Thinking Anew – Living in peace with the natural world

My father was the gentlest of souls. I remember one summer morning, breakfasting in our kitchen in West Kerry when a fly was buzzing about. It was so annoying that I got a newspaper to kill it. The deed done, my father looked at me and said: “Michael, why did you not open the window and let it out. That would have been a far better approach”. That was about 20 years ago, when my father would have been 91. The incident has stayed with me.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the encyclical on the care of our common home, Pope Francis has asked us to pray for our planet. Laudato Si, which is the name of his encyclical, deals with environmental issues and the urgent need for us to behave responsibly. The year runs from May 24th until May 24th, 2021, the feast of St Francis of Assisi.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has published a waste action plan for a circular economy. The document shifts focus away from disposal of waste on to the production chain. In other words, instead of considering means of waste disposal, better still to think about creating an environment where there is less material to waste. It makes great sense, and chimes with Pope Francis’s thoughts on taking care of the planet we all share.

We buy much more than we need. We waste 1.3 million tonnes of food every year. The recent document points out that approximately 40 per cent of this comes from food processing operations and 60 per cent from the household and commercial sector.

Think of the water we waste. Irish Water contacted me in March to inform me that I was using approximately 1,700 litres of water per day. Unknown to me there was a leak in an old lead pipe in my garden. It’s now repaired and it’s a great feeling of satisfaction for me to know that Irish Water is at least saving over 1,400 litres a day on my account. Water is a precious gift. What mega-quantities of water must be pouring down our drains every day? When Irish Water came to survey my leak, I was told of a case where a pipe in Dublin was wasting 5,000 litres an hour.

Pope Francis in Laudato Si points out that a greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. The Pope is opposed to the privatisation of the resource and argues that access to safe, drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.

Tomorrow’s Gospel (Matthew 18: 21–35) is the story of the king who wants his slaves to settle their accounts with him. One of his slaves pleads with him to have patience. The king duly agrees and has pity on him. But then that slave goes off and demands those who owe him money pay up. When they don’t pay up he shows no mercy towards them. He who has been shown such mercy is merciless to others. It is never right be merciless, whether it is to people or nature. In the second reading in tomorrow’s liturgy St Paul (Romans 14: 7 - 9) reminds us: “We do not live to ourselves”.

The theme in tomorrow’s liturgy is that of forgiveness. We all do wrong, we all commit sin. Forgiveness is bound up with relationships. But we are not just related with other human beings. We are also in relationship with our environment. We owe it great respect. How arrogant and short-sighted of us to think that we are at the centre of the universe. We don’t own the planet. And for far too long we have seen ourselves as the masters of the human race. We’re not.

Jesuit priest Brian Grogan writes about how our ancestors lived in loving relationships with the natural world and God: "They sensed the presence of God in everything, and called it 'Neart Dé', the power of God. They cared for nature." He goes on to explain how they were grateful to God for the goodness of nature and they were generous to the poor.

My dear father would often say to me that if we are kind to animals, we will be kind to humans. It was another reminder to me how every aspect of the universe is linked. We should feel so privileged to love and respect all of God’s creation.