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Explorations: The cry of the earth, the cry of the poor

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ  |  25 May 2020

One of the main messages of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, is that Catholics wanting to build a better world need to heed both the voices of the poor and marginalised, and the impact of human beings on creation.

In his sermons and letters Pope Francis often refers to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Following St Francis of Assisi he speaks of the earth as our sister ‘who cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her’. He speaks of the poor calling out to us for justice and a share at the table. And he speaks of the earth and the poor as linked together.

After the bushfires at the start of the year, and amid our current coronavirus pandemic, his vision speaks to us powerfully.

In this Explorations we shall explore why he is so passionate and urgent in his pleading for the poor and our environment, how they are related to one another, why he sees them as so central to faith, and how we might respond to their cry.

A SINGLE TWO-TONGUED CRY

For Pope Francis listening to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth is more than a striking phrase. Both in Rome and when visiting other nations he visits slums and other places where poor people live. He mixes with them and pleads for a world in which they can find a place at the table. He constantly appeals for the protection of the earth. He has drawn upon scientists and other experts people in his deep and powerful reflection on the ecological crisis, and has spoken at international meetings to encourage action.

The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are not separate issues. In Argentina Pope Francis grew up in a poor area. As Archbishop he also visited people in areas into which the police hesitate to go. As Pope he still insists on visiting them on his journeys. He learned from experience that the poor were forced to live in overcrowded, dirty, badly drained places where disease spread quickly. Poverty and a poisoned environment go together and breed violence, despair and political corruption.

The coronavirus shutdowns have hit the poorest hardest. Those who are already facing financial hardship and employment insecurity have had those things exacerbated. Whether it’s amid bushfires, pandemics or other disasters, those on the margins are often the last to receive help, and are often overlooked when governments develop recovery plans.

THE CRY OF THE POOR AND THE CRY OF THE EARTH ARE CONNECTED

Pope Francis says that extreme poverty and the destruction of the environment have a single cause. They come out of a society that encourages the wealthy to increase their wealth and defend their power by exploiting the environment and keeping the poor destitute.

In an unequal world big corporations, gangsters, politicians and large institutions act in ways that further enrich the rich and powerful, but oppress the poor and pollute the environment. Mines poison rivers and fishing grounds, tree felling despoils the soil and heavy industry pollutes the air. These things turn the world of the poor into a slum. Wealthy nations exploit people in poorer nations, so further degrading our environment.

WHY DO THE CRY OF THE POOR AND THE CRY OF THE EARTH GO UNHEARD?

People in wealthy societies, in corporations and in developed nations generally do not suffer personally from climate change. They have air-conditioning and can buy their comfort. They also generally live and mix with people who have similar advantages of wealth, education and employment and access to medical care. They rarely go into the slums, under city bridges or to desert settlements where the poor live in increasingly harsh conditions.

If we do not meet people with no access to flowing water we are more likely to blame them for being dirty. If we live comfortably untouched by drought and rising temperatures, we are more likely to ignore people who suffer the effects of global warming. Those who benefit from gross inequality and from exploiting the environment – big business, miners, politicians and their mouthpieces in the media all urge us to continue living as we do now. They stifle the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.

A global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic can make us more aware of those we share our home with, and our shared vulnerability. But even then, we see people hoard goods and wealth for themselves, and see vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees left out of government assistance campaigns. A vision of a global, human family in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us continues to elude us.

AN URGENT CRY

In the face of these vested interests Pope Francis insists that the cry of the earth and of the poor must be heard. The future of the world depends on it. Many people have taken up the call. Pope Francis’ advocacy and the seriousness of young people like Greta Thunberg have also drawn attention to the serious threat posed by global warming to human life, to the health of our forests and rivers and the variety of our birds and animals. More and more business leaders, too, realise the threat it poses to their own and to our national prosperity.

Governments and businesses, however, often seek technological solutions that won’t change the way we think and act. Trust in power and technology to solve all problems, however, has led to the present crisis because it sees the world as a resource to be exploited at will, and sees people as expendable. This attitude was also evident in responses to bushfires. Mass clearing of forest and bush, preventative burning, and safer building were proposed as solutions. These things have a place, but do not address the reasons why bushfires will become more frequent and dangerous. Science will also have a role in treating and developing a vaccine for coronavirus, but the spread and impact of the disease can only be managed by changing behaviours, and making the welfare of those most vulnerable of paramount concern.

Any solution to our present environmental crisis must begin with a conversion of mind and heart that sees the world and people as precious and not as resources to be plundered at will. As persons and as societies, too, we are called to turn from seeing ourselves as individuals competing with one another, and to see ourselves as people bound together by a concern for the whole of society and particularly for its most vulnerable parts and members. To hear the cry of the poor and of the earth we need new eyes and a new heart.

A FRESH VISION?

Many people believe that climate change and poverty are the business of scientists and politicians to address and have nothing to do with religion. Pope Francis’ great contribution to society and to the Church is to remind us that the lives of the poor and the beauty and health of our environment matter to God. God hears and is grieved by the cry of the poor and the cry of our sister earth. All the plants animals and species which reflect God’s goodness, beauty and life matter to us because they matter to God. God loves them.

In the story of creation, God invites Adam and Eve into a well-watered garden, with every kind of fruit and grain. It is a place to wonder at, care for and respect. God invited human beings into it as stewards, gardeners, to care for it and make it flourish. The later story of the Tower of Babel mocks human attempts to dominate the world like Gods.

In the Scriptures many prayers and prophecies wonder at the power, beauty and intricate connections in our world. For the prophets the way in which the poor are treated is the test of a society that takes God seriously. Their vision of God’s world is one that is fertile, well cared for, and one where all have a seat at the table. The earth and the poor both smile.

Jesus’ mission was to the poor, especially those whose poverty was associated with sickness and physical disability. He accepted and healed them, calling on his disciples to do the same.

Jesus also responded to the beauty of the natural world. He climbed hills to pray, noticed the splendour of wildflowers and birds and the seasons of planting, flowering and reaping.

He knew the difference between prudent management of natural resources and greed. The voices of the poor and of the earth were always in his ears.

In Christian faith, to respect our world and people who are disregarded is vital because God loves them so much. To trash the world, to make poor people live in pigsties, and to put at risk the survival and wellbeing of human kind are the deepest insult to God.

OUR CHRISTIAN CHALLENGE – THE WAY OF ATTENTION

Our Christian response begins with silence. It allows us to attend to the world we live in and to all our relationships with it. We naturally turn to people who are disadvantaged in our society. We wonder at the beauty and delicacy of the world in which we live, and at the preciousness of each human being. We begin by looking into the face of the poor and of the earth.

We then turn to all the crisscrossing relationships that make up our lives and imagine a world in which these relationships are just. We notice, too, how frayed and stunted are the relationships that shape us, and how this impoverishes our world.

As we attend to our world we look first at our personal relationships with family, with school and work friends, with acquaintances made through our leisure activities and hobbies, noticing whom we include and exclude. That leads us to see strangers: people who are poor, who sleep homeless in the streets, and are held in gaols, detention centres and shelters, who die nameless from coronavirus. We also consider our relationships with the earth – whether we scar it by waste, by littering, by conspicuous consumption and by high-emissions travel.

We also attend to the relationships to the groups of which we are part. These relationships can affect people’s lives enormously. Bullies in a school, or brutal prison officers in a gaol, greedy bankers and superannuation fund managers in society can destroy people’s lives and the environment. large businesses and institutions no single individual is responsible for what they do. But the health of our society depends on teachers, parents, fellow workers and investors hearing the cry of the poor and of the earth and responding to it.

THE WAY OF COMPASSION

Attending to the cry of the poor and of the earth is the beginning. It is easy to notice things but not get involved. The ear that hears the cry of the poor must be compassionate.

A compassionate ear leans towards the man lying on the street to ask how he is. The articles in this edition suggest what this might mean in practice.

Pope Francis invites us to be moved by what we see in our world, and go out of our own comfortable places to tend to the wounds of the poor and of our natural world. The ears that hear the cry lead our hands to act. 

 

QUESTIONS

1 Have you heard the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth in your own life?

2 Why is Pope Francis so insistent on these issues?

3 Do you see places in Australia where the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth run together?

4 How might our current coronavirus shutdowns change the way we see our relationship to the earth and the poor?

5 Why is hearing the cry of the poor and of the earth a religious duty and not just a political choice?

 

Main image: Getty Images

 

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