The past few days at the Vatican have been full of quite surreal moments. First I found myself introducing Naomi Klein, as I chaired (possibly) the first ever all female panel at a high level Vatican Conference. Later the same day, I was sitting on a bus beside Mary Robinson our way to an open air mass in an ancient pine forest. We were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mulsims, athiests, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. As the sun set over the beautiful pine trees, and the red full moon rose in the sky, the whole thing had strange dream like quality about it. I pondered how on earth I came to be there, in that moment, giving praise to God, Allah, Yaweh, Mother Earth with such an unlikely group of people. Something very strange was happening.
The occasion was the Conference “People and Planet First – the imperative to change course”, which focused on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Sí. I certainly wasn’t alone in sensing a surrealness at the event. What I think what we experienced was due to the disruptive power of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Someone described the Encyclical as “the most dangerous book”. Others, such as Ben Phillips, in his blog on NGO Courage made the point that we have been “out radicaled” by the Pope. He has said the unsayable, disrupting well positioned lines of defence and throwing them into disarray.
This isn’t just Pope Francis mania either. The group in the Vatican were the an unlikely Papal fan club. For many who associate themselves with this, there is a cost to pay for aligning with the Pope. But the encyclical has the power to bring very divergent views together for the greater good. It disrupts because it speaks the Gospel truth, with all its raw beauty and its pain, in an uncompromising and compelling way. The Pope takes a different perspective – like opening google earth and panning right out as far as you go into space. He brings us right back to the sense of wonder of existence, calling us back to a sense of awe at life on this fragile planet. It stops you in your tracks. It resonates something deep in our hearts and moves us to care. Essentially, in changing the viewpoint to one of integral ecology, Pope Francis offers us a new vocabulary to express in concrete terms the world we want to see. He has given permission to everyone to say what has to be said.
Listening to the many wonderful women speakers in the Conference, I was struck by the intensely maternal, and sisterly perspective Laudato Sí encapsulates. Mary Robinson correctly pointed out the lack of a specific focus on the role of women in the encyclical, but for me the maternal, sisterly dimension is profound and essential. The whole Encyclical in fact revolves around this opening sentence: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Miss that, and you miss the point. In fact, the image that best sums up the new viewpoint that Pope Francis is proposing, is the image of mother feeding her newborn child. It is the image that best embodies the most fundamental, natural, intimate relationship of mutual love and dependency. It is the icon par excellance of the culture of care that is now needed. It is an idea I stumbled on several months ago, as I wrote here, but is one that seems increasingly relevant.
This image of mother and child, the first tender bond of inter-generational care is the measure of the love we now need to save us from ourselves, and the perils of a climate changed future for our children. This poem of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands to her baby speaks volumes of the mother-child tragedy unfolding before us. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu reminded us that thousands of children are already faced with an uncertain future as climate refugees. Rather than getting lost in useless arguing, above all we need to draw our children and grandchildren close to us and make them a solemn promise to do everything in our power to change course. For me, in fact, my main motivation in the struggle against climate change and injustice , which makes me do what I’d normally not consider doing, is simply to be able to answer the questions of my children when they grow up: “you mean you knew – so what did you do?”
Mary Robinson spoke beautifully at the Conference of this deeply maternal perspective. In her speech she focused on the encyclical theme of earth as our common home. She made the connection to motherhood and the need to see the earth as a home – and us as all as one family. For mothers all over the world, the concern with the running of the home is second nature. This gives women a better sense of limits, as they are the ones who usually focus on tending for the family, ensuring there is enough to go round. Extending that simple idea of being one family to the world scale can help us find new ways to care for our shared home. The word ‘economy’ in fact, comes from the greek word for home – oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Through re-imagining the economy from that image of the home, from maternal care, sisterhood, and Ubuntu we can start to build a truly transformative vision.
Perhaps the encyclical’s most profound message is that the earth is our mother, with whom we need a loving relationship to survive and thrive. As Naomi Klein pointed out, we are simply realising we are not the masters of creation. The truth is we utterly depend on mother earth – in reality we are as helpless in the face of nature, as a newborn child feeding from its mother’s breast. We urgently need to feel that again. When that loving relationship with the mother is broken, the impact on the child is devastating, and often irreparable. Repairing that loving relationship once more is essential. That is a dangerous message to those who wield unscrupulous power.