By Anna Johnson
The current state of the world is alarming, to say the least. The realities of the ecological crisis are gut-clenching, and for those living in a particularly impacted place or working in the field, this daily reality check can quickly become immobilizing.
We read the scientific reports telling us how little time we have left to make drastic changes to our systems and lifestyles, and what the repercussions will include, all while hearing of governmental and corporate decisions that are exactly opposite to what is necessary. We hear stories from our global and local siblings suffering from horrific flooding or starvation-inducing drought, asphalt-melting heat, and heartbreakingly destructive natural disasters. There are days, weeks, months where I have an unshakable pit in my stomach.
But conversations with a good friend who is a chaplain have helped me see that chaplaincy offers the exact tools we need in the current ecological crisis. As we all take some time this weekend to acknowledge Earth Day, it’s a good time to consider the similarities.
How frequently do chaplains encounter this kind of prognosis? How often have they sat next to someone after receiving a diagnosis that stops them in their tracks, telling them they must take immediate action to live in a very different way? How frequently do chaplains meet someone who didn’t follow doctor’s directions and is now back in the ICU? Chaplains sit with this anxiety, pain, overwhelm, and hopelessness daily.
Laudato Si’, a papal document written by Pope Francis to “all people of good will,” reflects upon the realities of the day, and addresses the ecological crisis with a faith-driven response. An encyclical is a historical memory and current call to respond to the signs of the times — to show up for the crises and realities of our world — with a response rooted in love and our faith. Don’t chaplains do the same? Chaplains live Laudato Si’ every day that you step into your place of ministry.
This papal encyclical walks readers through the pastoral process around the ecological crisis. Pope Francis starts by re-connecting us to our relationship with the Earth, both positively and the ways we are out of sync. Just as chaplains are called to be present to the patient or individual in front of them, without theorizing or philosophizing, we as inhabitants of Earth are called to do the same for the climate crisis. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Realities are more important than ideas” (p. 110). Only after we examine these realities under the light and wisdom of our faith will we know the appropriate action.
The first chapter walks the reader through “what is happening to our common home” (p. 15). Pope Francis asks us to step back to witness the changes taking place. This can be challenging to read, because it is an eyes-wide-open approach to how dire our situation is.
Pope Francis then takes us to “discern” in the pastoral cycle. Just as chaplains step back to ask themselves what faith has to offer the crisis that their patient is facing, those working in ecological justice are called to do the same. We are called to bring these realities to prayer and the richness of our Catholic faith, in order to see the problem through the loving gaze of our creator.
This third chapter points out that we are operating out of harmony with creation, and thus are imparting harm. How many times do chaplains see humans operating out of harmony with themselves and others? As ecological workers in the garden, we are called to learn from you: How do you sit with that frustration and discomfort?
The important concept of integral ecology makes up the fourth chapter. Everything is connected; everything is related. We cannot pull on one string without upending the entire web: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it” (p. 139). As chaplains understand that every person in front of them is the combination of familial, personal, environmental, systemic, and other factors, so we can also understand that if our environmental problems seem intertwined and complex, perhaps it is because they are.
Chapter five asks the reader to reflect on integral ecology in context with our current reality in order to discern steps of action – not in a prescriptive way, but acknowledging the realities at hand. Pope Francis asks us to practice constant discernment, and chaplains do exactly that. As chaplains enter a room or a cell, they are discerning what God is asking in each situation.
Chapter six closes by reflecting on the calls to ecological conversion and self-care in the midst of this work. Neither the work of ecological justice nor the work of chaplaincy is easy. Easier said than done, but we try to take care of ourselves, in order to take care of others.
Joseph Carver, a phenomenal chaplain in Bozeman, MT, says, “Fear is a reaction, courage is a decision.” As we each walk into situations of fear, whether it be a room full of scientists facing current warming levels, or a room where someone just received a terminal diagnosis, feeling the fear is not wrong. The question then becomes, what do we choose to do next?
Chaplains model how we begin by centering the relationship with the struggling person, looking pain and suffering in the face, and then seeking healing and wholeness – for the patient, the family, and themselves. Thank you, chaplains, for teaching me about looking realities in the face, acknowledging the fear, and choosing Christ-driven courage.
Anna Johnson is the North American senior program manager at the Laudato Si Movement in Seattle.