Watching the cottonwood seed tufts floating lazily by on a golden afternoon in rural Ireland, seeing the blossoms on the philadelphus opening and filling the cool evening air with their intoxicating perfume, hearing the faint hum of bees in the background, it is difficult to bear in mind that the planet is in peril – all of it, the trees, flowers, animals, and overhead the brilliant blue sky, and the calm Irish Sea in the distance. That, however, is the fact, however much we wish it were not the case.
This past week, thanks to the amazing if sometimes pesky magic of Zoom, I was able to attend the second Catholic Climate Covenant Conference co-sponsored by Creighton University. In a world that often seems too disinclined to take the increasingly necessary steps to preserve the global environment, the Conference was a truly a beacon of hope.
On this Sunday which focuses our attention on the task of the true shepherd, I would be remiss not to single out the superb opening address by
Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who situated the conference theologically and pastorally in the great encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Sí. (His address has been printed in its entirely by the National Catholic Reporter on-line. It was well worth reading – more than once: https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/cardinal-cupich-laudato-si-calls-us-economic-and-spiritual-conversion )
The many sessions with youth leaders in the Catholic environmental movement was especially reassuring. It has been evident from surveys conducted from just before the publication of Laudato Sí until this year that distressingly few priests and deacons tend to address environmental issues in their preaching. Although Pope Francis’ popularity has held steady across denominal lines, if less so among very conservative Catholics, his environmental appeal has taken years to motivate a general positive response even among the clergy. That, however, is changing, as the urgency of the situation becomes ever more manifest. A growing number of dioceses have instituted agencies to promote environmental awareness and action. Grass-roots organizations have grown exponentially, especially among the young people so well represented at the Conference.
If there are grounds for hope in the future, it lies here – in the “next generation.”
The world is blest with a number of leaders like Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich who are leading the way to a hopeful future, which brings me back to the theme of today’s readings. Both Jeremiah and Jesus lament the poor leadership of the official shepherds of the people, specifically the religious hierarchy. Jesus may have known something about sheep and shepherds, although it is unlikely that he would have encountered many in his experience as a village construction worker and then an iterant preacher and healer. None of his immediate followers were taken from the folds. But even less than Jeremiah here, Jesus is not so much concerned with shepherds, but with their sheep, their followers.
As he will relate in another parable, wayward shepherds not only mislead the sheep, but endanger them. The hills of Palestine were a perilous place to get lost. Wild animals still prowled, and human thieves and thugs were plentiful. Careful and effective leadership requires courage and resourcefulness, a point Jesus will drive home in his parable of the Good Shepherd, the True Leader.
As I become aware at a distance of the disastrous fires in the Pacific Northwest, and the deadly and almost unprecedented rainfall and floods in Germany and Belgium, and other increasing consequences of global climate change, I am convinced that the need for concerted and effective action has never been greater. It is refreshing to be able to bear some good news in that regard.