Encyclical Generates Community Discussion
by Charlotte Scromeda
When Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment on June 18, 2015, the whole world was listening. NGOs, academics, large corporations, and a large variety of faith groups responded, often with praise, and occasionally with disapproval.
In the nation's capital, the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa organized an introductory session on the encyclical for the public, organized by John Dorner, Liaison for Environmental Stewardship. On Thursday, June 25, four panellists gathered at the Archdiocesan Centre to discuss the revolutionary document, titled "Laudato Si," or "Praised Be."
The conference began with a "prayer for our earth" drawn directly from the encyclical, which was read by Mary Lou Iatail, one of the panellists, and was followed by a short hymn in Cree. Geoffrey Kerslake, chair of the meeting and Episcopal Vicar at the Archdiocese of Ottawa, then gave some much-needed introductory observations on the nature of the encyclical. Explaining that an encyclical is a letter from the Pope to Bishops, Rev. Kerslake noted that this particular publication is unusual in its content, in its promotion, and in the amount of discussion it has generated.
In his letter, Pope Francis expresses a sense of extreme urgency at today's environmental crisis, using both scientific proof and the writings of his forefathers to convey the need for radical change in our relationship to the Earth. Although the 246-paragraph document is simply too large and complex to summarize briefly, Rev. Kerslake highlighted Pope Francis's emphasis on the interconnectedness of all issues, quoting the encyclical itself: "We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental" (page 139).
Rev. Kerslake also introduced the four panellists, who each gave their remarks on the encyclical. Dr. Heather Eaton, a professor at St. Paul University with a background in ecology, feminism, and theology, praised the encyclical for its critique of governments and deniers of climate change; for its promotion of generous, sober, and humble commitment to the environment; and for its lyric yet analytic style. Pope Francis, remarked Dr. Eaton, takes science extremely seriously; however, he also speaks gracefully about the natural world, relating its beauty directly to ethics and to a moral need to heal our Earth.
From left to right: Mary Lou Iatail, Daryold Winkler, John Dorner, Tom McAuley, Heather Eaton, Geoffrey Kerslake, panelists at the Archdiocese of Ottawa's conference on the encyclical. Photo: Charlotte Scromeda.
While Dr. Eaton is almost entirely in support of the document, she also noted that though the encyclical speaks to the planet as a whole, it also occasionally falls into the divisive language of "Christians" and "non-Christians."
Tom McAuley, doctoral candidate at St. Paul University and former water resources engineer, presented the basic facts of climate change from a scientific perspective. Like Pope Francis, he underscored the need for immediate and radical change in order to counteract the ecological damage humans have already caused. He also noted Pope Francis's emphasis on the need for clean water and the effects of climate change on poverty.
The next speaker, Father Daryold Winkler, a priest who belongs to the M'Chigeeng First Nation, was able to comment on the encyclical from both a theological and Aboriginal perspective. He explained that Native peoples understand the world through the need for survival, the desire to live a good life, and the continuation of their community. In order to survive, there must be communication, conflict resolution, respect for the environment, and abandonment of traditional hierarchies of being, all points equally emphasized in the Pope's letter.
Mary Lou Iatail of the Attawapiskat First Nation, a residential school survivor, gave her final remarks on the lovingness and closeness of the Creator, warning once again of the consequences that lie ahead of us should we neglect our Earth. Bringing the spiritual and the ecological together, Mrs. Iatail told the audience, "Whatever you believe in is what lifts you up in life."
Following the panellists' remarks, John Dorner provided practical advice to Catholic churches seeking to help the environment, mentioning both Faith & the Common Good and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace as organizations with fantastic resources.
Finally, the microphone was given over to the audience for questions and comments. Many people praised the encyclical and expressed the need for immediate action. Proposed measures included a national, interfaith letter to the Canadian government and divestment from fossil fuels-on the part of all Catholic churches.
The session ended with a group prayer "in union with creation": "Oh Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty."
Charlotte Scromeda was a summer student with Faith & the Common Good, writing case studies to improve the "Mission Per Square Foot" Program establishing ties with the Franco-Ontarian community.