Eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion: Green­ing the Chris­tian heart

Watchmen Daily Journal - - OPINION - By Br. Wil­liam Ng

The con­cept of "eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion" — the idea of cre­at­ing a global com­mu­nity that both cares for one an­other and the planet — could very well have come from St. Fran­cis of As­sisi, the pa­tron saint of an­i­mals and the en­vi­ron­ment.

He was of­fi­cially de­clared the "heav­enly pa­tron of those who pro­mote ecol­ogy" in 1979 by the Pa­pal Bull In­ter Sanc­tos.

More­over, some his­to­ri­ans say St. Fran­cis started preach­ing as part of the me­dieval pen­i­ten­tial move­ment, which fo­cused on con­ver­sion and in­vited the world to em­brace this phi­los­o­phy.

All Fran­cis­cans are sup­posed to preach penance by their deeds and their words, just as St. Fran­cis did. Penance and con­ver­sion are both ex­pres­sions of the same Bib­li­cal idea of adopt­ing a change of heart.

"And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26).

But, his­tor­i­cally speak­ing, nei­ther St. Fran­cis nor his fol­low­ers coined this mod­ern­sound­ing phrase.

So what ex­actly does eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion mean, and where does it come from?

The first ref­er­ence to the term can be traced back to Pope St. John Paul II in 2001. In a pa­pal au­di­ence he granted that year, he in­tro­duced the con­cept as part of his con­cise the­o­log­i­cal anal­y­sis re­gard­ing cre­ation.

He pointed out that while hu­man­ity has been called on to gov­ern cre­ation to re­al­ize its po­ten­tial, we have acted more like "in­fi­dels" by ig­nor­ing our duty, a trend that has re­sulted in a se­ries of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters.

Quot­ing from his "Evan­gelium Vi­tae" (The Gospel of Life), Pope St. John Paul II said mankind's do­min­ion over cre­ation is not "ab­so­lute but min­is­te­rial: it is a real re­flec­tion of the unique and in­fi­nite lord­ship of God" (EV 52).

As "a stew­ard of God's king­dom," one is "called to con­tinue the cre­ator's work, a work of life and peace."

It is against this back­drop that Pope St. John Paul II urged us to pro­mote eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion.

As sum­ma­rized in the re­main­der of the text, this en­tails: be­ing sen­si­tive to the cur­rent state of eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe; rec­og­niz­ing we are not fit­ting stew­ards but rather au­tonomous despots; un­der­stand­ing the need to stop at the edge of the abyss; and fo­cus­ing on qual­ity of life and ecol­ogy.

The term resur­faced in an­other pa­pal doc­u­ment in 2015 as part of the of­fi­cial mag­is­terium in Pope Fran­cis' fa­mously green­themed en­cycli­cal, "Laudato Si'". The pon­tiff has cited St. Fran­cis as an in­spi­ra­tion.

Clearly, as a de­vel­op­ment of this il­lu­mi­nat­ing but brief work by Pope St. John Paul II, it is a key con­cept in form­ing a prac­ti­cal di­rec­tive for all Chris­tians.

But to un­der­stand it fully, we must sit­u­ate it in the en­tire frame­work of the en­cycli­cal.

In chap­ter one, Pope Fran­cis painstak­ingly de­scribes "What Is Hap­pen­ing to Our Com­mon Home," or the var­i­ous as­pects of the present sit­u­a­tion re­gard­ing the state of the global eco­log­i­cal sys­tem.

Be­cause it is in such bad shape, con­ver­sion is needed now more than ever.

But this con­ver­sion is re­ally a re­sponse to "The Gospel of Cre­ation," which is ex­plained in chap­ter two as a com­pre­hen­sive the­o­log­i­cal re­flec­tion on ecol­ogy.

In chap­ter three, the pope prophet­i­cally de­nounces the roots of the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, par­tic­u­larly the tech­no­cratic par­a­digm and mod­ern an­thro­pocen­trism, away from which one is to con­vert.

Pope Fran­cis de­vel­ops the idea of "in­te­gral ecol­ogy" in chap­ter four, con­nect­ing ecol­ogy and ethics.

To put this into ac­tion, he in­tro­duces in chap­ter five the "Lines of Ap­proach and Ac­tion," the "ma­jor paths of di­a­logue which can help us es­cape the spi­ral of self-de­struc­tion."

Al­though these five chap­ters seem to be fairly com­plete in of­fer­ing a prac­ti­cal anal­y­sis of the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, the pope pin­points the fun­da­men­tal power of the in­di­vid­ual to make im­por­tant choices.

There­fore, "eco­log­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and spir­i­tu­al­ity," the theme of the last chap­ter, is es­sen­tially the cli­max of the en­tire doc­u­ment, em­pow­er­ing one with the free­dom of choice.

Sim­ply put, this eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion is more than em­bark­ing on a per­sonal and com­mu­nal pro­gram of a green life­style.

It is part of an eco­log­i­cal spir­i­tu­al­ity that ap­pro­pri­ates and de­vel­ops "the spir­i­tual trea­sures be­stowed by God upon the church, where the life of the spirit is not dis­so­ci­ated from the body or from na­ture or from worldly re­al­i­ties, but lived in and with them, in com­mu­nion with all that sur­rounds us" (LS 216).

Pope Fran­cis, quot­ing Pope Bene­dict in 2005, points to the need for con­ver­sion: the "ex­ter­nal deserts in the world are grow­ing be­cause the in­ter­nal deserts have be­come so vast."

So, the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis sum­mons all Chris­tians to a pro­found in­te­rior con­ver­sion. The re­sult of an eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion means that the Chris­tian en­counter with Je­sus Christ be­comes ev­i­dent in the

re­la­tion­ship with the world around us.

In other words, con­ver­sion is "liv­ing the vo­ca­tion to be pro­tec­tors of God's hand­i­work [which] is es­sen­tial to a life of virtue; it is not an op­tional or a sec­ondary as­pect of our Chris­tian ex­pe­ri­ence" (LS 217).

With­out such an in­te­rior change of heart and mind there can be no pro­found ex­ter­nal change of life­style to be more prophetic, as­cetic and con­tem­pla­tive in mak­ing eco­log­i­cal choices.

In essence, it is not the "how" of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion but the why.

With ref­er­ence to Aus­tralian bish­ops, eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion would achieve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with cre­ation by ex­am­in­ing our lives and ac­knowl­edg­ing the ways in which we have harmed God's cre­ation both through our ac­tions

and our fail­ure to act.

or­der to change the way we act, we need a change of heart — a con­ver­sion (LS 218). This also has a com­mu­nity di­men­sion.

"So­cial prob­lems must be ad­dressed by com­mu­nity net­works and not sim­ply by the sum of in­di­vid­ual good deeds" (LS 219).

What con­ver­sion re­ally means is a change of at­ti­tude, on both the per­sonal and so­cial level, to em­brace a spirit of gen­er­ous care (LS 220).

Eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion has var­i­ous over­lap­ping lay­ers. The pope cites at least four, as sum­ma­rized below.

First, there must grat­i­tude and gra­tu­itous­ness, "a recog­ni­tion that the world is God's lov­ing gift, and that we are called qui­etly to im­i­tate his gen­eros­ity in self­sac­ri­fice and good works."

Sec­ond, there must be "a lov­ing aware­ness that we are not dis­con­nected from the rest of crea­tures, but joined in a splen­did uni­ver­sal


Third, one has to be aware "that each crea­ture re­flects some­thing of God and has a mes­sage to con­vey to us, and the se­cu­rity that Christ has taken unto him­self this ma­te­rial world and now, risen, is in­ti­mately present to each be­ing, sur­round­ing it with his af­fec­tion and pen­e­trat­ing it with his light."

Fi­nally, one must rec­og­nize "that God cre­ated the world, writ­ing into it an or­der and a dy­namism that hu­man be­ings have no right to ig­nore."

In con­clu­sion, eco­log­i­cal con­ver­sion is more than just spon­sor­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. It is part of a larger scheme of see­ing God as the cre­ator and re­lat­ing to His cre­ation, which re­quires a green­ing of our hearts.

Thank­fully, we have the ex­am­ple and in­ter­ces­sions of St. Fran­cis to take in­spi­ra­tion from. And hope­fully we will see more peo­ple em­brace this phi­los­o­phy in 2019.

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