As many people around the globe, I have been unsettled by the environmental catastrophe that is the devastating wildfires in Australia, not least the news that an estimated 1 billion animals have died in the fires. The loss of species diversity due to the fires will be immense, scientists agree, not only through losses from the disastrous burns but because animal and plant species will be facing drastically reduced habitats and lack of food in the future. And scientists agree that human-caused climate change is the decisive culprit in this environmental catastrophe.
But what has haunted me beyond that is a sentence from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’. Written five years ago, the sentence is startlingly relevant today: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (LS # 33).
To think that the Australian wildfires not only cause the very visible devastation that we witness on our various screens (I am writing far away from the fires!), but that they diminish a “sublime communion” of beings giving glory to God, a planetary symphony of praise so to say, is heart-breaking. Here is Pope Francis again:
“The created things of this world are not free of ownership: ‘For they are yours, O Lord, who love the living’ (Wis 11:26). This is the basis of our conviction that, as part of the universe, called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect. Here I would reiterate that ‘God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement’. (LS 89)
I have been hard-pressed to pray in the face of such “painful disfigurement” as the Australian wildfires that is, to pray deeply, beyond asking God to have mercy on suffering mother earth, to be close to the dying and hold eternally those who have died, to strengthen and sustain first responders.
So I turn to Laudato Si’ again, and simply hold the images of the devastating wildfires in Australia together with this beautiful and painful claim: “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (LS 92).