“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”
— Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ 217
I have a confession to make. Although I have read many of Pope Francis’s writings, until a few weeks ago I had never so much as glanced at Laudato Si’, his 2015 encyclical on care for the environment. It’s not as if I have ever been in favor of trashing the planet, but the topic of caring for the environment has just never held much personal interest for me. I think some of this is perhaps the result of growing up with Catholics and other Christians who rarely talked about care for God’s creation, and if they did, it was often with dismissive language. Environmentalists were often mocked as “tree-hugging hippies” who weren’t quite grounded in reality, or even portrayed as being idolatrous for supposedly worshipping creation rather than the Creator. So, when it was published in 2015, I read about Laudato Si’, but didn’t read it for myself.
So what convinced me to pick up Laudato Si’ and read it? Put simply, what had always seemed pretty abstract to me became very concrete and personal. On Sunday, October 3rd, news broke of a major oil spill off the coast of southern California, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 144,000 gallons of crude oil leaking from a damaged underwater pipeline. The news reports indicated that the shoreline and wetlands of Huntington Beach were taking the brunt of it.
This news hit me hard. Huntington Beach has been our family’s go-to beach vacation spot for most of the past decade. After the COVID pandemic began, it became even more important to us, as it was the one place we felt comfortable traveling to for vacation. We had been preparing to go there for our kids’ fall break this month when we saw the news about the spill. What we saw looked bleak. There were predictions of a major environmental disaster. The city’s mayor announced that the city and state beaches would be closed for weeks or months. Our home away from home was suddenly at serious environmental risk, potentially for the foreseeable future. So with our travel plans hanging in the balance, I decided to give Laudato Si’ a look.
Reading and reflecting on Laudato Si’, I was particularly drawn to Pope Francis’s discourse on “ecological conversion” in Chapter Six (paragraphs 216-221). Although I had heard him mention this phrase before, I didn’t really know what he meant by it. In Laudato Si’, he defines ecological conversion as what happens when “the effects of [our] encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in our relationship with the world around [us].” He continues, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (LS 217). The Holy Father describes how our attitudes and convictions change as the result of an ecological conversion:
- We grow in gratitude and generosity, with “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” (LS 220);
- We become more aware of our relationship with God’s creation, “that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (LS 220);
- We increase in our “awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us” (LS 221);
- We understand “that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore” (LS 221).
He goes on to reflect on what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel about sparrows, that although we don’t place much value on them, “not one of them is forgotten by God” (Lk 12:6). We usually hear this passage described in talks and homilies as an analogy about how much God loves and cares for us. Pope Francis flips this traditional emphasis on its head, placing the focus on what it says about how much God cares for his creation. I found this particularly striking because I had never really thought about it that way before.
He concludes this section, “I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied” (LS 221).
Miraculously, the Huntington Beach shoreline managed to escape the worst. Calm weather and favorable ocean currents kept most of the oil offshore. The city and state beaches reopened just eight days after they were closed, and we were able to make our trip out there. For a city not even three weeks removed from a potential catastrophe, life seemed remarkably normal. Sitting on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves coming ashore, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude that this beautiful place, which I dearly love and yet so often have taken for granted, was spared from disaster. Now I pray that going forward I will take Pope Francis’s message of ecological conversion to heart, that I will not take God’s creation for granted, and that I will do my best to protect and preserve it.
Images of Huntington Beach, CA provided by the author.
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Joseph Snearline is a Catholic writer, travel consultant, and advocate for people with disabilities. He lives in Colorado’s Front Range with his wife Grace and their two kids.