It’s easy to focus on differences these days. Politicians in Europe, the United States, Africa – everywhere – are endlessly focusing on what divides us instead of the challenges we all share. The leaders I hold in the highest esteem are those special few who continue to focus on what unites us. So one year ago, when Pope Francis decided to draw special attention to caring for our planet, the one thing all of humanity indisputably is connected by, I was not the least bit surprised. I was inspired.
In May 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical entitled Laudato Si’, where he wrote about how we are all interlinked by the planet we share. It’s not every day a Pope makes such a stand. Encyclicals are delivered rarely; they reflect a Pontiff’s interpretation of God’s Word, applying it to the challenges we face here, today. In this case, the chosen subject was climate change and ecology. Francis shares his view that climate change and the increase in poverty is the result of an ill oriented development strategy based on the exploitation of the earth and of people for the benefit of a few. He said it is “God who calls humanity to ‘cultivate and care for’ the gift of creation (Genesis 2:15)”. This planet is a collective gift we share and must collectively care for. Our failures to care for our planet are already catching up with us, if we continue on our ways we will be greeted with even bigger challenges, and sooner or later we will all have to act.
A bit more than a year after Pope Francis delivered Laudato Si’, more than one million young Catholics have descended upon Kraków, Poland for World Youth Day. Of course, there are a number of reasons for so many young Catholics to go to World Youth Day and I hope they help Francis continue to highlight the teachings of Laudato Si’. After all, it is the future generations that will be on the front lines of climate change. They are the ones who will see it most, they are the ones who can slow it and they are the ones who can stop what has already begun.
Our planet has been changing because of our collective actions for some time now. Decades of runaway carbon emissions have led to the threat of runaway climate change. Droughts and heat waves across Africa and Europe are becoming the new normal, and it seems once every 100-year events are now occurring regularly. In the Philippines, there’s now an average of 20 typhoons each year. California, the world’s sixth largest economy, has been living in drought for much of this decade, while France recently fell victim to deadly floods that caused over a billion Euros worth of damage. Poland, the host nation for World Youth Day, is still recovering from the swelling of the Vistula River in May that flooded Warsaw and caused damage that is still yet to be calculated.
These climate-fuelled extreme weather events don’t just damage property, they are destroying crops, decimating local economies, increasing tensions in already tense political times and forcing populations to flee their homes, sometimes never to return. In many cases, the confluence of these dynamics is bringing out the worst in humanity.
Through his encyclical, Pope Francis challenges us to be our best; to live his words. Of course we must welcome refugees, and care for the most vulnerable people fleeing war, famine and environmental disasters. But we must also help those communities to adapt and become more resilient, as well as address the causes of the mass migrations, super storms and famines.
To live Laudato Si’ will require global actions with endless individual variations. Shifting investments away from fossil fuel companies, speaking up for a swift and just transition to renewable energy, and reconsidering our own personal consumption habits are all ways we can live Laudato Si’. We need to get out of this universe of carelessness fuelled by materialism and consumerism and a lack of global consideration that permeates throughout our societies. We need to re-humanise our society, it needs to be welcoming toward those who suffer, and promote ways of living that limit suffering. We must move beyond words and shift into action.
As the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organisation for Catholic charitable organisations throughout the world, I feel responsible to urge us all to take inspiration from Laudato Si’ and begin rethinking our consumption habits and our investments. The products we purchase, the power we use and the investments we make can impact our fellow humans in far off parts of the world and right in our own neighbourhoods. I hope that young Catholics, during moments like World Youth Day, speak up and spread the word about caring for our common home. After all, “caring for the gift of creation” is an act we can all share in. So please celebrate Pope Francis’s words, but even more importantly live them, for the sake of our neighbours all over this planet.