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Deacon-structing Heaven: Part 2


Last time ,we looked at what Scriptures tell us about Heaven. Perhaps we do know more about Heaven than we think.

Well, I guess, at least we know with certainty that we are going to die. So what happens when we die?

We believe that we will be judged for our actions during this life. But no one knows what that judgment will be like. I tend to lean more on God’s mercy than on God’s judgment and so I don’t think it’s going to be a condemnation. I think we are more likely to condemn ourselves. They do say that God doesn’t send anyone to Hell – people go there out of their own will.

So at the Judgment we either choose to go with God or not, and then get sent to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory.

The first Christians thought that the dead simply slept, awaiting Jesus’ return. Of course, they expected him to show up any day. In 1336, Pope Benedict XII defined as dogma that people faced an individual judgment and entered Heaven, Hell or Purgatory immediately after death.

So what is Purgatory? It is the final purification of a person who is on their way to Heaven. Only the truly pure and perfected in Grace can see God face to face. If we don’t achieve the perfection of charity on this earth, the mercy of God provides for us a place of final purification. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. Catholics pray for the dead and believe that their prayers can ease the process of purification.

If understanding Purgatory can help us understand Heaven, so can it also help understanding Hell:

To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from God forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from Communion with God and the blessed is called Hell. This is what I wrote earlier – we have to choose Hell; we condemn ourselves.

There is a beautiful Korean story where Heaven is a huge dinner party, but the chopsticks are six feet long, so the guests cannot feed themselves; they can only put food in someone else’s mouth. Hell is the same, except the guests are too caught up in their own pride and selfishness that they refuse to feed each other and wait in hunger forever.

Saints and Blesseds are the people whom we know with certainty are already in Heaven; they are already in that state of Union with God. I know that it must be amazing being with God all the time, but I have to be honest – it scares me a bit. I guess it scares me a bit to think of eternity. It’s because my little mortal and temporal mind can’t comprehend it. We may not be able to fully comprehend eternity as we are confined by time and space, but we can understand the concept of being with God; of being with God and all our loved ones, the Community of Saints and being able to love perfectly. That’s Heaven!

And I think we can try to do that right here on earth. It’s no use trying to figure out where Heaven is. Heaven is with God – and wherever that is – that’s where I want to be. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him.” That’s Heaven.

Write to me and tell me what you think.

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church @deaconpedrogm


Pope Francis sends letter for Romero beatification

Romero pilgrims
At 10:00 this morning, El Salvador time, in the Plaza del Divino Salvador del Mundo in San Salvador, the Mass of Beatification took place for Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, born on August 15, 1917 Ciudad Barrios (El Salvador) and martyred for “odium fidei” (hatred of the faith) on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in a convent chapel in San Salvador. Below is the English translation of the Spanish letter sent by Pope Francis this morning to His Excellency José Luis Escobar Alas, Archbishop of San Salvador on the occasion of the beatification ceremony.

His Excellency José Luis Escobar Alas
Archbishop of San Salvador
President of the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador

Dear Brother:
The beatification of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, who was Pastor of that dear Archdiocese is a cause for great joy for the Salvadoran people and for those who rejoice by the example of the best children of the Church. Archbishop Romero, who built peace with the strength of love, gave witness to the faith with his life, given to the extreme.

The Lord never abandons his people in difficulties, and has always shown Himself solicitous with your needs. He sees oppression, He hears the cries of pain of His children, and comes to their aid to free them from oppression and bring them to a new land, fertile and spacious, that “flows with milk and honey” (cf. Ex 3, 7-8). Equally he chose Moses one day so that, in His name, he would guide His people, He continues to raise up pastors according to His heart, who feed their flocks with knowledge and prudence (cf Jer 3, 15).

In that beautiful Central American land, bathed by the Pacific Ocean, the Lord granted his Church a zealous Bishop who, loving God and serving the brothers and sisters, converted into an image of Christ the Good Shepherd. In times of difficult coexistence, Archbishop Romero knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church. His ministry was distinguished by a particular attention to the most poor and marginalized. And in the moment of his death, while he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of love and reconciliation, he received the grace to identify himself fully with He who gave his life for his sheep.

On this feast day for the Salvadoran nation, and also for neighboring Latin American countries, we give thanks to God because he granted the martyred Bishop, the ability to see and hear the suffering of his people, and molded his heart so that, in His name, he could direct them and illuminate them, even making of his work a full exercise of Christian charity.

The voice of the newly Blessed continues to resonate today to remind us that the Church, a convocation of brothers surrounding their Lord, is the family of God, in which there should be no division. Faith in Jesus Christ, when understood well and its final consequences assumed, generates communities of that are builders of peace and solidarity. This is what the Church in El Salvador is called to today, in America and in the whole world: to be rich in mercy and to convert into the leaven of reconciliation for society.

Archbishop Romero invites us to sanity and reflection, to respect for life and harmony. It is necessary to renounce “the violence of the sword, of hate” and to live “the violence of love, that left Christ nailed to the Cross, that makes each one of us overcome selfishness and so that there be no more such cruel inequality between us.” He knew how to see and experienced in his own flesh “the selfishness that hides itself in those who do not wish to give up what is theirs for the benefit of others.” And, with the heart of a father, he would worry about the “poor majority”, asking the powerful to convert “weapons into sickles for work.”

May those who have Archbishop Romero as a friend of faith, those who invoke him as protector and intercessor, those who admire his image, find in him the strength and courage to build the Kingdom of God, to commit to a more equal and dignified social order.

It is a favorable moment for a true national reconciliation in front of the challenges we are facing today. The Pope participates in your hopes, and unites Himself to your prayers so that the seed of martyrdom may flourish and become entrenched in the true paths of the sons and daughters of that nation, which proudly hears the name of the divine Saviour of the World.

Dear brother, I ask of you a favor: that you pray and that you may pray for me, while I impart my Apostolic Blessing to all who united in various ways to celebrate the newly Blessed

Fraternally yours,

Vatican, 23 Mary, 2015

Photo credit: Pilgrim carries poster of Archbishop Romero day before beatification ceremony in San Salvador (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

Deacon-structing Heaven

I was at the March for Life last Thursday, on the day that most places around the world celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. Here in Canada we celebrate it today, the Sunday after the 6th Sunday in Easter.
After the March, as I was reflecting about it, I started thinking about how the life in the womb can be described in relation to our life, as our life can be related to life after death. If our lives on earth are but a preparation for the Life to come; that is sort of what life in the womb is: a preparation for life after the womb.

It’s not a perfect analogy – but I was thinking about that because of the Ascension. I was thinking about the relationship of this life to the Life to come.

So, let me ask you this: What is your idea of Heaven? Is it an idyllic place? Is it always sunny? Is there a beach? Is there no traffic and no pollution? Are there birds singing? Is it quiet and peaceful? Is your family there?

I once read about a woman who hoped to see her late husband in Heaven. A friend however told her: “But you’ll be so happy looking at God you won’t even notice your husband.” This woman was voicing her hope of reunion but her friend was echoing the Church’s teaching that Heaven’s joy is focused on enjoying the “beatific vision,” seeing God face-to-face. I wonder who is right: The woman, her friend, or both of them.

We don’t have any details of life in Heaven. Nobody has ever come back to tell us what it’s like. But we do have some informed speculation. For one, Jesus spent a lot of time trying to explain to his disciples what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Think “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed” (Mt 13:31; Luke 13:19; or “a wedding banquet.” (Mt 22:2)

In the New Testament, Heaven is referred to as “the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3); “the Kingdom of the Father” (Mt. 13:43); “the House of the Father” (Jn 14:2); “Paradise” (2 Cor. 12:4); “glorious inheritance” (Eph. 1:18) and “eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).

And we know that according to the Gospel of Luke, Heaven (or at least “Paradise”) is the Kingdom where Jesus went after his death on the cross. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, one of the criminals hanging on the cross beside him kept mocking him but the other criminal rebuked him saying, “Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).

So, perhaps we do know more about Heaven than we think. Still, can we say we know exactly what Heaven is? The Church teaches that “The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life (CCC#1020). It also teaches that those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ (CCC#1023).
Heaven is not a physical place. Heaven is a state of being one with God. When we learn about the Ascension of Jesus – while we can believe that Jesus really did physically ascend – we are not referring to a physical action. Heaven is not up in the skies somewhere. Ascension into Heaven is a coming into unity with God where we belong. St. Athanasius is known for saying that “God became man so that man might become god.” It sounds heretical and new age, but that is what we believe: That the temporal will become eternal; the physical will become spiritual and the human will become divine. That is Heaven. Heaven is “a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.” It is the fulfillment of God’s desire to be one with each person as God is one with Himself in the Trinity (CCC#1023-29).

And Heaven includes all of Creation. All material Creation will not be “deleted” in Heaven; it will be “completed” in Heaven. We believe in the “resurrection of the body.” That means that in Heaven we will have bodies. That is what we see with Jesus being resurrected in a new body and also ascending to the Father in a physical body. After the resurrection Jesus ate and the disciples touched him. At the same time, the resurrected Jesus didn’t seem to be confined by time and space. So perhaps in Heaven we will be with our bodies, but it will be different. Here on earth we have a physical body, but in Heaven, we will have a spiritual body.

But no one knows what it means to have a spiritual body. Will we have emotions? Is Eric Clapton right to sing that there tears in Heaven? Are there calories in Heaven? Will I have hair in Heaven?

What we do know is that God intends for us to be in union with Him. That is why we are created. God is creating us to go to Heaven and be with Him.

What do you think? Write to me and share your thoughts.

And come back next week and we’ll look at other fun things like judgment, purgatory and hell.

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing New Life: Waste Water


A few weeks ago I wrote about Waste Management and shared an important piece of information: In nature, there is no waste. We must remember this as we go about making choices that impact the waste we produce. When we think of waste, we think of garbage, that is, what goes to landfill and what goes to compost or recycling. But do you ever think about all the waste that gets flushed down the drain?

Every day each of us generates about 90 gallons (340 litres)  of waste-water. We use the largest amount, about 50 gallons (190 litres) to wash and clean clothes, dishes, ourselves and our homes. Flushing the toilet uses about another 25-30 gallons (about 100 litres) of water daily. Cooking and drinking water require another 2 – 10 gallons (between 8 and 39 litres) daily.

Recently, while working on production for our upcoming six-part series on the environment, Creation, we were in Northern California at the Arcata Waste Water Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary, where the city of Arcata operates an innovative sewer management system. It’s a very simple process: A series of oxidation ponds, treatment wetlands and enhancement marshes are used to filter sewage water. Did I say that in nature there is no waste? But this Water Treatment Plant in Arcata is also a wildlife sanctuary. Despite being effectively a sewer, the series of open-air lakes do not smell, and are a popular destination for birdwatching, cycling and jogging.

Before the waste water can enter the oxidation ponds, all solid waste, debris and other gritty materials have to be removed (more on this later). All solid waste is decomposed by bacteria. This happens in what are called “digesters”. They are “anaerobic digesters” because the bacteria decompose or digest the sludge without using oxygen. The bacteria in the digesters convert some of the ingredients in the sludge into methane gas, which can be harnessed as energy. Essentially this whole “digesting” process is composting. The solids (or sludge) are dried and mixed with lawn and brush clippings. This mixture is composted and used all over Arcata and in the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

The water that remains after all the solids are removed are then sent into oxidation ponds or lakes. In these ponds, other bacteria and microorganisms break down or digest any remaining waste in the sewage. Algae in the ponds provide oxygen for the bacteria. Once algae and bacteria die, they also become pollutants so they too have to be removed before the water goes out into the ocean.

 The water then moves from the oxidation ponds into the treatment marshes where the bulrush and cattails shade the water so algae can’t grow. These plants slow the flow of the waste-water allowing suspended pollutants to sink to the bottom of the marsh. These plants also provide habitat for bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that feed on and further breakdown pollutants in the waste-water.

Then the water moves on to the enhancement marshes where the waste-water is treated again by removing more suspended matter and other pollutants. The enhancement marshes also provide habitat for wildlife and beautiful scenery for visitors.

Just before the now-treated water is allowed to go out into the ocean, local law requires that it is treated with chlorine in order to kill pathogens, harmful bacteria and viruses. Sulfur Dioxide is used to remove the chlorine before the water goes out into Humbolt Bay – although we were told by David Couch who’s been working in waste water treatment in Arcata for many years, that the chlorine is not really necessary – that the marshes are able to do all the necessary cleaning.

As David Couch took us through the whole process I kept thinking what Jack Macy at SF Environment had told us; that there is no waste in nature. This is what God intended. I was reminded of what Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich told me once when explaining Hannukkah: “God is the only one who has the capacity to begin; but he has given us the capacity to begin again.” God intends for new life to begin again, and again, and again. Nature does this by design. We can treat all waste in water naturally and return to nature the water that we use. This is what God intended.


However, there are some items that cannot not be removed naturally. We have to be more mindful that these items do not end up in the water. Consider this: According to the U.S National Park Service, if you throw out a piece of paper towel out at sea, it will last about 2-4 weeks. An orange or banana peel will last 2-5 weeks. A newspaper, 6 weeks. A waxed milk carton, 3 months. Other items:

Plywood 1-3 years
Wool sock 1-5 years
Cigarette filter 1-50 years
Plastic Bag 10-20 years
Plastic film canister 20-30 years
Nylon Fabric 30-40 years
Leather 50 years
Tin can 50 years
Foamed plastic cup 50 years
Aluminum can 80-200 years
Disposable diapers 450 years
Plastic beverage bottles 450 years
Glass Bottle 1,000,000 years

And if we remember what we were told at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, this is not mentioning the damage that any of these items can cause when ingested by wildlife.

As we learn more and more about what the Church teaches about ecology we must remember that water is a universal right to all human beings (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 27) and that we must care for all of Creation.

In the words of Pope Francis from his May 21, 2014 General Audience:

Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.

And in his Urbi et Orbi message for Easter, 2013, Pope Francis said:

…let us become agents of [God’s] mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.

Peace to the whole world, torn apart by violence linked to drug trafficking and by the iniquitous exploitation of natural resources! Peace to this our Earth! May the risen Jesus bring comfort to the victims of natural disasters and make us responsible guardians of creation.

Indeed, let us all become responsible guardians of creation. Let’s begin by thinking about the water that we consume and that all creation needs for survival.

To learn more about what the Catholic Church says about the environment and water issues, stay tuned for our new six-part series Creation, coming to you at the end of 2015 and to learn more about the Arcata Marsh, visit the Friends of the Arcata Marsh.

Deacon-structing: #ThankANun

When I was a kid, growing up in Panama, quite often, our parents would take us to the Convent of the Visitation to visit with (no pun intended) the sisters. The Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary was founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal in France in 1610 to help care for the sick and poor of the community. The order was named after Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, from the first chapter in the Gospel of Luke. They have a special devotion and love for the Sacred Heart of  Jesus and the order has been in Panama since 1925. Of course, as a child, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was the joy that these women radiated. That and the goodies that we always received from their bakery!

We also knew the story: Once when my grandparents were travelling out of the country and my mother, already a young professional, was home alone, she began going to the nearby convent and befriended the sisters. On many occasions she would spend the night there so as to not be home alone. Thus began a lifelong friendship that continued after my parents’ marriage. In fact, although the sisters are cloistered, on many occasions my dad was allowed behind the cloister, so as to help the sisters with an electrical or plumbing issue. (I was very much reminded of this, when I was allowed behind a Carmelite cloister for 12 hours when making A Day in a Life: The Carmel of St. Joseph.)

When I think of nuns I always think of these sisters and in particular Sr. Maria Celina, who was about 4ft tall and always came to open the gate for us and Sr. Margarita Ines, who was Mother Superior. Since then, I have met many religious sisters – interviewed many of them and have been invited to dinner by many  more – have come across many different congregations and have worked with many sisters (too many to name here, but you know who you are: I love you!) and so I am very excited about a new initiative called #ThankANun, to take place on May 5th.

I learned about #ThankANun from John Schlimm, author of Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship that Answered Life’s Greatest Questions (Image, May 5, 2015). I recently interviewed John for our radio program, the SLHour. He told me that “Thank a Nun Day” is an organized social media effort that invites participants of all ages from around the world to unite under the hashtag #ThankANun to share messages of gratitude to the Catholic nuns—past and present—who have made a difference in their lives. The effort to celebrate the service and contribution of Catholic nuns is being jointly sponsored by Image, the Catholic division of Penguin Random House, and John Schlimm.

In Five Years in Heaven, John Schlimm recounts the heartwarming story of his five-year friendship with Sister Augustine, who was in her nineties and who helped him discover the true meaning and purpose of his life.“For as long as I live, Sister Augustine will be one of the most extraordinary people I’ll ever know,” John said. “For me, she was a light in the darkness. A mentor. A friend. I know many others feel the same way about the special nuns who have passed through their lives as well.”All day, on May 5, we are encouraged to use the hashtag #ThankANun in sharing written messages and photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest as a way to say “Thank You” to the Catholic Sisters who have dedicated their lives to serving, encouraging and inspiring others.There are several ways to participate in Thank A Nun Day:

  •  Join Thunderclap:  Link
  • Check out the fun COLOR A NUN activity for kids to share. Go to to download a “Color A Nun” picture. Once you’ve coloured it remember to share your finished COLOR A NUN page on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest using #ThankANun.
  • Start sharing now! Follow @saltandlighttv, @ImageCatholic and @JohnSchlimm on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or Pinterest, and start sharing your pictures and stories about Catholic nuns who have inspired you!
  • Be sure to use the hashtag #ThankANun
  • If the religious congregation has a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest account be sure to tag them.

And don’t forget to send a direct message or make a phone call to those Sisters who’ve made a difference in your life. Tell them how much you are grateful for the tireless and thankless work that they do and for saying yes to the vocation of religious life. This is something we should be doing all the time, not just once a year, but perhaps we can all contribute to make sure that nuns are trending on May 5 and that #ThankANun becomes a yearly event.

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing the Voice


In the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the Good Shepherd and he says that he leads the sheep and they hear his voice. He also says that He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. In Chapter 14: 23, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus says that those who “love me will keep my word.” And so I’ve been thinking about what it means to “know” Jesus and what it means to keep his word. This is the Jesus who can be known. That’s why in all the resurrection stories, it’s very clear that Jesus is not a ghost (Luke 24:39), but he is flesh and bones and he eats (Luke 24:41-42; John 21:9). He is alive and He is real. He can be known.

But I can’t help but think that there is a connection between knowing Jesus, keeping his word and hearing his voice.

But Jesus’ voice is but one voice among many: the voice of pleasure and the voice of power; the voices of pride and despair, of fear and doubt. How do we know the voice of Christ? We listen. That’s it. We have to make quiet time for listening so we can tune in to the voice of Jesus. If our prayer time is consumed with speaking: thanksgiving prayers and petition prayers and asking for forgiveness and offering praise – all the while listening to praise and worship music – then it’s a bit one-sided. We have to be quiet – silent – so we can listen. We need to start this today. Set aside quiet time each day. Be silent and listen.

And when you do, how do you know you’re listening to the voice of Jesus so that you can know him? How do we discern His voice among all the voices in the world? And how do we recognize his voice when it’s about something that Jesus didn’t speak about? It’s easy to keep His word when it’s about something that Jesus spoke about, but how do we keep His word about stuff that Jesus never spoke about? How can you “know” him if it’s not in Scripture?

Let me make a proposal: The voice of Jesus is the voice of the Church. Or rather, the voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus. Jesus gives His voice to the Church. He gives His voice to the apostles; He gives them His authority and that’s the way it’s been from the beginning of Christianity.

It was happening right in Book of Acts. In Acts 15:1—29 we have the disciples doing what Jesus asked them to do: They are keeping His word. They are going to the ends of the earth making disciples. And Paul and Barnabas are disciple-making machines. And most of their converts are gentiles: people of non-Jewish background. But what happens? They’re in Antioch and to Antioch comes a group of Jewish-Christians (converts from Judaism; called the Judaizers) and they tell the gentile-Christians that in order for them to be Christian, they have to follow the Law of Moses: all the Jewish Levitical laws.

Remember the Jewish people had strict laws about what they could eat and not eat, about washing about rituals and sacrifice and other things. And the main issue was the issue of circumcision. They said that in order to be saved, you had to be circumcised. Now, Jesus never spoke about this, but Paul and Barnabas are pretty sure that this teaching is wrong. But is it up to Paul and Barnabas to make this decision? No – they are not the Church leadership. They are important – but they are not the Church leadership.

So they take the matter to Jerusalem, to the Church leadership, the Apostles. And we have the first Church council. We call it the Council of Jerusalem. And ever since then, when the Church encounters a matter that needs to be defined or clarified, they gather in a council in order to define doctrine or teaching. We heard of the Council of Trent and the Council of Chalcedon and the two Vatican Councils. Well, in the Book of Acts we have the first Council in Jerusalem. They had a problem that had to be solved; a teaching that had to be defined. And it’s something that Jesus never spoke about: Circumcision. Jesus never spoke about what Gentiles should or shouldn’t do if they became Christians. So the Apostles and Church leaders gather and make a decision. And we know that they decide that you do not have to be Jewish, in order to be a Christian.

How do they decide? With the Holy Spirit. The letter they send back to Antioch says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” It doesn’t say they decided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit inspired them to decide… no: They decided together with the Holy Spirit. And that’s the way the Church has been since then. Together with the Holy Spirit, doctrine can be defined because the Church speaks with the authority and the voice of Jesus.

Back in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Apostles: “The Father will send you the Holy Spirit in my name and He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I have spoken.” (John 14:25-26) What does that mean? It means that of the things Jesus spoke about, the Spirit will remind us; but of the things Jesus didn’t speak about, the Spirit will teach us. So we are guaranteed that the Church leadership will always, together with the Holy Spirit speak with the authority and voice of Christ, whenever they speak as a whole. Jesus does not give His Spirit to 12 individual people; He gives His Spirit to them as Church and so it’s not whatever an individual Bishop says, but when the Bishops and the Holy Father speak as the College of Bishops or in the context of a Ecumenical Council.

Church leadership is important and it’s always been this way. The Book of Revelation (21:10-23) presents us with a beautiful and immense city: The New Jerusalem. And many scholars agree that when the Book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem, it refers to the Church. See what this city looks like: It has a wall with 12 gates and over each gate are written the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That’s where we came from. That’s our heritage – the old Jerusalem, the first Covenant. But the foundation – there are 12 foundations and over each foundation are written the names of the 12 apostles. Jesus said to Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my Church. The foundation of the Church is the 12 apostles and it’s always been that way – and that foundation continues today with the successor of the Apostles, the Bishops and our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

So, if we want to know Jesus and keep his word we have to listen to the Church. If we do we will keep His word and the Father will come to us and the Father, Son and Spirit will come to us and make their home with us (John 14:23).

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much  to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing New Life: Waste Management


On Easter Sunday I wrote that it’s not hard to find physical signs of new life and resurrection everywhere we look. In fact, I would say that one of the arguments for life after death and even for the divine life is the fact that there are physical signs everywhere. Whether it’s a seed that dies in order to bear fruit, winter melting into spring or people overcoming challenges in order to do great good, resurrection is all around us. In fact, I am reminded of new life, once a week, when I take my recycling and composting bins out to the curb.

Recently, as part of our Creation series pre-production, I was corresponding with Robert Reed, Public Relations Manager at San Francisco’s Recology. Almost immediately I received a response from Fr. Bob Reed at Catholic TV  in Boston. Fr. Bob wrote, “Nice to hear from you Deacon Pedro, but I think this email was intended for someone else.” I responded right away to apologize: “Fr. Bob, what a nice opportunity to hear from you. Did you know that you have a “brother” with the same name that works in waste management in San Francisco?” Fr. Bob responded: “What a coincidence! I am in waste management too – the spiritual kind.” And so began my journey into the world of waste management.


In California we went to The San Francisco Department of the Environment or SF Environment. They are the municipal department dedicated to creating policies and programs that promote social equity, protect human health, and lead the way toward a sustainable future. They have green building, toxics reduction and clean transportation programs, programs to do with climate change, energy, urban agriculture and environmental justice, as well as a zero waste program.


It was the Zero Waste program that we were interested in. Jack Macy, who is in charge of the program told me that the goal is zero waste by 2020, which means that nothing goes to landfills or incinerators; everything is either composted or recycled. If you can’t compost or recycle it, you can’t purchase it.


Part of the waste problem is that we don’t see it. When you arrive at SF Environment, the first thing you see is an 8 ft pile of clothing. The caption reads, “Every 7 minutes San Franciscans thrown 560 pounds of textiles into landfill – the equivalent of this 8-foot tower or textiles.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of waste. Of this material, only 87 million tons was either recycled or composted. That’s only 34.5%. That means that, on average, Americans recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.38 (2kgs) pounds per person per day. According to Environment Canada, the average Canadian produces 1.8 kilograms (4lbs.) of waste per day!


Today in San Francisco, they are able to compost or recycle 90% of people’s waste. That means that mostly everything, construction debris, rubber, metals, batteries, empty paint containers, textiles, shoes, electronics, light bulbs, furniture and household appliances can be recycled, and food scraps, organic waste, soiled paper products, and yard waste can be composted.


Robert Reed (from Recology, not the priest) took us to one of their Recycling Facilities. The plant at Pier 96 receives paper, cardboard, plastics and glass. Robert explained how recycling saves resources like water. By recycling glass, we achieve 50% in water savings. By recycling paper, we help paper mills reduce their water use by up to 60%. Recycling also reduces energy use. Recycling newsprint, for example, results in an almost 40% reduction in total energy demand. Recycled aluminum provides a 94% reduction in energy use compared with making aluminum from virgin ore. Recycling also keeps materials out of landfills and incinerators. Recycling also avoids pollution. More importantly, recycling means that industries reduce their need to extract more timber, crude oil and ores. By reducing extraction from natural resources we help protect natural habitats and biodiversity. This also helps reduce pollution.

Lastly, as we saw at the Pier 96 plant, recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.


Robert Reed then took us to a compost facility. This used to be a landfill. Basically, when waste goes into a landfill, it is sealed so that toxic substances cannot leak into the soil. Because there is no oxygen, the waste does not biodegrade. If you have the choice of throwing out organic waste or paper into the garbage or in your green bin – consider that what goes in the garbage, if it ends up in a landfill, will not biodegrade. Sr. Damien-Marie Savino, fse, who is a doctor in environmental engineering and chair of the Environmental Science and Studies department at the University of St. Thomas – Houston (and who is working closely with us on Creation), remembers her early days as a student, doing research at a landfill in Puerto Rico. She says that when they uncovered the waste, it was like a time capsule. She was able to find newspapers from the 1920s that had not decomposed. She was able to read them!

On top of that, when organic waste is compressed into a landfill without oxygen, methane gas is produced. Robert Reed told us that more carbon pollution results from this methane gas than from the carbon produced by vehicles on the road. Landfills are not a good idea. Jack Macy at SF Environment commented that in nature there is no waste; everything is used. Robert Reed would agree. This is what composting does; what God intended.


Compost improves soil health and protects topsoil from erosion. Compost promotes healthy microbial activity in soil, providing micronutrients to plant roots, and discouraging soil diseases. Composting returns nutrients to farms so they can grow healthy fruits and vegetables. As opposed to landfills which are producing methane gas, compost sequesters carbon deep in the soil. This means that carbon that is produced by fossil fuel emissions can be recaptured into the soil (where it belongs). Lastly, compost is a great alternative to chemical fertilizers and a more healthy way to grow food.  Composting is a very good idea.

Which led me back to Robert Reed, the priest. One of the things I’ve learned from Sr. Savino is that the soil is an analogy for the soul: When the soul is far from God, we see the effects in the soil, in the land. You can see this consistently in the story of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. It is not a coincidence that God is described as a Gardener or that man was created in a garden – or that man was created out of dirt.

I don’t mean, however, that if celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is spiritual waste management, that we should be recycling or composting our “waste”. Rather, what happens at Reconciliation, as with all the Sacraments is a transformation. God takes what we have – and sometimes that is “waste” – and transforms it. He takes our sinfulness and transforms it. We lay our difficulties, our challenges, all our doubts, fears and insecurities – those things that can often lead us to sin – and lay them at the foot of the Cross. Christ takes them and transforms them. That’s recycling and composting: taking what God has given us, that we have changed and misused, that we have damaged, and giving it back to Him so He can restore it.

That’s exactly what happens in many of the Resurrection stories. Whether it’s Jesus pushing his way into the locked upper room, either according to John or to Luke, to find the disciples huddled in fear, or whether it’s Jesus joining two distraught disciples on their walk to Emmaus, or speaking Mary Magdalene’s name at the garden (another garden), or calling to them from the beach as when they had gone back to fishing, Jesus always brings us peace. That’s why the first thing he says to the disciples is “shalom”. He forgives them by giving them peace. Then he stays with them and by his presence and by simple mundane things like eating with them, he transforms them, “opening up their minds” so they can understand the Scriptures.

Jesus does the same for us. Always. We in turn, must also always give life to others and to all creation. Maybe it starts with a simple mundane act like taking your green bin or recycling to the curb.

Want to find out more about what the Church has to say about recycling and composting? Keep your ears and eyes open for our new six-part series Creation, coming to you at the end of the year.


Deacon-structing Unbelief


Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe

I don’t know about you, but when I imagine the scene from John 20:19-31, I don’t think Jesus is giving St. Thomas a hard time. I think he’s encouraging him, consoling him.

Think about it: Your friend, the man you loved, your teacher, has just been arrested, tortured and killed. This just happened. Today is Sunday. He was arrested on Thursday, killed on Friday. It just happened. You’re devastated. On top of that, you’re terrified because the people who killed him will probably come and kill you next.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples were hiding with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. They were terrified. So, you’re devastated, sad, and terrified, and on top of that, this guy who you thought was the Messiah, the Christ – you staked your life on that – turns out that he wasn’t. He’s dead. You left everything to follow him and now what? You just wasted the last three years of your life. How are you going to go back home now? What are you going to tell your wife and family? You feel like an idiot, like a loser, like you’ve been taken in. Imagine the shame. And now these women (women were not considered credible witnesses at the time) say that the tomb is open and the body is gone. They’ve stolen his body…

That’s not un-belief or cynicism. That’s reality. All of us would come to the same conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with Thomas not believing. In fact, none of the disciples believed without seeing.

In the Gospel of Matthew, it says that even after they had seen Jesus (Mt.28:17), some worshiped him but some doubted. After they had seen him; they doubted. In the Gospel of Mark it says that no one believed Mary Magdalene when she said she had seen Jesus. They would not believe it (Mk 16:11). When Jesus appears to them he “upbraids them for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (Mk. 16:14). In the Gospel of Luke; same thing: The women say they saw angels and that Jesus is alive. But “to the disciples this seemed like an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Then it says that Peter got up and went to the tomb and it doesn’t say that he believed. It only says that he was amazed (Lk 24:12). Did he believe? I don’t know but when Jesus appears to them they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? (Lk. 24:37). And in John’s Gospel, Peter and John (or the beloved disciple) run to the tomb and it says that John “saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8). It doesn’t say that Peter believed. Then it adds that they “did not yet understand”.

You know what? None of them believed without seeing.  Why do we pick on poor Thomas for not believing? He was just like everyone else. They saw and touched and then believed. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand.

While working on our Creation series, I was at a faith and science event at the University of St. Thomas in Houston (named after the famous unbeliever) a few years ago and I was speaking to a physicist and astronomer who works with the Hubble Telescope. He’s a Catholic and he said that he believed in the resurrection because of evidence. Evidence? Really? What evidence? He said that we had the evidence of the first-hand testimony of credible witnesses.

And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When there is a trial – we watch them on Law and Order all the time– if there’s been a murder, for example, there’s physical evidence: DNA evidence or the murder weapon. Then there’s circumstantial evidence; evidence that we can deduce by logic, motive; and then there are witnesses. If someone actually witnessed the crime, “I saw the man pull the trigger; and it’s that man sitting right there,” that’s considered evidence. And then it’s up to the defense and the Crown or District attorneys to show whether these witnesses are credible or not.

Well, we have the credible first-hand testimony of witnesses to the resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us the disciples were looked upon with high esteem and they were baptising new Christians by the thousands (Acts 5:12-16). Why? ‘Cause they were authentic, credible witnesses. And what was their testimony? “This man was dead, and now he’s alive.” That was the first confession of our Faith. Today’s first reading (2nd Sunday, Easter, Cycle B: Acts 4:32-35) says that “with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great favour was accorded them all.”

In fact, if you read the Book of Acts, every time someone is professing the Faith, that’s what they say, “Jesus was dead, he died, he was crucified; and God raised him from the dead; He is alive.” It was only later that the longer creed was developed. All the early professions of Faith were simply that.

And we profess that at every Mass too: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. In fact, it’s called the Profession of Faith. The priest says, “The mystery of Faith” and we all respond, “We proclaim your death, oh Lord and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” That’s the earliest profession of Faith.

I started  thinking about this after Pope Francis’ first homily. It was very short – he spoke about three words: walking, building and confessing – a whole theology of life right there in those three words: walking, building and confessing. And I started thinking about “confessing.” What does that mean? What does it mean to confess our faith? Most of us are OK with learning about our Faith, living our Faith, and even sharing our Faith – but do we confess our Faith? Do we profess that Jesus was dead and now he’s alive? We’re ok professing it at Mass, but do we profess it when we leave the church building?

We can make that profession of Faith because we have evidence. We have witnesses like Thomas. So why does it sound like Jesus is giving Thomas a hard time for not believing? “Blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe.” It’s because that statement is not for Thomas. It’s for us. It’s for all the people who were reading the Gospel when it was first written. Remember that the Gospel of John was written about 70 years after the resurrection. All the first-hand witnesses had already died. And the early Christians were persecuted. The gospels were written to encourage them, to give them hope. That’s why John’s gospel has Jesus giving them peace. In other Gospels he says, “Don’t be afraid.”?

That message is for us today: If you’re afraid, if you’re struggling with doubt, have peace, don’t be afraid. Jesus is alive. He has triumphed over death. Have faith. In today’s second reading from 1 John 5:1-6, we hear that “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

And it is not a blind faith.  There’s a saying that says that Faith isn’t believing that God can do something; it’s knowing that He will. There’s a certainty in Faith. And it’s a certainty based on trust.

 This may seem a bit strange to you because we’re always hearing about how Faith has to be blind or that we have to believe without seeing, but think about it, we actually live by this kind of Faith every day. Do you believe that there is a $1000 bill? Have you ever seen one? Do you believe that there are black holes in space? Do you believe that there is dark matter? Do you believe that pi is 3.14159? Do you believe that climate change is a problem, or that it isn’t a problem? If you trust the news source, you’re going to believe the news. We do this all the time: we believe in things that people that we trust tell us.

Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness? Do we have a relationship with the Church that shows us that the Church is a credible witness, so we can believe everything that the Church teaches: That Jesus is present in the Eucharist; that Mary was conceived without original sin; that our sins are forgiven at Confession; that Marriage is a free, faithful, fruitful, total covenantal union between one man and one woman? Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness, or do we need physical evidence?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that: “Believing is not contrary to human freedom nor to human reason” (n. 154). And Pope Benedict in the document that kicked-off the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, says that we have to understand Faith. If we can understand Faith, it means that it can’t be completely blind.

Thomas and the disciples believe because they saw and touched. The apostle John says, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 Jn. 1:1). Thomas believed that Jesus was alive because he saw and touched him. The disciples saw and believed so that you and I can believe without seeing.

But Thomas is blessed for believing something without seeing: When he sees Jesus, he says, “My Lord and my God.” This is the only time in all of Scripture that someone calls Jesus God. He can see Jesus and so believes in the resurrection, but he cannot see God, but still, he believes that Jesus is God. And that’s his confession of Faith.

Do you know that at Mass during the Consecration when the priest raises the host and the chalice and says, “Do this in memory of me,” we should respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God”? In fact, at that moment, the priest genuflects and he says that silent prayer, “My Lord and my God.” And that’s also the appropriate response for us. And it doesn’t have to be quiet. I don’t know if you learned to do this, but if not, starting today at Mass, this is what you should respond, “My Lord and my God.” And today when you go to Mass do something else: When you receive the Eucharist, when you drink from the Cup, make your confession of Faith. Respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Make that your profession of Faith, so that we can go out there and be credible witnesses so that others can come to believe too.

Photo: Dylan Martinez/CNS


Deacon-structing New Life


It is not hard to find images of new life everywhere to highlight the joy and Good News of Easter – especially in this part of the world in at springtime! (Maybe these bunnies are a bit too much, but you get my point – and they are cute.)

But recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling that has also been a constant reminder to me that our world- our fallen world, with all its suffering and brokenness- is full of life and that life is being made new all the time.

And so, this week, and for the next couple of weeks, let me “deacon-struct” new life: not to “take it apart”, but to reflect on that gift that has been granted to all humans: the gift to begin again.

One of my favourite canticles from Scripture is commonly known as the Canticle of the Three Youths or the Canticle of Daniel. It is, according to Daniel 3:57-88, 56, one of the “songs” sung by the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Ananias, Azarias, Mishael) as they were in the furnace that King Nebuchadnezzar had thrown them in. It is a beautiful song of praise to God: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord – praise and exult him above all forever!” The canticle names all the creatures who praise the Lord: “angels of Lord, sun and moon, stars of heaven, shower and dew, ice and snow, nights and days, lightning and clouds, mountains, hills, seas and rivers, beasts wild and tame; all creation bless the Lord, praise and exult his name above all forever!”

This Canticle is sung with Morning Prayer at every Solemnity and so we are praying it daily throughout the Easter Octave. I have been praying it in a special way since we began working on Creation, a six-part series that will look at the Church’s Ecological teachings. Filming for Creation has taken us all over North America and we have seen “all creatures” and we have also seen “all creatures bless the Lord.”

Many of the stories we are telling in Creation are stories that show how we must care for God’s Creation. Sometimes our care for Creation is not what it should be; we are not the stewards or caretakers that God intended us to be from the beginning. When we don’t respect Creation or don’t live in the balance between the Natural and the Human Ecology, it sometimes leads to death. That is part of the fallen-ness of Creation. But when we do respect Creation, when we live in the balance and harmony, it is very much life-giving.

And that is the Good News of Easter.


One place that we visited which is full of new life is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL. It is a fascinating place.


You may have heard about CMA since this is the place where both Dolphin Tale films were made. The films tell the story of Winter and Hope, two dolphins who were orphaned at a very young age and the stories are based on this facility. In fact, Winter and Hope are real dolphins who still live at CMA.


Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not a typical aquarium. You will not find a “dolphin show” here. CMA is primarily a rehab hospital for animals. Animals are rescued and brought here for rehabilitation and hopeful release back into the wild. In some cases, if the animal is not able to survive in the wild, they are able to stay at CMA or are taken to live at another facility that can care for them.

Turtle in Surgery

CMA is also an educational institution. Every day hundreds of children come through the facility – many school groups come too. During a visit, you may have the opportunity to watch while they do surgery. When we were there they were working on a turtle.


Winter is the protagonist of both films. “Dolphin Tale” is the story of how she lost her tail and survived against all odds. This story is the one that has made CMA famous. It is also a story that has moved so many people. It is truly a story of new life – not just because of how Winter survived against all odds, but because of what she is now giving back to all who come to see her. Daily, people with various disabilities and challenges, war veterans and amputees, come to see her and are inspired by her will to live and to help give meaning to others.


There are three resident dolphins at CMA. Hope is another dolphin who was found when she was very young. Here she is being fed after a training exercise. Hope was introduced in Dolphin Tale 2.


Nicholas is the only male of the three dolphins. Young people can come to CMA to be “trainers for the day” and learn all about the animals, how to train them and how to care for them. You can see the white blotches on Nicholas’ back. It is damage from sun exposure from when they found him as a baby.

Abby and Winter

Senior Trainer Abby Stone works with Winter at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. When we interviewed Abby she said that she believes Winter knows that she is helping people. You see, Winter does not have a tail and so in order to swim as most dolphins she requires a prosthetic tail. She wears her prosthetic tail about 30 minutes every day for therapy purposes only. We had the chance to watch as Abby worked with Winter and her “tail”.

Being at CMA was truly inspiring. Despite the secular environment, I was brought very deeply into the Mystery of God’s Creation. We are all Creation and we are all to live in harmony with each other– being at CMA truly helped me understand that not just humans and angels bless the Lord, but also flowers and trees, stars of heaven; birds of the air and beasts wild and tame; all the earth blesses the Lord. Even “dolphins and all water creatures bless the Lord” (Daniel 3:79).


Canticle of Daniel
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord;
You heavens, bless the Lord;
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
All you hosts of the Lord; bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord;
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord;
All you winds, bless the Lord.
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness bless the Lord;
Lightning and clouds, bless the Lord.
Let the earth bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Mountains and hills, bless the Lord
Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord.
You springs, bless the Lord;
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord.
You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord;
All you birds of the air, bless the Lord.
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
You sons of men, bless the Lord;
O Israel, bless the Lord.
Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord;
Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord.
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord;
Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord.
Ananias, Azarias, Mishael, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost;
Let us praise and exalt God above all forever.
Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven;
Praiseworthy and glorious forever.

Photo: Public Domain

Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis


Pope Francis’ universal prayer intention for April is for Creation: That people may learn to respect creation and care for it as a gift of God. The environment is a topic that many do not expect the Church to be vocal on, but if you followed Pope Benedict’s many addresses, you would know that he spoke about the environment and ecology quite often. We also now that the topic is close to Pope Francis’ heart: Pope Francis’ second Encyclical will be on this very topic.

This is very exciting for us at S+L and especially for me, since for the last four years, I have been working on a six-part documentary series titled Creation, that looks at the ecological teachings of the Catholic Church.

If you’re wondering what those teachings are, recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (the council under which the encyclical will be released), delivered the Trócaire 2015 Lenten Lecture at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. Trócare is the overseas aid agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The Trócaire theme for Lent 2015 highlights the growing problem of drought as a result of climate change. Cardinal Turkson’s address was titled  Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis.

This address gives us a very good idea of what Pope Francis’ encyclical’s content and direction will be.


Your Grace, Archbishop Martin, Brother Bishops, Seminarians, ladies and gentlemen, I thank Éamonn for his very kind introduction. I also thank Bishop William Crean, Chairman of Trócaire and Monsignor Hugh Connolly, President of Maynooth for their warm welcome and for the invitation to give the Annual Trócaire Lenten lecture in Maynooth. I have learned that in the very distinguished history of this University, thousands of men and women have left these halls over the years to bring the Gospel of charity and justice to the four corners of the world. I am aware of the leading role played by this University in dialogues between faith and science, between philosophy and praxis, between economics and development, and between environmental sciences and policy decisions regarding climate change.

This evening, I am also very conscious that the Irish people themselves have an outstanding reputation for generous giving and for commitment to development issues. According to the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, Ireland is consistently among the five most generous countries of the world. It is the most generous country in Northern Europe. So when I come to Ireland, I already know that people in Ireland really do care about outreach to those in need, commitment to development aid, and engagement with the issues of international development. On behalf of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I acknowledge and pay tribute to your tremendous generosity and compassion. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the outstanding work of Trócaire. As the development agency of the Irish Bishops’ Conference and a member of Caritas Internationalis, Trócaire is a worthy ambassador of Ireland’s compassion and concern for justice across the world. Its professionalism and experience also make it a world leader and a respected voice in terms of insight into issues of international development and a leader in working for a more just world.

Misericordia in Latin, or Trócaire in Irish or Mercy in English: this has become a keyword in the ministry of Pope Francis. As in the Scriptures, Pope Francis often associates mercy and tenderness. Indeed, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he appeals to all of us to bring about a “revolution of tenderness,” a revolution of the heart. For “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor” when our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests, or when our national life and economy become caught up in their own interests.

Pope Francis intends to publish an encyclical letter later this year on the theme of human ecology. It will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor. The timing of the encyclical is significant: 2015 is a critical year for humanity. In July, nations will gather for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa. In September, the U.N. General Assembly should agree on a new set of sustainable development goals running until 2030. In December, the Climate Change Conference in Paris will receive the plans and commitments of each Government to slow or reduce global warming. The coming 10 months are crucial, then, for decisions about international development, human flourishing and care for the common home we call planet Earth.

So this evening is a good time to look at the relationship between development, concern for the poor and responsibility for the environment in the ministry of Pope Francis. I do so under the title: “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis.” I will focus on four principles of integral ecology. Through his teaching on these themes, Pope Francis is promoting integral ecology as the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.

The Holy Father has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey about the precarious state of our planet and of the poor. What he adds to the conversation about future approaches is the particular perspective of Catholic Social thought, rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and natural reason. This offers something unique and vital to the efforts of the international community. Ultimately, of course, what Pope Francis seeks to bring to this sense of crisis is the “warmth of hope”. Indeed, from his very first homily as Pope, a fundamental aim of his ministry has been to point us to the “horizon of hope” in the midst of those he has called the “Herods,” the “omens of destruction and death” that so often “accompany the advance of this world.” In that spirit of hope, let me reflect on the four themes that are woven through the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis on integral ecology.

First Principle: The call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing

The first principle is this: that the call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing. We are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person. These concepts are reciprocal and, together, they make for authentic and sustainable human development.

At the inaugural Mass of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis put the protection of creation to the very forefront of his own ministry and the vocation of every Christian. He offered St Joseph as a model of protecting Christ in our lives, “so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation,” and explained that the vocation of being a protector “has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone.” Its scope is very broad; it involves

“protecting creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi shows us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives…they protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.”

Clearly this is not some narrow agenda for the greening the Church or the world. It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions.

Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on human ecology.

In his insistence on an integral, relational vocation of protector, Pope Francis continues the thought of his two predecessors. In his social encyclical, Solicitudo rei socialis, Saint John Paul II spoke of the need to respect the constituent and inter-related elements of the natural world: “One cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings…animals, plants, the natural elements – simply as one wishes, according to one’s own economic needs. On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos.” A recently republished pastoral of the Irish Bishops echoes his point: “Our earth is complex, its systems of life are interdependent and finely balanced. Small changes in one part of the planet’s rhythms and systems can have significant, if not dramatic consequences for the whole of the earth and its creatures.” For the natural environment to be respected, the human environment and its objective moral structure must also be respected.  When we ignore or neglect one, it has a destructive impact on the other.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also had this point as a central theme in his teaching. Some called him the “Green Pope” because of the priority he gave to concern over our destruction of nature. He echoed the call of Saint John Paul II to “change our way of life… [to] eliminate the structural causes of global economic dysfunction, and to correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment and for integral human development.”

Pope Benedict’s message for the 43rd World Day of Peace in 2010 was abundantly clear: “The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.” On this basis too, in Caritas in Veritate, he famously called contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which is so often prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed, he said, is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of “new lifestyles” in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.

It is such integral ecology that Pope Francis took up, in eminently pastoral terms, in his inaugural homily. He does so again in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium when he calls all people to a new solidarity, “the creation of a new mind-set which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few” (n.188).

Second Principle: care for creation is a virtue in its own right

Compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change, we are called to care for humanity and to respect the grammar of nature as virtues in their own right.  This is the second principle that underpins Pope Francis’ approach to integral ecology as the basis for authentic development.

In an airplane interview while returning from Korea last August, the Holy Father said that one of the challenges he faces in his encyclical on ecology is how to address the scientific debate about climate change and its origins. Is it the outcome of cyclical processes of nature, of human activities (anthropogenic), or perhaps both? What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has undertaken the most comprehensive assessment of climate change. Its November 2014 Synthesis Report was as stark as it was challenging. In the words of Thomas Stocker, the co-chair of the IPCC Working Group I: “Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”

Yet even the compelling consensus of over 800 scientists of the IPCC will have its critics and its challengers. For Pope Francis, however, this is not the point. For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change. To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty. As Pope Francis put it in his morning homily at Santa Marta on 9 February, it is wrong and a distraction to contrast “green” and “Christian.” In fact, “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us.”

In this, Pope Francis is affirming a truth revealed in the first pages of Sacred Scripture. In the second creation account of the Book of Genesis, humankind is placed in the Garden by the Creator to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). These concepts of “tilling” and “keeping” involve a vital and reciprocal relationship between humanity and the created world. They involve humankind, every individual and every community in a sacred duty to draw from the goodness of the earth, and at the same time to care for the earth in a way that ensures its continued fruitfulness for future generations.

Justice in this context is essentially a relational term. Its defining quality is fidelity to the demands of the threefold relationship within which each of us stands and upon which each of us depends for life itself: our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, and with the natural environment in which we live. To neglect or violate one of these relationships is an offense, quite literally a sin. In the Scriptures, the “just person” is one who maintains these relationships by respecting the demands that they entail. The just person is one who therefore preserves communion with God, with neighbour and with the land, and by doing so, also makes peace!  The various holiness and justice codes of the Old Testament are unequivocal. Those who till and keep the land have a responsibility to share it fruits with others, especially the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. The law of the Covenant is clear; the gift of the land and its fruitfulness belongs to the whole people of Israel together.

So when Pope Francis says that destroying the environment is a grave sin; when he says that it is not large families that cause poverty but an economic culture that puts money and profit ahead of people; when he says that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the goods of the earth; when he says that this is “an economy that kills” – he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism. He is rather restating ancient Biblical teaching. He is pointing to the fact that being a protector of creation, of the poor, of the dignity of every human person is a sine qua non of being Christian, of being fully human. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little, that our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, especially the poor, and with the environment has become fundamentally “un-kept”, and that we are now at serious risk of a concomitant human, environmental and relational degradation.

Third principle: we will – we must – care for what we cherish and revere

Thirdly, binding regulations, policies, and targets are necessary tools for addressing poverty and climate change, but they are unlikely to prove effective without moral conversion and a change of heart. Think of the present Pope’s choice of the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is an example par excellence of a lived and integral ecology. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II had declared him the patron saint of those who promote ecology. His love for creation, for creatures and for the poor, are one, they form an integral whole. And the prior and fundamental source of that integrated whole was his religious faith. In pointing to Saint Francis as a model, Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable integral approach to ecology, has to draw on more than the scientific, the material and the economic, more than laws and policies. When Saint Francis gazed upon the heavens, when he surveyed the wonder and beauty of the animals, he did not respond to them with the abstract formulae of science or the utilitarian eye of the economist. His response was one of awe, wonder and fraternity. He sang of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In other words, his response was that of reverence – of a deep and relational respect based on kinship and fraternity, the kinship with God, our neighbour and the land spoken of in the book of Genesis and praised throughout the wisdom literature and the psalms.

There have been many attempts in recent years to implement international agreements on development goals, carbon emission targets and climate change limits, with varying degrees of success. For example, the Millennium Development Goals – many of which sought to remedy the particular crises that I have mentioned – have only achieved partial success, with half remaining unfulfilled. For instance, between 1.2 and 1.5 billion people are still mired in “extreme poverty.” Global inequalities continue to widen. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of economic growth in the world (after developing Asia). Nevertheless, the region remains locked in a negative cycle of poverty and underdevelopment, with development aid shifting away from some of the poorest countries. The wealth of the top 1% has grown 60% in the last twenty years, and it continued to grow through the global economic crisis. Despite the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 and subsequent agreements, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) continue their upward trend, almost 50 per cent above 1990 levels. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a level last seen 3 million years ago – when the planet was significantly warmer than it is today. Millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction, and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer.

The list could go on. Certainly international agreements are important, they can help. But they are not enough in themselves to sustain change in human behaviour. As Saint John Paul II put it, we require an “ecological conversion,” a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy. By pointing us to the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis teaches the world that the ancient wisdom, insights and values of religious faith, most notably the tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine, can contribute something of value to the search for sustainable development, based on an integral ecology. Genuine “ecological conversion” involves the whole person. Commitment assumes a relationship, an emotional and relational attachment. It is the kind of kinship and fraternity with creation, creatures and the poor that flowed so clearly and directly from the relationship between Saint Francis and the Creator.

This is why the cultural trend of relegating religious language, religious motivation and religious faith to the sphere of the purely private and personal undermines a vital and powerful source of meaning and action in the common effort to address both climate change and sustainable development. The Judaeo-Christian insight into creation can transform our relationship from that of remote observers or technical managers of nature, to that of “brother and sister,” of nurturer and protector of all. Religious insights into creation in this sense can help to orient and integrate us as humans within the wider universe, to identify what is most important to us, what we revere, sustain and protect as sacred. Giving space to the religious voice and to its ancient experience, wisdom and insight therefore can transform our attitudes to creation and to others in a way that purely scientific, economic or political approaches are less likely to achieve. What more radical and comprehensive charter for sustainable development and environmental care do we have after all than the Beatitudes, than the call to generosity that permeates Evangelii Gaudium: the command to go the extra mile, to give to the least, to give our tunic as well as our cloak to the one who asks us.

Fourth principle: the call to dialogue and a new global solidarity

Fourthly, for Pope Francis, integral ecology, as the basis for justice and development in the world, requires a new global solidarity, one in which everyone has a part to play and every action, no matter how small, can make a difference.

During World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil in July 2013, this call to solidarity became most explicit in his address to Varginha, a favela community. Pope Francis noted that the rich could learn much from the poor about solidarity: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity… The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.”

The Holy Father then added that giving “bread to the hungry,” while required by justice, is not enough for human happiness. “There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its nonmaterial goods,” he said. The Pope identified those goods as life; family; “integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for the purposes of generating profit”; health, “including the spiritual dimension” of well-being; and security, which he said can be achieved “only by changing human hearts.”

As this year’s Drop in the Ocean campaign by Trócaire implies, and as the Pastoral Letter of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, The Cry of the Earth, points out, “Action at a global level, as well as every individual action which contributes to integral human development and global solidarity, helps to construct a more sustainable environment and therefore, a better world.” Thanks to the Trócaire box in many homes and classrooms during Lent, you already know how little gestures add up to make a difference.

Conclusion: Let us become artisans of the revolution of tenderness

Allow me to summarize all that I have said this evening:

  • The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related; and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.
  • In responding to this combined threat, every action counts. We all have a part to play in protecting and sustaining what Pope Francis has repeatedly called our common home.
  • Our efforts in this regard require an integral approach to ecology, not one limited to scientific, economic or technical solutions.
  • At the heart of this integral ecology is the call to dialogue and a new solidarity, a changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the global, the universal common good.

In this, we have the core elements of an integral ecology which in turn provides the basis for authentic and sustainable approaches to human development.

In conveying my thanks to you once again for the honour of giving this annual Lenten lecture, and in commending Trócaire for its excellent and timely Climate Justice campaign, I encourage you to give great attention to the forthcoming encyclical from Pope Francis on the themes we have just considered.  As we confront the threat of environmental catastrophe on a global scale, I am confident that a shaft of light will break through the heavy clouds and bring us what Pope Francis describes as the warmth of hope! Most importantly, as we become revolutionaries of tenderness overcoming the world’s pervasive inequities, these years can indeed initiate a millennium of respect for life, of care for God’s creation, of solidarity and síocháin.  Peace!

Thank you for listening.

(CNS photo/Bob Roller)