As a Catholic, I’ve often disagreed with the institutional church on many issues. But as thousands of other Catholics, I have grown fond of the present Pope. Pope Francis’ outreach to the poor and marginalized, his disdain for pomp, and his tolerant tone all have made him a much beloved world figure.
Needless to say, the Pope’s embrace of climate change as a matter of moral urgency has also made him a figure of some consequence for all us who want to address this crisis before its effects have catastrophic impacts.
On Sept. 24, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, a coalition of faith groups that perceive preserving and protecting our environment as a moral mandate, hosted a Rally for Moral Action on Climate Justice on the Washington Mall, in viewing distance of the Capitol where Pope Francis addressed Congress.
It was an event that attracted thousands of participants, a multi-cultural, multi-generational crowd. Speakers for the event included UCS director of strategy and policy Alden Meyer and the leaders of major environmental advocacy and faith groups across the country.
“No country is immune from the impacts of climate change, and no country can meet the challenge alone,” Alden told the crowd. “We can’t point fingers and say ‘your end of the lifeboat is sinking;’ rather, we must put aside our differences and come together to address this crisis.”
“The fact is, anybody who doesn’t understand that climate change is one of the most profound moral issues we face hasn’t been paying any attention at all to what Pope Francis has been saying,” he added.
“We can only hope that these advocates of inaction will open their hearts to Pope Francis’s message, will reflect deeply on the kind of world they want to leave to their children and grandchildren, and will change their position.”
Backstage at the event, as the amazing crew managed to orchestrate singers, dances, and speakers, there was a frisson of excitement. It seemed as if the Pope himself might make it to the rally. That was not to be. Not enough time.
Pope was there—in spirit
But the Pope’s physical presence did not seem to matter. In a very real way, the main speaker at the rally was the Pope. I have never seen a crowd listen more intently to a public figure speaker, his image beamed on a huge television screen. The Pope spoke in halting English, and he took his time getting to his concerns for the environment and the health of the planet.
The crowd laughed when some Congressional leaders couldn’t decide whether to applaud the Pope’s endorsement of the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They applauded not only his remarks that addressed climate change directly, but spoke to social justice, the need for inclusion and help for the poor, the marginalized, and immigrants.
It was telling that on only a few issues—climate change being one of them—the Pope made clear what his position was. “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” the Pope said. He told Congress that he was “convinced” that “we can make a difference.” He told lawmakers: “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”
The Pope spoke of a “common good that includes the earth,” a “central theme” of his recent encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si. He even gave a shout-out to scientists, stating, “I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead” to ensure that technology serves “human progress.”
And among the four Americans that he saluted, the last—writer and mystic Thomas Merton—also reinforced the Pope’s commitment to “the earth.” Merton was a Cistercian monk and gifted poet and author. He was passionately opposed to nuclear war and the spread of nuclear weapons. He also wrote movingly about the natural world near his monastery.
Merton wrote: “By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.”
The rally did include “fire and music.” We can only hope it propels our elected officials to preserve the natural world that means so much to all of us, believer and non-believer alike.
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