September 1: Praying “In the Great Cathedral of Creation”

A few days before Pope Francis released, in mid-July, his message for the upcoming World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation (September 1), NASA made public the first images from its James Webb Space Telescope. The images revealed previously unseen features and depths of the universe. The almost simultaneous release of these two publications might be sheer coincidence, and one could well ask what on earth NASA’s new images of the universe have to do with the Season of Creation in any case.

The answer is a lot. If one only reads the two press releases together, and especially if one lets the Pope’s message illuminate what one sees in the images from the space telescope. Here is how: In his message for the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, which opens the Season of Creation that concludes on October 4 with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis draws our attention to “the voice of creation.” He encourages us to listen to and indeed to join in and “pray once more in the great cathedral of creation, and revel in the ‘grandiose cosmic choir’ made up of countless creatures, all singing the praises of God.”

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Just four days before the release of this papal message, NASA had publicized, in a televised broadcast, the first full-color images from the James Webb Space Telescope. The images were widely shared and could also be seen on digital screens in New York City’s Times Square and in London’s Piccadilly Circus. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson declared exuberantly, “Today, we present humanity with a groundbreaking new view of the cosmos from the James Webb Space Telescope – a view the world has never seen before.”

There is no need to question this assessment, but there may be additional (dare I say more profound?) ways of pondering these images. What, for example, would we perceive if we saw the images juxtaposed with or functioning like a visual commentary on the Pope’s vision of a “great cathedral of creation,” a “grandiose cosmic choir… singing the praises of God”? Appreciating these images as one element of Pope Francis’s cosmic vision could both root and also expand our view of the “grandiose cosmic choir” that first emerged at the dawn of creation “when the morning stars began to sing” (in the language of the creation story of Job 38). By current guestimates, this would have been 13.8 billion years ago. Not that any of these cosmic formations need to be seen and named by twenty-first-century humans in order for them to sing their praises (“Cartwheel Galaxy”?!). Rather, it is we – the human voices in this cosmic choir – who need to be reminded that we do not sing alone in praise of God. As Pope Francis encouraged us in Laudato Si’, and again in this year’s message for September 1, we should “base our spirituality on the ‘loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion’.”

Sadly, not all is ancient beauty, splendid harmony, and unending praise in this creaturely communion. And so, importantly, Pope Francis in his message identifies a second element in the voice of creation to which we are called to listen during this year’s Season of Creation. The Pope describes this element as “a chorus of cries of anguish… lamenting our mistreatment of this our common home.” He goes on to spell out particular voices in this anguished chorus, naming especially the voice of Mother Earth, the voices of countless species who are dying out, with “their hymns of praise silenced,” of the poorest of the poor, indigenous peoples, and children and youth.

Nothing on this list of anguished creatures is particularly new; they had all made appearances in Laudato Si’ in 2015. But since then, the cries of anguish have become ever-more urgent. And so, in his message for this year’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, the Pope calls us explicitly to lament, and to “weep with the anguished plea of creation.” For this, however, the new, dazzling, never-before-seen images of the universe from the James Webb Space Telescope offer little help. The daily news, on the other hand, offers ample opportunity to confront this, our human-made planetary crisis, with daily images of melting glaciers and rising sea levels, devastating floods, heat-waves, prolonged drought and desertification, species extinction, etc.

The Pope rightly speaks of “a kind of dissonance” in the voice of creation today. More than ever, we need to listen to that dissonance as it arises between creation’s “sweet song of praise” and its “anguished plea” during this Season of Creation. The reason for this is as simple and basic as it is stark: if we refuse to attend to creation’s anguished plea, we contribute to diminishing the songs of praise our creaturely fellow worshippers offer. And with that, we damage the “great cathedral of creation” to which both the Pope’s message for September 1 and the NASA images of our universe point.

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