THE SPEECH by the young Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg at the United Nations last week, together with her powerful glance at the man who thinks he’s the leader of the free world, made a dramatic impression. The UN conference came days after the Climate change protests here last Friday (in which a number of parishioners joined) and all over the world. As Christians we show spiritual maturity and some openness to the Holy Spirit if we try and discern ‘the signs of the times’, to make real moral judgments about the challenges which the world faces, and we’re being asked to do this rather a lot at the moment.
Something I didn’t really expect when I passed through the significant age barrier of ‘three score years’ last year was a strong sense of failure – of generational failure. If you were born in 1958 you are, I think, just at the end of the ‘baby boomer’ years (there is some dispute about the chronology of these labels) and my generation did enjoy great benefits compared to our predecessors. But that also means that with others we bear a responsibility for the state of the world – we are accountable to future generations. A clear message from what so many young people are saying all over the world about climate change and the future of the world is that we have been found wanting.
As Christians we constantly need to look at our lives, including how we have acted as stewards of God’s creation; we need to acknowledge when we have done wrong and ask forgiveness of God: such is the moral failure which is marked by indifference and complacency about the way we are treating the planet. The UN Climate change conference, and countless reports which are appearing all the time, show exactly how stupid we have been, even when scientists have been warning us for some time about how things have become. My generation bears a heavy responsibility for this, and it’s a mistake to argue that people have not been, and are, culpable. It is because of that we need to take seriously our moral responsibility for where we are now that we need to listen with humility and shame to the voices of the young – such as Greta Thurman and the thousands of school pupils who have protested in recent months against what we are doing to the planet. There is a great deal of anger which we need to acknowledge; and those of us who are older need to resist the temptation to be defensive or patronising. We need to see the anger in the light of the tradition of prophecy in Sacred Scripture; and in the light of the teachings of the Vicar of Christ.
The picture in our Newsletter shows Greta Thurman meeting Pope Francis in Rome earlier this year. If there is one person in the world who shares her anger, and who is of course no longer young, it is the Pope. These are the opening words of his 2015 encyclical about God’s creation:
‘“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail”. We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters’.
The passion of the Holy Father’s letter is striking, and witnesses to the moral seriousness of the environmental crisis which he addresses. It’s worth bearing in mind that a lot of Catholics weren’t and aren’t interested in the pope’s priorities – there’s a lot of depressing evidence of this, and some even reject his teachings. What the pope has been saying, and what Greta Thurman and so many young people are saying, should cause us all – particularly those of us who are no longer young – to examine our consciences and to give them practical and prayerful support.