Issue 33 - 31 Aug

Creation: The Poorest of the Poor

In 2018 Wim Wenders, the famous German film director, made a documentary:  Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. It runs for 96 minutes and is permanently available on Apple TV or can be rented on several other different platforms. No film crew has had this type of unfettered access before to another Pope. What is most arresting about it is the immediacy and warmth of Francis’ personality. We see our universal pastor passionate, in some pain, and yet still full of hope.

"The Vatican made it very clear to me that I'd have carte blanche and very privileged access to the archives, in addition to final cut. They let us shoot without interfering. We had four long interview sessions with Pope Francis, on four afternoons spread over two years. … In these four long talks, Pope Francis was utterly spontaneous, direct and open in all his answers”, Wenders remembers.

In the film Pope Francis says that to be truly moral right now we have to reject wealth and power as absolute goals, and serve others. Faith must be relaxed in its dialogue with science and preserve mental health through rest, recreation and being gentle with one another. He regards the leadership of women as pivotal to the future of our community. He says that the whole Church must have ‘zero tolerance’ of paedophiles and fully cooperate with civil authorities in investigating and prosecuting those charged with these heinous crimes. He goes on. In a world where 20% of the population are consuming 80% of the world’s resources, we have to secure a more just order for all God’s children. The special plight of refugees will increasingly make a claim upon richer countries who cannot turn a deaf ear to their just demands for protection and care. And he wants love to unite believer and unbeliever as one human family through a simple smile, good humour and joy.

For anyone who knows Catholic Social Teaching, none of this is new or novel. Popes have been saying these things for 50 years.

A significant section of the film is dedicated to our care of the earth. Pope Francis states: “If you ask me who is the poorest of the poorest of the poor, I would say Mother Earth. We have plundered her. We have abused her." Francis laments the growing culture of waste and hopes for us to live in harmony with the entire creation.

Bouncing off his encyclical on the environment, Ladato Si, this year the Australian Catholic Bishops entitled their social justice statement: Cry of the Earth. Cry of the Poor. It is a readable and thoughtful document, calling on us to do what the Bible often calls Israel to do – to stop and listen: to our communities, especially those rural areas ravaged by bushfires; our Pacific neighbours, where rising sea levels are here and now; to the Word of God; to the theological tradition and Catholic Social Teaching over centuries; to the world of science; and to our indigenous sisters and brothers who have cared for this part of creation for 50,000 years.     

Like Francis, the Bishops call us to ‘ecological conversion’ and hope that we do not remain indifferent to problems such desertification, the degradation and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in extreme weather, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical areas.

Some Catholics, including some Bishops, have claimed that these environmental concerns and calls-to-action are faddish and that the crisis is overstated. Some have warned that they are signs of a ‘new pantheism’ or ‘a neo-pagan cult.’ It’s good to remember that the conservative Pope Benedict XVI in his 2010 World Peace Day Message was as strong as Francis and the Australian Bishops in calling all Catholics to the urgency of the issue, insisting that protecting the environment is “the duty of every person,” one which demands changes in personal, social, national and international habits, activities, attitudes and actions.

Francis says the cry of the earth is THE right to life issue. He has been criticised for saying this by those who think he is prioritising ecology over other womb-to-tomb life issues. He isn’t. He is making the unexceptionable point that if we don’t have a healthy life-sustaining planet then none of us are going to be alive at all.

Wednesday September 1 is the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and the start of the Season of Creation (1 September to 4 October). May our prayers lead to concrete and political demands that we hear the cry “of the poorest of the poorest of the poor,” Mother Earth, stop plundering and abusing her, and be the good stewards of creation God calls us to be. In every sense, our entire future depends on it.

Cry of the Earth. Cry of the Poor:

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).