Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!

For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food

thanksgiving-1705784_1920Every November, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are grateful for food, the ability to feed our own families, and the need to ensure our entire human family has enough to eat.

Our holiday table reminds us of many other important tables: tables where families comes together to share a special meal; tables where our nation’s decision makers negotiate trade, aid, and public policies that affect us all; and, the most sacred of tables—the altar where the church gathers to be nourished by communion. Let us enter this month remembering that each table calls us to act with faith and hope.

November is the anniversary month of the pastoral letter “For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers,” first issued in 2003. The letter seeks to highlight the issues of food and agriculture and their connection to our faith.  The letter states, “We focus on how food and fiber are produced, how land is protected and how agriculture is structured, compensated, and regulated to serve the ‘common good.’”

The purpose of the bishop’s letter was to address the concern that food and agriculture are “little seen and less understood” by a post-industrial society living increasingly technological lives. It is true we are further removed from food and agriculture than ever before. Yet what we eat, who grows and harvests that food, and the state of the earth that produces these goods are the very things we need to consider as Christian disciples. It’s a valuable consideration this harvest month, and every month. More than a decade since it was first published, the bishop’s pastoral letter still serves as a poignant reminder that food and agriculture must be viewed from a deeply faith perspective.

November is also Native America Heritage month. Native Americans were once the most agriculturally prosperous group of people in the United States. Yet a snapshot of hunger and poverty today on reservations is nothing short of a banquet of scarcity.  Sixty percent of the counties with majority Native Americans face dangerously high food insecurity rates, according to Feeding America.  These statistics are a sobering reminder that many marginalized brothers and sisters are missing from our tables of plenty.

A broader overview of the state of hunger in our country reveals that 48 million Americans live in households that struggle to put food on the table, and that 1 in 5 kids live at risk of hunger.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving won’t be a feast for everyone.

The bishop’s pastoral letter addresses the complexities of our food system but it is also a profoundly hopeful document. “We know these are not easy times, but as believers we have hope for the days ahead: We have the capacity to overcome hunger in our nation and around the world,” the letter said.

Through Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters campaigns, churches across the country advocate to end hunger by putting food and agriculture into focus. These annual policy advocacy campaigns remind us that God intended for all to be fed.

This Thanksgiving, let us remember that ending hunger in our lifetime will only be a reality if we act with faith and hope at all the sacred tables in our lives.

Krisanne VaillancourtKrisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is the Senior Associate for National Catholic Engagement at Bread for the World.


Going Deeper!

Read about how parishes in the Archdiocese of New York are together advocating to end child hunger. You can hear more about this creative effort by participating in our live event on Dec. 20 at 2 p.m., which will feature this and other stories of acting together as communities of salt and light.

Prayers, Patrons and the Paris Agreement

Protesters carry a globe-shaped balloon in front of Rome's Colosseum during a Nov. 29 rally, the day before the start of the U.N. climate change conference in Paris. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters) See COP21-VATICAN-PAROLIN Dec. 1, 2015.

Protesters carry a globe-shaped balloon in front of Rome’s Colosseum during a Nov. 29 rally, the day before the start of the U.N. climate change conference in Paris. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

This year something special happened the day after the Feast of St. Francis, and one could even wonder if it had anything to do with the saint’s patronage. “This is a momentous occasion,” said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “What once seemed unthinkable, is now unstoppable.” On October 5, 2016, the so-called Paris Agreement, or COP21, was ratified. The Paris Agreement refers to negotiations between 195 countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions globally. The non-binding agreement establishes that nations must reduce their carbon dioxide emissions in order to keep global temperatures well below a two-degree Celsius increase in relation to pre-industrial levels. Once 55 countries representing over 55% of the worlds emissions signed the agreement, it would be ratified. That ratification threshold was reached on October 5, 2016, when the European Union signed the agreement. The agreement will now be implemented on November 4, one month after the Feast of St. Francis. But the story of the Catholic relationship to the Paris agreement is more than a happy coincidence of dates.

Days before the Paris meeting in December, 2015, Pope Francis said: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all…Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods; it represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day (Laudato Si’, 23 and 25) … In a few days an important meeting on climate change will be held in Paris, where the international community as such will once again confront these issues. It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and projects.”

Pope Francis was a champion of the Paris meeting from the beginning and called on political leaders to rise to the challenge to reach a global agreement. The Italian minister of the environment, Gian Luca Galletti, affirmed the Paris agreement might not have happened without Pope Francis. In his own speech at the Paris meeting the minister reminded all members that the pope in “His encyclical letter Laudato Si’ has offered to us the highest moral contribution on the environmental question.” The pope shifted the conversation about climate change from economic, political, scientific, and legal issues into a broader moral and ethical debate, which allowed everyone to participate. This change in tone and substance made room for a global conversation, and also a global agreement, to which no one could be indifferent.

Christians can celebrate this important agreement as not only a sign of promise for reducing pollution and protecting the environment, but also as a sign of unity among nations, collaboration, and mutual understanding. However, this agreement is only one step on a long road. Pope Francis is also a practical man, and commenting on the Paris agreement he warns of the danger of much talk and little action: “I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements. Solemn commitments, however, are not enough, although they are certainly a necessary step toward solutions… we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences. We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective.”

In order to be “truly effective” in implementing the Paris agreement the task at hand is tremendous. The underlying assumption is that to be able to stay below a two-degree temperature increase what is necessary is that the world reach a net zero emission of carbon somewhere between 2050 and 2100. This simply means a complete overhaul of the global energy system as we know it. Cardinal Turkson, recognized as responsible for drafting Laudato Si’, is well aware of the consequences: “the global community has drawn a red line under a rise in global temperatures of two degrees Celsius. This is will require a complete shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables by about 2070. This is a momentous undertaking.” The pope himself mentioned that the Paris Agreement “represents an important stage in the process of developing a new energy system which depends on a minimal use of fossil fuels, aims at energy efficiency, and makes use of energy sources with little or no carbon content. We are faced with a great political and economic obligation to rethink and correct the dysfunctions and distortions of the current model of development.”

Now it is up to each country, each region and legislature, and ultimately each person, to discern in their own realities how it is they are to contribute to this common cause. Politicians will have their hands full deliberating on how this “momentous task” is to be reached. Furthermore, we must remember that for the pope, the environmental goal of reducing carbon emissions is not a stand-alone cause, but must be integrated into other goals and oriented by higher principles. This “integral ecology” is the organizing logic of Laudato Si’ and articulates the Catholic Church’s support for environmental causes while always ensuring the well-being of people and respect for God himself. The efforts to address climate change must have the dignity of the human person, every person and the whole person, front and center. In Pope Francis’ own words:

“I express my hope that COP21 will achieve a global and “transformational” agreement based on the principles of solidarity, justice, equality and participation; an agreement which targets three complex and interdependent goals: lessening the impact of climate change, fighting poverty and ensuring respect for human dignity… government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and all other civil rights… These pillars of integral human development have a common foundation, which is the right to life and, more generally, what we could call the right to existence of human nature itself.”

Ricardo Simmonds, Environmental Policy Advisor, USCCB

Ricardo Simmonds is the Environmental Policy Advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development, within the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the USCCB.


Going Deeper

Learn ways you and your community can help care for Creation with these ten practical suggestions from the Diocese of Stockton.

Permanently Affordable Housing Transforms Lives and Communities

I have mixed feelings when I see new construction in residential neighborhoods. I’m a curious passerby and I like to watch the slow progress of the heavy equipment preparing the foundation and moving girders into place. I’m excited (and maybe a little envious) to envision families having an opportunity to be the first to live in a bright, clean place where everything works. Then I start to wonder if long-time residents were displaced for the new building. If so, where did they go? And how do they afford the rent? What happened to the community they built over many years?

Housing is one of the justice issues we address at the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). On San Juan Island in northwest Washington State, as in so many areas, housing prices have skyrocketed in recent decades, squeezing low-income workers and others out of formerly affordable housing. Families who once relied on finding a decent place to rent on the scenic island were pushed out by owners eager to tap the new Airbnb and lucrative vacation rental markets instead. Older sale or rental properties were replaced with more expensive options. Even housing built as “affordable” re-sold at market prices when the first owners moved and original deed restrictions expired.

Enter San Juan Community Home Trust, a small local group that receives funds from CCHD. The trust shares our belief that homeownership is a transformational tool, especially for low-income people stressed by frequent moves. It enhances the sense of human dignity, self-worth, and stability for hard-working people.

San Juan Community Land Trust construction site where new affordable housing is being built.

San Juan Community Land Trust construction site where new affordable housing is being built.

The San Juan Community Home Trust helps individuals and families access permanently affordable housing that is innovative and sustainably “green.” The trust has developed two neighborhoods whose active, growing communities are living reflections of Catholic social teaching, including care for creation, responsible stewardship of the resources we’ve been given, and the moral imperative to reach out to the less fortunate.

a barge carries a large home across the sea

Homes from Vancouver, British Columbia being brought to San Juan island via barge.

The trust has built new homes and floated in sturdy early 20th-century houses once slated for demolition in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my associates who makes regular visits to the San Juan Community Home Trust neighborhoods says the new communities are a tangible expression of God’s love. She also marvels that the renovated old houses have unique features worth restoring and celebrating, much like the individuals who will call them home. By creating permanently affordable housing, the trust addresses income disparities, supports community structures, and helps people sink in deep roots to weather turbulent times. CCHD is proud to support the trust’s initiatives.

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Thank you, as always, for your prayers and support of CCHD. You are a crucial partner in our ceaseless mission to break the cycle of poverty.

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD and follow on Twitter @EndPovertyUSA.

Photos Courtesy of San Juan Community Home Trust


Learn more about San Juan Community Home Trust in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves.

See other CCHD groups’ Stories of Hope on PovertyUSA.

7 Ways to Be a Good Steward of the Harvest

“The earth has yielded its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.”

— Psalm 67:7

Koubra Mahamat Abakar, 44 years old, and her daughters harvest fresh fruit and vegetables in her community garden based in Kournan village, Chad. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

Koubra Mahamat Abakar, 44 years old,  harvests fresh fruit and vegetables in her community garden based in Kournan village, Chad. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

Fall, the season of harvest, is the perfect time to reflect on the Earth’s abundance. Yet, not all people have their share of the abundance God has given us. Approximately 800 million people suffer from hunger worldwide.

On October 16, World Food Day 2016 takes these overlapping issues into account with its theme, “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” As the pope reminds us in Laudato Si’, we must recognize our call to respond to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” In observance of World Food Day, we invite you to use the following seven steps in your daily life to become a better steward of Earth’s harvests:

  1. Waste less. Did you know that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is either lost during production or wasted by consumers? When we waste food, we’re discarding food that could have fed our hungry brothers and sisters. Food waste also has a grave environmental impact, as it accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. SaveTheFood.com has tips on how to reduce food waste, including information on proper storage of produce, advice on freezing leftovers and guides for planning meals so you’re sure to eat everything you buy.
  2. Eat simply. It takes 8 times more water to produce 1 pound of beef than to produce 1 pound of soybeans. Eating meat-free, even if only for a couple of days each week, puts less of a strain on Earth’s resources and makes more food and water available for our human family. Check out CRS Rice Bowl’s archive of meatless meal recipes for delicious ways to eat simply!
  3. Support farmers. Buying food locally is not only a great way to support the livelihoods of farmers in your community, but it also reduces your carbon footprint, since your food isn’t being transported great distances to be sold. Find a farmers market near you!
  4. Advocate. U.S. policies impact people worldwide. Let Congress know you care about hunger by lending your voice to support policies that help the most vulnerable.
  5. Donate. CRS is partnering with farmers around the world whose incomes have been jeopardized by the changing environment. These farmers are learning new skills and techniques so that they are still able to generate an income and put food on the table. By supporting CRS, you are supporting these farmers and others who face the effects of natural disaster and hunger.
  6. Learn more. Building awareness about hunger and changing weather patterns is an essential step toward positive change. Take some time to educate yourself and your community on these issues and the many ways that they are connected to each other.
  7. Pray. Prayer helps us to be in right relationship, not only with God and our neighbor, but also with all of creation. Use CRS’ “Live Mercy: Feed the Hungry” small group faith-sharing resource to help your community reflect on this important issue. Or, pray this short prayer before meals to remain mindful of the harvest that we’re called to steward and share.

CRS Helping Hands is a meal-packaging program for Catholic parishes, schools and universities. Learn how to bring CRS Helping Hands to your community!


 

HeadshotRachel Malinowski is a US Operations program officer with Catholic Relief Services, operating out of CRS headquarters in Baltimore.  She works on Helping Hands, among other programs. 

The Enchantment of Assisi

Ricardo Simmonds, Environmental Policy Advisor, USCCB

Ricardo Simmonds, Environmental Policy Advisor, USCCB

Thirty years ago in Assisi, on October 27, 1986, Pope John Paul II sponsored a historic meeting among the world’s religious leaders to pray for peace. “On that day I heard the world’s heart-beat,” said a cardinal. To describe the historic event, the Polish Pope coined the term “spirit of Assisi” and the meetings with world religious leaders have been repeated by popes ever since.

Last week it was up to the Pope called Francis, who broke a one-thousand-year tradition in papal nomenclature to honor the saint of Assisi[1], to sponsor the event. The “spirit of Assisi” and its call for ecumenical unity was already evident in the ecological encyclical Laudato si’, named after a canticle pronounced by the Umbrian saint. Humility, simplicity, brotherhood, and care for the poor and for creation have all been hallmarks of the current papacy. In fact, a quick look at the ecclesial landscape of today gives the impression that St. Francis seems as relevant and revolutionary as he was eight hundred years ago when he walked through the forests of Umbria.

Speaking from personal experience, it almost feels like Francis is living and breathing in those forests to this day. This summer I walked the Via Francigena (Franciscan Way) from Rome to Assisi along the very same paths travelled by the saint. From the moment I encountered the first Franciscan shrine on the Via, the monastery called La Foresta (the forest), I felt like I had stepped into an enchanted world. At La Foresta one can kneel in the ancient chapel where Francis prayed and wind down into the cave where he composed the famous Canticle of the Sun, Laudato si’… This enchanted aura persisted for the next ten days as I weaved my way through olive groves and medieval villages all the way to La Verna in Tuscany, where St. Francis received the stigmata.

Perhaps I was so struck by this enchantment because of the contrast with the empty sterility of the world outside[2]. This sense of loss and indifference in the world was the point of Pope Francis’ prophetic address last week at the birthplace of his namesake: “God asks this of us, calling us to confront the great sickness of our time: indifference. It is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism: the paganism of indifference.”

St. Francis, with his life and witness, proposed an antidote to the malaise of indifference. As a young wealthy man, Francis of Assisi was “upset” with the opulence of his time and decided to live a life of simplicity. The Pope suggests that St. Francis associated the indifference to the suffering of the poor with the indifference shown to Jesus himself: it was the love of Christ who was being rejected. The Pope explained: “ ‘Love is not loved’; this reality, according to some accounts, is what upset Saint Francis of Assisi. For love of the suffering Lord, he was not ashamed to cry out and grieve loudly (cf. Fonti Francescane, no. 1413). This same reality must be in our hearts as we contemplate Christ Crucified, he who thirsts for love… Before Christ Crucified, ‘the power and wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:24), we Christians are called to contemplate the mystery of Love not loved and to pour out mercy upon the world.”

The key to the enchantment of Assisi is the love that comes from Christ crucified. This is the secret recipe to the grace that flowed from the man of Umbria and enchanted the world around him. Like St. Francis, we are called to do the same: “On the cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good; we too, as disciples of the Crucified One, are called to be ‘trees of life’ that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world.” We must be these “trees of life” in a dying world. But concretely, how can this be done?

Pope Francis gave a very specific answer earlier this month: “there is nothing that unites us to God more than an act of mercy…” In this same address which opened the Season of Creation[3] the Pope introduced a new item on the list of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. “So let me propose a complement to the two traditional sets of seven: may the works of mercy also include care for our common home. As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a ‘grateful contemplation of God’s world’ (Laudato Si, 214) which ‘allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us’ (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires ‘simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness’ and ‘makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world’ (ibid., 230-31).”

If we want to become “trees of life” in this world, inhaling indifference and exhaling love, we need to unite ourselves to the “Tree of Life”, Jesus Christ.

The small quotidian gestures such as picking up trash, contemplating nature on an afternoon walk, recycling and reusing, enjoying the starlit sky and turning off unnecessary lights can unite us to the gentle reverence of Jesus Christ. This love in action can also lead us to greater awareness of the needs of others and acts of mercy and solidarity towards them.

Like a great Poinciana tree, composed of miniscule leaves that inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, these small acts of love can begin to breathe life into an indifferent world.


Ricardo Simmonds is the Environmental Policy Advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development, within the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the USCCB.

Going Deeper

Visit the USCCB Environmental Justice Program page.

Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working for environmental justice.

[1] The last Pope to choose a new papal name was Pope Lando in 913. I am excluding John Paul I who in 1978 chose to honor his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI, by combining their names.

[2] The reflection on the disenchantment of modernity is not new, and in the background we can hear the voices of Schiller, Max Weber, Charles Taylor and others who explored the many reasons why life in our secularized modern world can feel stale and empty at times.

[3] The Season of Creation begins on September 1st and ends on October 4th, Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

A prayer for creation

Contemplating the sunrise when we crossed the Tyrolean Alps

Contemplating the sunrise when we crossed the Tyrolean Alps

Let me begin with a little known story about the Pope. When Pope Francis was a young priest in Argentina, he was appointed rector of the Jesuit seminary. One of the first things he did was to convert the seminary grounds into a farm where “students collected honey, milked cows, and cleaned out the pigsty [and] where they often met the rector in his plastic boots.” For young Fr. Bergoglio caring for the farm meant learning humility, being in touch with the poor, feeding the hungry, and finding an ideal space for prayer and contemplation – a place where the word of the Gospel became flesh. One could make the case that the Pope’s encyclical Laudato si’ and integral ecology were already taking shape in his farm experiment. The experiment worked: the seminary boomed and there was a huge increase in vocations.

The idea that Christian prayer must be connected to the created world is also central to Pope Francis’ message for the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation”, whose one-year anniversary we celebrate today. Quoting Laudato si’ the Pope reminded us that “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature” and that Christians are called to a profound “spiritual conversion… whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.” Doesn’t this sound like something the Pope could be teaching the seminarians at the farm?

More important than the farm itself is the ideal that lies behind it, which has to do with the relationship between prayer and creation. I will call this ideal “prayer in the flesh”, taken from the title of a talk by Fr. Bergoglio. His point was that some Christians are unaware that they suffer from a modern heresy he calls ‘neodocetism’ and that we need to bring prayer to the level of concreteness, to the level of our bodies. We can pray when we touch the hands of a beggar, walk on trails, clean a pigsty, eat with the hungry, milk a cow, look at the sky, etc. Jesus is present in these moments when our flesh engages everyday reality. As in Bergoglio’s farm, care for creation can serve as a locus for us to live ‘a spirituality of the flesh.’

This summer I took this ideal of ‘prayer in the flesh’ and decided to put it into practice. I invited three young men and a guide to undertake a pioneer pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy. In May we left from Rome on foot and walked to Krakow for World Youth Day on July 25th. We walked every day for two-plus months covering over 2000 km (about the distance from Washington, DC to Dallas, TX) along a ‘scenic route’ through Italy, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland. This pilgrimage was certainly an experience of prayer for creation: we prayed together and alone, during the day as we walked and stopped at shrines, during Mass and adoration. But we also prayed in creation: through the beauty of landscapes, incredible churches, and art– and prayed in the flesh: through blisters, injuries, weight loss, sores and muscles, and even the in gratitude for the incredible food.

What did I get out of this experience of ‘prayer in the flesh’? So many things which I cannot fit into a short blog post. But I can share one important lesson I learned: patience. You just have to learn patience on a trip like this because everything just takes so long! It would take about two days by car and two hours by airplane to cover the same distance we walked in two months. Impatience, resentment, complaints, weakness, stoicism, grumbling, and long faces don’t really get you any further any faster. All you can do is put on a good face in the morning and walk your ‘today’ until tomorrow comes. If it rains, you take a break. If it rains all day, you get wet. If you go without dinner, you try to get a big breakfast the next morning. You learn that God is in charge and He doesn’t always give us what we want, but always gives us what we need. And this… requires… patience. A long pilgrimage like this is a masterful lesson in patience that is learned because it is lived in the flesh.

The day I arrived in Krakow I gave a presentation about Laudato si’ and our pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy. I was lucky to have a brief chat with a cardinal, and he asked me only one question: “So what did you learn about mercy?” After bumbling around for an answer a word came forth from the inside: “patience.” Mercy takes patience, the kind of patience of the father who is waiting, for years, for the prodigal son to arrive. “Merciful like the Father” is also “Patient like the Father” – not anxious or stressed waiting, but hopeful waiting. It’s not the impatience of the prodigal son, nor the resentful and fake patience of the older brother. These are not the rhythms of mercy.

This was the lesson I learned through my ‘prayer in the flesh’ and the one God had in store for me. But Jesus has many lessons in store for each one of us. And, we don’t have to go on long journeys to distant places to find them, but only look at the concrete world around us in the circumstances and places we live, and make a decision to do something incarnate with our prayer: celebrating a meal with friends, gardening, spending an evening in the park with the family, cleaning the garage, or going for a walk. These of course must be accompanied by encounters with Jesus Christ at Mass, adoration, confession, biblical reading, prayer groups, etc. But the Pope’s emphasis lies in the invitation for us to bring our prayer into the flesh.

For this second World Day of Prayer for the Care for Creation the Vatican suggests the following prayers. And the Season of Creation we begin today is a wonderful time for us to bring this prayer into our daily lives.

ricardo simmondsRicardo Simmonds is the Environmental Policy Advisor for the Office of Domestic Social Development, within the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the USCCB.