(Vatican Radio) Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Papal Household, urged Christians to glorify God for creation, saying “the primary duty of human beings towards creation is to lend it a voice.” He said St Francis of Assisi did not pray “for creation” but instead prayed “with creation” or “because of creation.” The preacher noted that “the sovereignty of human beings over the cosmos” does not entail “the triumphalism of our species but the assumption of responsibility toward the weak, the poor, the defenseless.”
Fr Cantalamessa ‘s remarks came during the homily delivered by him at the Vespers in St Peter’s Basilica on September 1st for the World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation, presided over by Pope Francis.
Please find below an English translation of Fr. Cantalamessa’s homily:
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap.
PRAYING FOR CREATION OR PRAYING WITH CREATION?
Homily at Vespers for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation
Presided over by the Holy Father Francis
St. Peter’s Basilica, September 1, 2016
Why then, man, are you so worthless in your own eyes and yet so precious to God? Why render yourself such dishonor when you are honored by him? Why do you ask how you were created and do not seek to know why you were made?
The words we have just heard were spoken by St. Peter Chrysologus, the Bishop of Ravenna in the 5th century AD, more than 1500 years ago. Since that time the reason for human beings to consider themselves worthless has changed, but the fact remains. At the time of Chrysologus the reason was that people are “taken from the ground,” that they are dust and will return to dust (see Gen 3:19). Today the reason for that sense of worthlessness is that human beings count for less than nothing in the endless vastness of the universe.
There is almost a competition among non-believing scientists as to who will go the farthest in affirming the total marginality and insignificance of human beings in the universe. One of them has written, “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.” Another asserts, “I’ve always thought that I was insignificant. Getting to know the size of the Universe, I see just how insignificant I really am! . . . We’re just a bit of slime on a planet belonging to one sun.”
But I do not want to linger over this pessimistic vision or on the reflections based on its way of conceiving the environment and its priorities. A disciple of Dionysius the Areopagite in the 6th century enunciated this great truth: “One should not refute the opinion of others, nor should one write against an opinion or a cult that does not seem good. One should write only on behalf of the truth and not against others.” One cannot make this an absolute principle because at times it can be necessary to refute false and dangerous doctrines. But it is certain that a positive presentation of the truth is more effective than the refutation of its opposite error.
Chrysologus continues his discourse by explaining the reason why human beings should not think of themselves as worthless:
Was not this entire visible universe made for your dwelling? […] For you were the heavens embellished with the varying brilliance of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The earth was adorned with flowers, groves, and fruit; and the constant marvelous variety of lovely living things was created in the air, the fields, and the seas for you, lest sad solitude destroy the joy of God’s new creation.
The bishop of Ravenna is merely reaffirming the biblical idea of the sovereignty of human beings over the cosmos that Psalm 8 sings about with no less lyrical inspiration. St. Paul completes this vision by indicating the place that the person of Christ occupies in all this: “whether . . . the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:22-23). We are presented here with a “human or humanistic environmentalism,” an environmentalism that is not an end in itself but one that is related to human beings, not only, of course, human beings today but also human beings in the future.
Christian thinking has never stopped asking itself about the reason for this transcendence of human beings with respect to the rest of creation and has always found it in the biblical affirmation that human beings were created “in the image and likeness of God” (see Gen 1:26).
The insight that theology today—also thanks to the renewed dialogue with Orthodox thinking—has attained for a truly satisfying explanation of this is an understanding of what being in the image of God means. Everything is based on the revelation of the Trinity brought by Christ. Human beings are created in the image of God in the sense that they participate in the intimate essence of God, which is the relationship of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas defines the divine Persons as “subsistent relations”; they do not have a relationship with each other but are that relationship.
Only human beings—insofar as they are persons and thus capable of free and conscious relationships—participate in this personal and relational dimension of God. Since the Trinity is a communion of love, God created each person as a “being in relationship.” This is the sense in which every human being is “in the image of God.”
It is clear that there is an ontological divide between God and human creatures. Nevertheless, by grace (and never forget this point!) this divide has been bridged in such a way that it is less deep than the one existing between human beings and the rest of creation. This is a bold affirmation, but it is based on Scripture which defines people redeemed by Christ as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
Only the coming of Christ, however, has revealed the full meaning of being in the image of God. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) par excellence; as the Fathers said, we are “the image of the Image of God” insofar as we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29), created “through him and for him” (Col 1:16) who is the new Adam.
An objection arises here immediately and not only on the part of non-believers. Isn’t all this just the triumphalism of our race? Doesn’t this lead to an indiscriminate dominion of human beings over the rest of creation with consequences that are easily imaginable and unfortunately already occurring? The answer is no, not if human beings truly act in the image of God. If a human being is the image of God insofar as he or she is “a being in communion,” this means that the less selfish a person is, closed in on himself or herself and forgetful of others, the more that person is truly human.
The sovereignty of human beings over the cosmos thus does not entail the triumphalism of our species but the assumption of responsibility toward the weak, the poor, the defenseless. The only reason people like these are to be respected, when they have no other privileges and resources, is that of being human beings. The God of the Bible—but also of other religions—is a God “who hears the cry of the poor,” who “has mercy on the weak and the poor,” who “defends the cause of the wretched,” who “does justice to the oppressed,” who “despises nothing that he has created.”
The Incarnation of the Word has brought an additional reason to care for the weak and the poor, whatever race or religion they belong to. The Incarnation in fact does not only say that “God became man,” it also demonstrates what kind of man he chose to become: not rich and powerful but poor, weak, and defenseless. A human being and that’s all! The manner of his Incarnation is no less important than the fact of his Incarnation.
This was the step forward that Francis of Assisi, because of his life experience, has allowed theology to take. Before him people emphasized almost exclusively the ontological aspects of the Incarnation: nature, person, hypostatic union, communication of idioms, etc. This was necessary to counteract heresy, but once the dogma was established, people could not stop there without making the Christian mystery dry up and making it lose a great part of its power in its opposition to sin and injustice in the world.
What moved Saint Francis to tears before the Christmas manger was not the union between the natures or the unity of hypostasis but the humility and the poverty of the Son of God who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The love of poverty and love of creation went hand in hand for Francis and shared a common root in his radical renunciation of wanting to own anything. He belonged to that category of people whom St. Paul describes “as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10).
The Holy Father takes up this message when he makes “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” one of the fundamental concerns of his encyclical on the environment. What is it that produces the greatest damage to the environment and simultaneously the misery of a great number of people if not the insatiable desire of some to increase their possessions and their profits disproportionately? One should apply what the ancients said about life to the earth: “vitaque mancipio nulli datur, omnibus usu”—“life is not a grant in freehold; life’s a loan.”
* * *
At times we are rudely reminded of the truth that we are not the masters of the earth through events like the earthquake of last week that took place not far from here. Then the question we always ask comes back again: “Where was God?” Let us not make the mistake of thinking that we have an easy answer to such a question. We weep with those who weep, like Jesus did when faced with the sorrow of the widow of Nain or the sisters of Lazarus.
Faith, however, allows us to say something about this. God did not program creation as if it were a clock or a computer in which every movement is programmed from the beginning, except maybe for some periodic updates. By analogy with human beings, we can speak of a certain “freedom” that God has given to matter to evolve according to its own laws. In this sense (but only in this sense!) we could even share the point of view of non-believing scientists who speak of “chance and necessity.” In evolution everything seems to happen “by chance,” but “chance” itself is part of the plan of the Creator and does not exist “by chance.”
This fact brings with it tremendous dangers for people but also an increase in human dignity; in this way humanity is called to measure itself against the challenges of evolution. The people of the Netherlands had to struggle for centuries to avoid being submerged by the North Sea, and during this struggle they coined a famous phrase: “Luctor et emergo,” “I struggle and emerge.”
There will be one day “a new heaven and a new earth” (2 Pt 3: 13), free from every bondage and decay, but this will come to pass at the end of time when humanity itself will be fully and eternally liberated from sin and death (cf. Rom 8:19-23). One thing, however, Jesus assures us of meanwhile is that the human creature is never completely at the mercy of the elements of the world: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Lk 12:6-7).
To the question “Where was God on the night of August 23,” the believer does not hesitate, therefore, to respond in all humility, “He was there, suffering with his creatures and receiving into his peace the victims who were knocking at the door of his Paradise.”
* * *
The reading from the Book of Wisdom that we heard before the patristic reading of Chrysologus speaks to us of the first and fundamental duty of human beings that stems from their privileged position at the heart of creation. It said,
all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works. (13:1)
St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans takes up this well-known subject but with a variation that applies to all of us and strikes close to home. In relation to creation, he says, sin does not consist so much in the failure to rise above it and recognize the Creator, as in the failure to glorify and thank God: “For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom 1:21).
This is not just a sin of the mind but also of the will, and not just a sin of atheists and idolaters but also of those who know God. In fact immediately afterward the Apostle includes among people who “are without excuse” those who have been given revelation and, confident in this knowledge, feel secure and pass judgment on the rest of the world, without realizing that if they are seeking their own glory instead of God’s they are committing the same sin as unbelievers (see Rom 2:1ff).
There are many duties that human beings have concerning creation, some more urgent than others: water, air, climate, energy, protecting the species at risk, etc. People speak of these issues in all the venues and meetings that deal with ecology. There is, however, a duty to creation that we cannot speak about except in a meeting of believers, and it is absolutely appropriate that it therefore be placed front and center during the present moment of prayer. That duty is doxology, glorifying God for creation. An ecology without a doxology makes the universe opaque, like an immense glass map of the world that is without the light that should illuminate it from within.
The primary duty of human beings toward creation is to lend it a voice: “The heavens and the earth,” says one psalm, “are full of his glory” (see Ps 148:13; Is 6:3). The heavens and earth are pregnant with it, so to speak, but they cannot give birth to it by themselves. Like a pregnant woman, they too need the hands of a midwife to bring forth what they are pregnant with. And these “midwives” of the glory of God should be ourselves, the creatures who are made in the image of God. The Apostle also alludes to this when he speaks of a creation that “is groaning and suffering in travail until now” (see Rom 8:19, 22).
How long has the universe had to wait, what a long run-up it has had, to reach this point! It took billions of years during which opaque matter evolved toward the light of consciousness like the sap that slowly rises from under the ground to the top of the tree to flow into its leaves, flowers, and fruit. This consciousness was finally attained when “the human phenomenon,” as Teilhard de Chardin calls it, appeared in the universe. But now that the universe has reached this goal, it expects that human beings perform their duty and take on the task, so to speak, of directing the choir and to intone, in the name of all creation, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Someone who took this duty literally was the Dominican Blessed Henry Suso, known as “Saint Francis of Swabia”. He left us this touching testimony:
When I sing these . . . words [of the sursum corda] in the holy mass, . . . they bear me upwards into God, . . . and I gather round [in my mind] all the creatures which God ever created in heaven, on earth, and in all the elements, each one severally with its name, whether birds of the air, beasts of the forest, fishes of the water, leaves and grass of the earth, or the innumerable sand of the sea, and to these I add all the little specks of dust which glance in the sun beams, with all the little drops of water which ever fell or are falling from dew, snow, or rain. . . . And then the loving arms of my soul . . . extend themselves towards the innumerable multitude of all creatures, and . . . just as a free and blithesome leader of a choir stirs up the singers of his company . . . [I incite] them to sing joyously, and to offer up their hearts to God.
We believers ought to be the voice not only on behalf of all the other creatures but also on behalf of our brothers and sisters who have not had the grace of faith. Let us not forget in particular to glorify God for the amazing achievements of technology. It is true that they are the work of human beings, but whose people are these? Who made them? I asked myself a question and I repeat it here out loud: Do we really glorify God for his creatures or do we only say we do? Is our approach just a theory or also a practice? If we do not know how to do it with our words, let us do it with the Psalms. In them even the rivers are invited to clap their hands to the Creator (see Ps 98:8).
Glorifying God is not for his sake but for ours. With it we “set the truth free” (see Rom 1:18); creation is redeemed from fallenness and vanity, that is, from having no meaning, into which the sin of human beings has dragged it and the unbelief of the world still drags it today (see Rom 8:20-21). One of the prefaces at Mass addressed to God says,
. . . although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation.
If Francis of Assisi still has something to say to us today about the environment, it is precisely what we have just said. He does not pray “for” creation, for its preservation (in his time there was not yet a need for that); instead he prays “with” creation or “because of creation” or even “on account of creation.” All these nuances are present in the preposition “per” that he uses, which means “through” and “for”: “Praised be you, Lord, through Brother Sun, through Sister Moon, through Mother Earth.” His canticle is entirely a doxology and a hymn of thanksgiving. It is precisely from this that Saint Francis derives his extraordinary respect toward every creature, for the sake of which he desired that even wild plants be granted space to grow.
This message was also taken up by the Holy Father in his encyclical on the environment. It begins with the doxology “Laudato si’” and ends significantly with two distinct prayers: one “for” creation and the other “in union with” creation. Let us draw a few invocations from that second prayer to conclude our reflection:
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you. Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is. God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth. Amen.