in a physical way? This is the perspective that Francis has to offer the world. This is the awe and reverence that inspires us, the humility and littleness that guides us, to see God working in and through all of existence.

For this reason, we are called to care for God’s creation, not for its usefulness to humanity or for the well-being of future generations, but for its own sake. What God has created is good, it is holy, and it requires our attention. Like Adam in our first reading called on to name the animals and take care of the garden, God has privileged us with being co-creators with him.

We can glory in the wonder of God’s creation or to manipulate it for our own gain;

We can choose to bring life or to destroy it.

We can work with God, who continues to renew the face of the earth each and every day, or we can work against him, polluting and over consuming what is not rightfully ours.

On this anniversary, I pray that Francis may be an inspiration to all of us, that we may be more humble servants in this world, caring for all that may lead us to the one who gives us life. May God grant you his peace.

 

 

 

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Co-Creators Through Christ

Not shown are the other 25 people working to make the campus more ecologically just.

Not shown are the other 25 people working to make the campus more ecologically just.

When we think of Creation, I imagine most people don’t get much further than the first Genesis story: God created the cosmos out of a formless waste, and after six days, God rested. From this story alone one might come to the conclusion that Creation was a static event in history, something that happened at one particular moment and is now finished.

And yet, when we look around our world, we do not see a static cosmos that was created once and for all many years ago: we see an ever-growing, ever-changing existence in which species of life are coming into and out of existence, stars are being created and destroyed, and the whole of the universe continues to expand. How do we explain this change?

The answer, I believe, is in part tied to our conception of the Trinity. As I wrote a few months back, there could not have been one “moment” in time when Jesus was “begotten” of the Father because Jesus is coeternal with the Father; for there to be an exact moment of “begotten-ness” there would have to be a time when Jesus did not exist just prior to that, making him not coeternal. How, then, was Jesus begotten and coeternal? “The only possible answer to this question is that it has always been happening… There can never be a moment in which God the Father is not creating through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, past, present, or future” (A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure).

Thus, when we look at Creation, I think that it is only logical that God, being a Creator by his very nature, is in and through every moment of Creation as it continues to happen. Creation was not a static moment in time, but rather continues to happen as God the Father sends forth his Son in the Holy Spirit.

But as Creation continues to unfold, God is not the only one in control of Creation. As Genesis 1:26 says:

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.”

This is profound to say the least. Not only are we as humans created in the image of God (wow) and entrusted with the care for God’s creation (wow), as rationale beings capable of wielding enormous control over the world in which we live, what God is saying in this passage is that we are actually co-creators with Him through Christ (WOW). It is completely within our power to learn from nature or to manipulate it for our own gain; to bring life or to destroy it; to care for what God is continuing to build or to pollute it and break it down. It is clear, in the unprecedented rise in global temperature, the increasing acidification of the ocean and decrease in life therein, the ever-growing landfills and toxic areas of our planet, and the displacement of so many due to ecological destruction, that humans have the ability to truly shape the world around us and that we have not always lived up to our role as just caretakers.

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For almost six hours we moved dirt and rocks. Not all justice work is glamorous…

No more, said the parishioners of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, MD. No more would they be ignorant to the ways in which their church was adding to polluted waters and higher temperatures. No more would they stand idly by refusing to see that energy and pollution were as much “life issues” as anything else. And despite being a place of worship, St. Camillus was as guilty as anyone. You see, as we continue to cut down natural areas and place parking lots in their place, there are fewer opportunities for the water to be absorbed into the ground. When it rains, water collects very quickly and carries off both nutrients from the soil and harmful chemicals from the hard surfaces, flooding drains and streets rather than nourishing the plants and soil, and sending it all to freshwater sources. At St. Camillus, the tremendously-sized roof only exacerbates the problem, pouring a waterfall of rainwater down the hill directly into an unfiltered drain.

As a church, they decided that they could make a difference. On Saturday morning, forty volunteers strong showed up to the church for phase one of the project: removing the top layer of sod, displacing five inches of soil, turning over an additional five inches of soil, and mixing in three inches of fresh topsoil. For six hours, we cut, shoveled, picked, and carried literally tons of dirt and rock from one place to another, laying the foundation for drainage gardens (to be installed next week) and natural water filters made of many layers of rock.

The best part? We had fun doing it. Not only were we putting in an honest day’s work for the sake of the earth and our brothers and sisters throughout the world, we were building community. There’s a true sense of camaraderie and brotherhood/sisterhood when you spend most of a day with people on an incredibly tiring and worthwhile project. How can you not feel a sense of accomplishment when you work together to move a ton of dirt and rocks? How can you not feel a sense of accomplishment when you just did something that will actually care for the extraordinary world that God has created rather than destroy it?

And so I ask: As co-creators with God through Christ, a people endowed with a special gift, what will we add to God’s masterpiece? It is my hope that every part of my life, the way I eat, travel, shop, work, consume, and put back, will be a positive addition to the work God has started, and that it will continue as God continues to create the world anew each and every moment. Won’t you too?

If You Want Peace… Community Organize

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “If You Want Peace, Work For Justice” that made this distinction between social charity and social justice: charity identifies a need and fulfills it while justice asks why there was a need in the first place and then attempts to change the system that caused it.

While both charity and justice are integral aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, and understanding that neither can fully work without the other, I find myself stressing justice over charity. Don’t get me wrong. Charity is desperately needed and I wouldn’t want to downplay the life work of someone like Mother Theresa. There are times, though, when charity is nothing more than a bandaid on a fatal wound: it prolongs life but it never allows those in need the freedom of authentic human development. As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” Justice looks to the future, treating the problem not just the symptoms. In practical terms, it means being a voice for the voiceless by demanding quality education, safe environments, and equal treatment under the law so that all people may be able to feed themselves instead of relying on others to feed them.

In my time so far in Camden, however, I have learned that there is actually another layer to this distinction. While justice (as I have defined it) gives a voice to the voiceless, community organizing helps those without a voice find their own. While traditional means of justice may eliminate a systemic problem in order to make life better for many people, (something I obviously DO NOT want to downplay), there is still a sense that it is a form of charity because it is done for someone without enabling them to do it themselves. Not only that, there’s no denying the fact that movements are more vibrant and longer lasting if they come from the people and for the people directly affected by injustice. Thus, in the case of feeding a man from above, community organizers might say, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show a man that he can fix his hunger by hiring a fishing teacher and he will know how to find solutions for a lifetime.” Through effective community organizing, people gain the confidence and skills to take control of their lives without relying on wealthy donors or educated activists to do everything for them.

A great example of this is the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force at St. Anthony’s school. Comprised of 6th-8th grade students, this group meets each week to identify problems in their neighborhood, research who has the power to make changes, and elicit the skills needed to professionally approach those in power. These students chair a monthly meeting at the park, attend city council meetings, organize cleanups, and travel to Washington, D.C. each year to give a presentation. In the past two years, they have transformed what was once called “the nation’s most depressing park,” into a comfortable neighborhood park for the whole family. How? They saw a need in their area, worked together, and convinced local officials to help make it happen. In two years, the city has installed new basketball nets, trashcans, fences, and now, brand new lights, a project that cost the city and county $365,000. I’d like to remind you that these are 6th-8th graders… When people come together around an issue, great things can happen.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to do or that it’s without setbacks. Community organizing requires tremendous patience and perseverance, thick skin and a short memory. The friar responsible for the Student Leaders here reminds us often of the women who once told him, “Father, ain’t nothing ever going to change in Camden.” This is a common response, and it’s understandable. If you had been rejected and lied to by powerful people your entire life, wouldn’t you be a little hesitant to get excited too? The key is building confidence with small victories, showing people that hope is not useless; change can happen.

More importantly, and much more difficultly, community organizers must not let impatience or frustration move them to act on behalf of the community. Sure, the community organizer may be able to do something successfully on her/his own, but how has this helped the community find its own voice? The sign of a great basketball player is not the amount of points s/he scores, it’s how much better the others players play around her/him. It’s about building the team, not just the tasks. It requires relying on others and giving people the chance to succeed. This might mean being a little less efficient, dealing with a few more frustrations, and even accepting more frequent setbacks than doing something on one’s own. It’s a type-A personality’s nightmare. But what good is it to go about it alone? More importantly, what good is it if we always treat those around us like children, never showing them how to lead themselves?

As brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not about winning the race, it’s about making sure everyone is able to make it to the end. Community organizing does just that. By focusing on local issues with local people, it involves those closest to the issue and gives them ownership over their lives. While it may not effect the sort of large-scale systemic changes that other forms of justice can, what it does is build community and build confidence. It does not hand people a better life, it helps them work for it themselves. If you want peace in your neighborhood, community organize.

Do This in Memory of Me

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

In each of the four eucharistic prayers in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the words “Do this in memory of me” are spoken by the priest in what is called the Institution Narrative. Although some of the words change for each prayer, these are repeated in each one: “Do this in memory of me.” They are significant words that help guide us in our understanding of this celebration.

In one sense, it is a clear reminder that the reason we meet each week in the Church is because Jesus gave his body and blood to the disciples through the celebration of the Last Supper just prior to his Passion. His words invoke the memory of this religious celebration, the great institution of the sacrament that gives us life and offers us salvation.

But our memory cannot stop there. In another, maybe more significant sense, the memory we must have when we celebrate the Eucharist is of Jesus himself. When we take his body and drink his blood, we are not only remembering the final meal he shared with his disciples before his Passion, we are remembering all that he was/is and all that he did. In one complex moment, we call to mind his triumphant Incarnation and his glorious Passion; the miracles he performed and the words he preached; the love and forgiveness he brought to the lost and the least, and the truth and justice he brought to the corrupt and powerful. Our memory of Jesus is not simply one of a religious feast or liturgical action, it is one of love, forgiveness, humility, simplicity, openness, mercy, unity in diversity, sacrifice, friendship, and most of all, justice.

Because of this, taking part in the mystery of the Eucharist does bring to the present a moment in history, the Last Supper, and allows us to share in the once-for-all sacrifice of our God; but it does much more than that. Taking part in the Eucharist brings to the present the whole life and teaching of Jesus. How can we possibly celebrate the feast without remembering the person celebrating it?

When we remember the person of Jesus, we radically open ourselves up to a new experience of and response to the Eucharist. If what we are remembering when we take the precious body and blood is how Jesus “emptied himself” to become human, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we act with humility and grace. If we remember how Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness to sinners, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we forgive those who wrong us. If we remember how Jesus loved the poor and cared for the outcasts of society, making them his primary focus because no one else would, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we love the poor and outcasts of society and whether or not we are missing an opportunity to love someone unloved by anyone else. In every way, if we remember the person of Jesus, we will be forced to compare our lives with the life he lived, challenging us to grow closer to the one who wants nothing more than to be in perfect union with us.

Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.” My prayer is that, the next time you receive the Eucharist, you will be flooded with the powerful memory of Jesus’ life and teachings, that it may be such a powerful experience of remembering the person of Jesus that all you can do is let him pour out of you for the whole world. That is the memory Jesus wants us to have, and that is the true thanksgiving meal we share with one another. Only when Eucharist transforms us in this way can be it called the “source and summit” of our life.