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On Earth Day, Good Shepherds

By Fr. C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J.

From his April 21, 2024 Homily

How wonderful it is that this morning we will witness the baptisms of 5 children. Their beautiful names are: Charles Theodore, Lily Grace, Patrick Ryan, Ana Siobhan, and Aaliyah Laroche. Through this Sacrament of Baptism, their parents will for the first time formally and publicly celebrate how God’s divine nature blesses these children’s human nature.

And their Baptisms come the day before the world commemorates for the 54th time, International Earth Day. On this occasion, then, we should ask how did Jesus in his human and divine nature encounters and notice the natural world around him?

Certainly from today’s Gospel we may sense that Jesus was keenly aware of the natural life that surrounded him. His reference to being a shepherd to the sheep suggested that he knew well the significance of the natural world.

In many other scripture passages Jesus speaks of other creatures of nature: dogs, fish, foxes, goats, lions, oxen, sparrows and other birds of the air. Jesus, moreover, often turned to other forms of life in the natural world as he spoke of harvests of wheat, the vineyard of grapes, rocks and stones, mountains, the sea, and deserts and even weeds.

Yes, Jesus was well aware of the natural life around him. And so, we might consider that one of the essential dynamics of the Mystery of the Incarnation in the divine becoming human is that it is done through nature. God blesses the world of nature that as we read in Genesis what God created and he saw that it was good.

As a college student on that first Earth Day in 1970, I recall attending a “Teach-In” (perhaps some of you may recall Teach-Ins?) about how in Genesis on the sixth day of Creation we read the rather problematic phrases:

God blessed them saying: be fertile and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and all the living things that move on the Earth.

At that Teach-In, a professor focused on the words “subdue” and “dominion” and observed that in recent centuries human have asserted so much power over nature that we have so dominated and subdued the life and living creatures to the point of destruction. He asked if at times our religious beliefs and values been used to justify an enslavement God’s gifts of nature to us?

Several months after that first Earth Day, in a course on the evolutionary theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, these challenging questions resurfaced. In writing about the long history of humanity’s evolving nature, Teilhard saw that nature was evolving in, through, and toward Christ. And his perspective included all the living things of nature. His writings echo the insight of St. Paul, who in his Letter to the Romans wrote in Chapter 8, verse 22: “…we, like all of nature, is groaning….

Teilhard’s, St. Paul, and the lesson from that first Earth Day invited one to consider that not only is all creation groaning, but all creation may be dying.

On a day when 5 children are baptized, we might wonder what sort of world will they be living in 54 years from now? For see the changes before us and know all too well what is happening to our planet, vulnerable to the extremes of temperature, the loss of lands to the rising seas, the diminishment of forests, and so forth.

Folks, back in 1970 when Earth Day was first observed the world was awakening to the harsh realities of environmental degradation. Pollution choked our skies, rivers were filled with toxic waste, and species faced extinction at an alarming rate. People from all walks of life came together in a unified call for action, demanding greater protections for our planet and its precious resources.

Since that first Earth Day, the human family has made noble efforts to stem the tide. Throughout the following decades, Earth Day evolved into a catalyst for change, sparking legislation, awareness campaigns, and grassroots movements aimed at addressing pressing environmental issues. From the passage of landmark laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to the rise of global initiatives like The Paris Agreement, Earth Day has played a pivotal role in shaping the environmental policies and priorities of nations around the world.

A few days ago, I was speaking with my fellow Jesuit Guy Consolmagno, the Director of the Vatican Observatory, and I asked him how from the perspective of astronomy does he consider the Earth’s situation. He remarked that the Earth is at a crossroads. Certainly, the scientific consensus is clear: our planet is warming at an unprecedented rate due to human activities, leading to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and disruptions to ecosystems. Addressing climate change requires bold and decisive action, from transitioning to renewable energy sources to adopting sustainable land-use practices.

Since 1970, we have learned to shepherd our engagement with nature through an awareness that has led to actions and the students of this generation are engaging in the issues and taking action.

This morning, some 50 of our recently-Confirmed teenagers from this parish were out cleaning up the trash of our neighborhood. Yesterday, another bunch of teenagers were engaged with the labors of our Gardening Team planting, watering, and weeding. And this past Monday, our 5-year-old pre-kindergarten students helped to plant brussels sprouts and tomato plants.

And then there are the bold actions of our Green Team: Slow but steady progress toward solar panel installation, a commitment to composting via a new partnership with Compost Crew, and a movement toward a zero-waste campus, such as eliminating single-use plastic – just to name a few.

Our parish has been purchasing all its electricity since 2018 from renewable sources (solar and wind), and we are about to replace all fluorescent light fixtures with more efficient fixtures.

And I cannot forget to mention that our third annual Green Fair will be held on September 29th!

When you leave here, I invite you to take a parish bulletin and consider and reflect upon the 6 steps of the Ecological Ignatian Examen listed on the front cover.

Finally folks, on this sacred occasion when 5 members of the next generation will be baptized and on the occasion of the 54th International Earth Day, let us use today’s Gospel image of the Good Shepherd to reflect and take our responsibilities as caretakers of God's creation – the Earth, with its vast oceans, towering mountains, and teeming forests – and consider them God’s precious gifts that we must cherish and protect.

Like the shepherd who tends to his sheep, we are called to nurture and safeguard the environment, ensuring that future generations may also marvel at its splendor. And let us pray that his newly baptized will have for themselves, their children, and their children’s children, a world of nature to nurture … and like Jesus, be like guiding shepherds to love and protect.


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