Festival colors adorn Manila, the most densely populated city on earth, for the Pagbisita ni Pope Francis. Twelve million people in the 16-city capital metro are taking off from now through January 19. A very special visitor has just arrived: Pope Francis, spiritual leader for one-sixth of the world’s population, those who practice Catholicism. This year, the EcoPope may also be a powerful speaker for all citizens of a planet beset by rapid climate change, as demonstrated by the hottest year in human history.
The 78-year-old pontiff, Argentinian by birth, Italian by heritage, flew in from Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island nation divided by conflict. There he urged unity and canonized the country’s first Catholic saint. On his way to the typhoon-prone Philippine archipelago, Pope Francis stood at a bulkhead on the plane and shared the gist of his apostolic mission:
“The central nut of the message will be the poor, the poor who want to go forward, the poor who suffered from Typhoon Haiyan and are continuing to suffer the consequences… [the poor, who] face so many injustices—social, spiritual, existential.”
It was a practiced meme for the former archbishop of Buenos Aires. Rejection of poverty characterizes many belief systems, but Francis has adopted a mission that strikes toward an underlying poisonous social environment, which he perceives as a root cause of climate change, a force that will aggravate human hardship. Fourteen months ago, his first apostolic exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel) outlined the thrust of a new and farther back-to-basics pontificate:
“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this [commercial] system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule…. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.”
The Holy Father, as he’s known to his flock, perceives adulteration of God’s natural world through human-caused climate change as a reckless consequence of baseless materialism. And he’s right about its sources: the changes come from the top of the pecking order, but the people hardest hit by this unholy confluence are the unassuming poor.
During last month’s UN COP20 climate change meeting in Lima, faithful Catholic clerics from every nation expressed their convictions about the Vatican’s environmental initiative, urging the world’s most fortunate in a united letter to take action against the global climate threat to life as we know it.
Pope Francis reiterated the themes in the traditional papal Christmas greeting. Rather than offering seasonal platitudes, he lashed the cardinals, bishops, and priests who run the Holy See for their part in fifteen modern plagues. Most notable: the “terrorism of gossip,” “pathology of power,” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
The Catholic leader chose the location for his latest sermon well, by accident or by design. An island nation regularly beset by strong storms, which will intensify as weather records continue to shatter, the Philippines represents parts of the planet that will suffer the first results of greenhouse gas concentration.
It’s already hot there, in the tropic zone. A former Spanish colony, the Philippines has a population that is almost 85% Catholic, much of it devoutly so, an ideal forum for a Vatican message. And the pontiff chose not to visit his native Latin America, where almost half the people share his religion, but to appear in the most populous Catholic nation of the troubled Southwest Pacific.
On Saturday, January 17, Francis is scheduled to fly to the central area of Tacloban, where Super Typhoon Haiyan killed 7,350 people, wiping out fisheries and farms alike, less than two years ago. He’ll celebrate mass at the airport there with tens of thousands who survived Haiyan. The pontiff’s eco-spiritual mission to Tacloban, one of the sorest spots of climate change to date, reveals his deep awareness of the threat to planet Earth. In a sadly fitting way, his visit there may include a brush with Mekkhala, the first numbered storm of the 2015 northwest Pacific tropical cyclone season.
You—and every person in the world with uncensored internet—can watch the EcoPope’s visit to the Philippines live online at this link from today through the 19th via ABS-CBN News, the main Philippine TV and radio broadcaster.
The pope’s interest in climate change has grown with every country in the world he has visited. Looking down the road from Manila, it won’t be long (anticipated in March) before the pontiff issues a very important message to priests, bishops, and cardinals to carry to the world’s billion-plus Catholic faithful.
In a draft leaked by a Vatican insider to Artur Rosman of the CosmosTheInLost blog (patheos.com), the pope says:
“We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment. This responsibility knows no boundaries…. The order of creation demands that a priority be given to those human activities that do not cause irreversible damage to nature, but which instead are woven into the social, cultural, and religious fabric of the different communities. In this way, a sober balance is achieved between consumption and the sustainability of resources.”
As well as unambiguous secular findings over recent decades, reports from the Pontifical Academy of Science, Pontifical Academy of Social Science, and Caritas Internationalis, the church’s aid agency, back him up 100%.
All the papal activity will directly inform about 15% of the world’s population through the near-ubiquitous pastoral pipeline. Francis is proving to talk the talk and walk the walk, so I suspect that whatever he has to say will garner attention. The intensity of the pope’s passion to address the ethics of materialism and its part in climate change is strongly suggested by his frank Christmas blast to the Curia and his forgoing the feet of clerics to wash those of women, lay people, the disabled, and prisoners.
The EcoPope will then call for an interfaith summit of religious leaders, probably including eminent figures in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, non-Catholic Christianity, and folk religions. Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Academy of Sciences and an Argentinian countryman close to the eco-pope, told Cafod, the official UK development agency of the Catholic Church, in 2014, “Our academics [have] supported the pope’s initiative to influence next year’s crucial decisions. The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”
In September, following an invitation by Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, Pope Francis will address the general assembly on climate change and human ecology in an interfaith speech likely to resonate around the world. By soliciting an eager papal presence, the Secretary General has successfully enlisted the moral authority and worldly commitments of the Vatican in the climate struggle.
All this activity can be expected to influence the progress of international attempts toward stronger climate change action at next December’s Paris negotiations (the UNFCCC’s COP21 meeting). The meeting seeks to firm up global action from 2015 through 2020 and beyond. Some believe it’s humanity’s last chance.
I’m inclined to believe that this world leader truly embraces sustainability in his spiritual universe, and that he is putting his beliefs into practice from the personal level on up. He’s the man who traded in an official Mercedes for a Ford Focus. No real need for the gleaming wheels. If his support of the recent rapprochement between the US and Cuba—which President Obama has just described as having been critical to its success—is any indication, Pope Francis may hit the mark where political and academic leaders have fallen short so far. Let’s hope so.
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