We need revolutionary grace for great change

William Patenaude

With Earth Day events continuing this week, it’s a good time to ask this question: what exactly do Catholics bring to the arena of ecological protection?

Helping answer that question is the providential alignment last Sunday of Earth Day and Good Shepherd Sunday — especially this exhortation in the responsorial psalms:

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes,” Ps 118:8-9.

In all the marches, petitions, lobbying, and other civil actions required these days to bring about change for the good, we should ask if our actions are inspired more by the desire for a political revolution or by the promises of the Savior of the world.

Yes, the world needs a revolution. We need a new status quo to scale back the catastrophic levels of ecological destruction that we humans continue to unleash upon God’s creation. Likewise, we need a revolution that restores the meaning and the purpose of marriage; the dignity of unborn children, the elderly, and the infirmed; as well as the more basic understanding of what it means to be human.

But the revolution that we need is not political. While civil engagement is a necessary tool to uphold the common good, what we need first and foremost is God’s revolution.

On Sunday I was struck by how the readings contradicted a recent and growing overreliance on government — of trusting in men and princes. Of course, I understand the importance of the state. I’m a civil servant, after all. What concerns me is the unspoken expectation by some, especially those on the left, that the continuing expansion of laws and regulations will solve all our ills, as if it were possible to legislate the love of neighbor.

Many of the events that took place on Earth Day proved just the opposite. They showed that true change comes when a heart is open to what is outside of it — especially God, and then of course creation and our neighbors, who share creation with us. Then and only then can come the hard work of making things better, as so many cleanups and tree-planting projects demonstrated.

This confluence of openness, transformation, and action is, after all, another way of stating the Christian equation that grace elevates nature.

Our primary job as activists — eco, social, political, and otherwise — is to be revolutionaries of grace. More than ever, the world needs the Church and her priests (that is, her shepherds) to mediate that grace and offer it to the faithful, so that the faithful can then bring God’s unstoppable light to the places that need it.

In other words, what’s needed to save the world are men and women washed with the waters of baptism, strengthened with the sacrament of reconciliation, and unified by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

As Saint Peter made clear to the authorities of his day in Sunday’s first reading, “There is no salvation through anyone else [but Christ], nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved,” Acts 4:12.

William Patenaude, M.A., KCHS, 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