Consider how the environmental community speaks to the world: you must change your ways; sacrifice for the good of others; deny your desires. You must become more selfless, charitable, and virtuous.
Engrained in even the most secular, atheistic eco advocate is a knowledge that protecting life requires a sort of death to ourselves — a willingness to suffer so that others may live.
Here, of course, we hear the Christian hymn of the Cross. And what that hymn means — what God has achieved and revealed to us through the Passion of Christ — brings two vital realities for those seeking a world that embraces life in all its forms.
The first is conversion.
Consider the notion of “ecological conversion,” a term that Saint John Paul II proposed and Pope Francis now champions.
“[Ecological] conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness,” writes Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’. “First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works.”
In this light, the demands of Lent — self-sacrifice and good works — are spiritual and corporeal paths that lead us to the foot of Christ’s Cross. Once there, our Lenten trainings allow us to better ponder what is happening on Calvary, and to wonder if we, like Christ, could give up everything, deny ourselves of anything, so that others may live.
If you’re like me, you know that this comes with profound difficulty. To say the least. Our pride, our ego, and our primal understanding of security resist self-denial.
The necessity of grace to achieve any real conversion — ecological or otherwise — is a truth that must be shared with the world. It’s why our churches have the Cross of Christ Crucified front and center. It’s why the tabernacle, with the presence of Christ himself, should also be front and center of our parish churches. Otherwise we forget the primacy of God and his message of sacrifice within our liturgies, and stray into the notion that through our own actions we can save ourselves.
This brings us to the second reality that we need — a reality that flows like a river from the heart of Good Friday.
By baptism I mean both the sacrament of initiation — that welcoming embrace of God through the communal ministry of the Church — as well as the elevation of our fallen natures that happens every time we encounter God’s grace.
Two thieves were crucified with Christ. One rejected this grace —no, he rejected the very notion that such grace was possible. The other gave himself over to it. “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And with that affirmation of faith—that admission that this Jesus was the Christ, and that his kingdom was not of this broken earth — the soul of the thief was saved.
The prerequisite of grace to achieve any real conversion — ecological or otherwise — is a truth that must be shared if we are ever to save our world and its life-nurturing ecosystems. To say nothing of saving souls.
In other words, if we are to pick up the crosses necessary for our conversions, and if we expect others to pick up theirs, we must, one and all, first come to the foot of Christ’s Cross, ponder the price of sin — our sins — and allow the life-giving grace of God to pour onto us as surely as Christ’s blood baptized the ground at Calvary.
Then, and only then, will the ecological conversion we speak of be possible. Because it is Christ Crucified, not us, that makes all things new.
William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, serves on the diocesan pastoral council, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, West Warwick. He writes at CatholicEcology.net