When a Pope issues an encyclical, a pastoral letter on a topic of concern to the world, it can be met with a variety of reactions. Some people read the headlines and ignore it. Others read a paragraph or two and put it down or decide the Pope is wrong. The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton is probably one of the few people who has read all 243 pages of the latest papal encyclical and can speak with any authority on it.
At the Sunday morning service of worship and sermon, Braxton provided a thoughtful summary of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. Braxton titled his sermon “On Care for Our Common Home.” His text was the first chapter of Genesis. Braxton, bishop of the Diocese of Belleville in Illinois, is the chaplain for Week Two at Chautauqua.
“God looked around and said ‘that’s good,’ ” Braxton said. “Dear people of God, we come together on this tiny speck of dust floating among the flaming stars. In the vastness of the universe this is our common home and we need to take care of it so that young men (and women) can grow so their boys can be boys and then men,” he said in reference to the theme for Week Two.
On June 18, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, a reflection on the creation narrative. Braxton called this papal letter a moral response to the need to care for the planet so that life on this tiny dot in the universe could flourish. The letter has generated worldwide response, discussion and criticism.
“The Holy Father makes clear that he did not write this letter as a scientist or a government official or even as the supreme shepherd, but as a pastor who cares about the people. He enters the conversation on global warming and climate change with unique moral authority as the 266th successor to St. Peter,” Braxton said.
The Pope, he said, believes everyone should enter the discussion and debate. Everyone has a moral responsibility to care for the earth even if they have no Christian faith or do not care about religion.
The encyclical begins with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” — “Praise be to you, my Lord.” “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
Braxton said that our sister Earth cries out because of the harm done by us.
“We see ourselves as lords and masters entitled to plunder the earth,” he said. “We have burdened and laid waste to the earth, which is now the most maltreated of our poor.
“We come from the dust of the earth and we breathe her air and are refreshed by her water,” Braxton continued. “We can never forget the unbearable lightness of being.”
Pope Francis called for an integral ecology, Braxton said. The Pope called on everyone to see nature as a magnificent book. We should not neglect the poor and outcast but as we see the infinite beauty around us, especially at Chautauqua, we should see through the greatness of nature and find the unseen character of God.
The Pope called for humanity to come together to build a sustainable living space for all.
“The poor live in the places most affected by global warming,” Braxton said. “They are fishermen and farmers and have no other resources to adapt or tools to face natural disaster. This leads to migration. They have to leave their homes and there is a tragic rise in the number of migrants as they flee poverty from environmental degradation.”
Other species are not immune to this degradation.
“Other species have value in themselves,” Braxton said. “A great majority are going extinct because of human activity and we will never benefit from their gifts. We are not God, the Pope says. The earth was here before us and given to us. To say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were given dominion to exploit the earth is not a faithful interpretation. The Holy Father rejected this misinterpretation.”
Braxton continued: “That we were created in God’s image does not justify absolute dominion. The earth has us; we do not have the earth. We do not have God; God has us.”
Pope Francis named fossil fuels as the primary challenge to stopping global warming. He called for corrective action with speed.
“Climate change has great consequences and the Pope hopes that this letter will influence economic policy and energize change,” Braxton said.
The bishop commented on the sharp criticism that the letter and the Pope have received. Some questioned the “well-established science” that humans cause global warming. Some saw it as an “attack on capitalism and meddlin’.” Others thought the Pope should stick to praying and doing good works for the poor and leave climate change to government and big business.
Pope Francis will come to the United States in September and will speak to Congress and at the United Nations. There will be a meeting in December in Paris to discuss climate change.
“Let us hope that those who attend that meeting will walk the walk, talk the talk, and then really walk the walk,” Braxton said.
Human beings are capable of choosing the good, the right and the just for other people and the planet, he said. What are we to do? The Pope said faith and spirituality have to be part of the discussion of the environment. This should be done from a common spiritual approach that appreciates the mystery of the power greater than ourselves, not from a specific faith tradition.
The Pope called for a change of heart and the conversion of everyone, because everyone has a role to play in the care of our common home.
“Some of us think the problem is too big and too complex. But everyone must listen, learn, pray and act in order to appreciate that God’s creation is good, valuable and our responsibility,” Braxton said.
The bishop closed his sermon with James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation,” from his book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. The last verse reads, in part:
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
“Amen and amen,” Braxton said.
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Institution’s Department of Religion, presided. Bonnie Gwin, who has served on the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees for four years, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The anthem, sing by the Chautauqua Choir, was “The Seal Lullaby,” by Eric Whitacre with words from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The offertory anthem was “America the Beautiful,” with music by Samuel Augustus Ward, choral setting by Mark Hayes and text by Katherine Lee Bates. J. Paul Burkhart served as narrator. The organ postlude was “Toccata” by John Weaver. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services.