Father Chris Alar, MIC, director of the Association of Marian Helpers.
'Our Moral Obligation'
This article first appeared in the Fall issue of Marian Helper magazine.
"Look at that," says Margaret Farrell, pointing to an oval shape on an ancient log ringed by lily pads.
"A snapper?" her husband, Doug, suggests, squinting.
"I think it's a Painted," Margaret says. "See the yellow stripes?"
They're talking about turtles — one in particular, sunning itself on a log in Kampoosa Bog at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The Farrells of Nashua, New Hampshire, are frequent Shrine visitors, drawn to God present here — partially in the natural beauty and wholly in the Eucharist.
It's July 22, a month following the release of Pope Francis' celebrated encyclical on the environment entitled Laudato Si' (Praised Be). For Marians and Marian Helpers — including the Farrells — the 184-page encyclical serves as a pointed reminder of the role God assigned to humans, dating back to Genesis. In the words of the Holy Father, "[H]uman life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself."
In sobering terms, Pope Francis points to our "throwaway culture," our consumerism, and our "unbridled exploitation" of natural resources. He points to greed and to "quick and easy profit" motivations whose grave implications have led to "the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species" each year, and polluted soil, air, and water. It's the poor who suffer the most, he says, since it is they who lack the financial means to adapt.
"We are reaching a breaking point," Pope Francis says. Leaders have failed us, he says, but we have failed ourselves as well by "denial" and "indifference."
His prescriptions include a call for secular initiatives (renewable fuel subsidies and energy efficiency, for instance) and spiritual initiatives (namely, to acknowledge that the wounds of the earth reflect the symptoms of "[t]he violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin").
"The world has never needed this encyclical more than it does now," says Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, the director of the Association of Marian Helpers. "If there's anyone right now with the clout to affect change on a global scale, it's Pope Francis. We as Catholics — 1.2 billion worldwide — have the duty to take the lead."
So how do we take the lead?
"It means we priests need to start preaching about the environment," Fr. Chris says. "In my whole life, I have only heard one homily focused on the environment. It means understanding that God intended us to be stewards of his creation, that the land, air, and sea are gifts to us all from a loving God. It means that just because we value human life above the life of other creatures doesn't mean we are exempt from preserving, protecting, and valuing other creatures. Being pro-life and good stewards of the environment makes us pro-life to the fullest.
"It means we Catholics — we Marians and Marian Helpers — need to answer the Holy Father's challenge to rise above politics with regard to the environment," Fr. Chris continues. "Many on the left see nature itself as identical with 'divinity' — a 'god' to be worshipped — and they refuse to see the hand of God in creation. And many on the right ridicule so-called 'tree-huggers,' and thus cast-off the notion that human activities are leading to our own self-destruction. Catholicism and environmentalism are not a contradiction in terms. This is what popes throughout the ages have taught, including St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI."
An avid outdoorsman, Fr. Chris said he first drew close to God as a child while hiking, fishing, and hunting with his father in the backwoods of Michigan. ("Have you ever seen the markings of a Ring-necked Pheasant?" he asks. "Something this beautiful was not created by chance.")
"I saw God first in his creation," Fr. Chris says, "and this was a beautiful preparation for me loving him — his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — fully in the Eucharist."
The Farrells, who have been visiting the Shrine for eight years, say they have followed a similar route to God.
"We saw an American Bittern here a couple years ago for the first time," says Doug, referring to the endangered brown-streaked heron that's an inhabitant of Kampoosa Bog.
Kampoosa, by the way, is the largest, most unspoiled, and environmentally significant bog in Massachusetts. The Marians have placed their 115-acre portion of the 1,350-acre bog under permanent conservation restriction. You can see the Shrine's cross-topped bell tower from its banks.
"How can you look at all of this natural beauty and not see God?" says Margaret, who has been following the news of the Holy Father's environmental initiatives.
Doug is still squinting to get a better look at the turtle on the log.
"Definitely, it's a Painted Turtle," he says. "Incredible."
Visit TheDivineMercy.org/PraisedBe to read Pope Francis' encyclical.