Episcopal Ordinations, Bishop Michael Czerny © Vatican Media

AVVENIRE Interview with Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J.

Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

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The following interview by Lucia Capuzzi with Cardinal Michael Czerny S.J., Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, is republished with permission from the May 17, 2020 issue of  AVVENIRE.

1) This Laudato si’ 5th anniversary week — 16-24 May 2020 — takes place in a dramatic moment, amidst the COVID-19. What meaning does it have in light of this situation, this ‘sign of the times’?

Five years ago Laudato si’ revealed the fault-lines of human injustice and environmental degradation. COVID-19 is amplifying and magnifying the same, in a tragically concrete, dramatic, and vivid manner. It’s the “rapidification” which Pope Francis identified (LS 18). Not only the manner and speed of the virus’s spread but also the highly accelerated digitalization underway, the millions of conventional jobs being lost, the online communication replacing meetings and changing events.

Note the parallels: the coronavirus crisis starts with damaging health, but it has terrible socio-economic consequences, especially among the most vulnerable. The ecological crisis is similar: it starts with environmental damage, but has devastating consequences on work, food, health, and other social issues, hitting the poorest hardest. Both crises require novel solutions available everywhere and at all levels, not just for and at ‘the top’.

2) Laudato si’ is five years old. It was not the first time that the Church spoke of ecology, but thanks to it a new paradigm of integral ecology was established, which also had effect on both ecclesial and common language. What processes did the encyclical get going, to paraphrase our dear Pope Francis, in these years?

Soon after it came out, Laudato si’ helped to ground, animate and orient the Paris COP21 Conference (December 2015) to produce the Paris Agreement – flawed and weak but still a first necessary step. It has also stimulated many forms of activism in parishes, other religions, secular groups and movements. I believe that this is unprecedented for an encyclical.

3) How can we reread Laudato si’ in today’s light? And how can we get the most out of this week?

It is valid to read Laudato si’ in the light of COVID-19, and a recent editorial in Aggiornamenti Sociali called “Five years with Laudato si’”[1] does so superbly. Environmental abuse and degradation probably contributed to the emergence and spread of the virus, but our understanding must go much deeper to the fundamental anti-values that fueled the competitive and consumerist civilization of yesterday. The new world after COVID-19 has to be much better.

4) There are still some Catholics who have some difficulty in considering the socio-environmental issue as a fundamental part of their faith. What can you say to them?

Before being a “socio-environmental issue”, creation is a fundamental article of faith: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”.

Human life is grounded in three fundamental and intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself, the earth being part of God’s loving creation. To distort any of those relationships is to sin. Forgiveness is to seek participation in the redemption Christ brings us, the healing of broken relationships, and the restoration of the three-fold harmony,.

St John Paul II reminds everyone, especially Christians, “that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith”.[2] So, with the Catholics you mention, let’s walk together and together face our disbelief, our fear.

5) Querida Amazonia and the whole synodal process are children of Laudato si’. In what way Querida Amazonia furthers Laudato si’ and questions us all, not only the Amazon people?

The Amazon Synod showed what it means to take Laudato si’ seriously, to aggressively and bravely address all the social and ecological sins in a given region. That’s a lesson that needs to be followed everywhere on earth.

In addition, Querida Amazonia unabashedly respects and validates the people of the Amazon – especially the indigenous ones – as the first and indispensable protagonists for preserving the Amazon to play its planetary role. This challenges all who continue to harbor (albeit unconsciously) lingering colonialist attitudes towards other cultures or a sense of entitlement over all natural resources.

6) How does Laudato Si’ may help us for a post-pandemic rebuilding?

First, let’s be clear – our objective should not be to go back to more of the same ‘business as usual’, reverting to the self-destructive, inhumane, unjust, and unsustainable syndromes which used to be ‘normal’ until early 2020.

Instead, Pope Francis says, let us regenerate new relationships, new economy, new society. Laudato si’ challenges the core drivers of unhealthy and destructive growth, proposing instead an inclusive, sustainable development that deserves the name “integral”.

As to how to go about it, Laudato si’ gave enormous attention to dialogue as the utterly necessary foundation of positive action. The only approach to post-pandemic regeneration is to dialogue, which means honestly involving all those who are concerned. This is the synodal way.

7) Young people are perhaps the ones who feel most affected by the environmental crisis. Can integral ecology work as a bridge to communicate with them, who find it more difficult to integrate with traditional parish or church structures?

Young people are right to feel totally outraged by the flagrant irresponsibility of all ‘those responsible’. These are not only decision-makers in commerce and politics but also consumers and citizens who live a lifestyle based on the unsustainable exploitation of both people and the planet.

Young people now see the planet as their essential locus of reverence and concern; as Christian movements and parishes accompany them in their quest, young people take part and indeed play leading roles. This we learned at the 2018 Synod on Young People.

8) The environmental crisis is getting worse every day. Certainly worse than it was five years ago. What commitment should a Christian make on the occasion of this week?

First, everyone, Christians and others can try to improve our relationship with nature via the path of contemplation. We cannot love what we don’t even see; contemplative seeing can launch the journey of ecological conversion.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, many are discovering that we can live on less. So we can continue consuming less, or choosing less-polluting products, or avoiding unnecessary non-recyclable packaging. Instead of shopping without thinking about the moral and environmental consequences, our Catholic parishes, schools, and centers can accept that “to buy is always a moral act, as well as an economic one” (LS 206 quoting Caritas in Veritate). They can use glass bottles and washable dishes, as many social centers and popular movements habitually do.

Finally, in our liturgy, let us commit to celebrate God’s gift of creation in a more inspiring way. Our traditional liturgies include elements of nature: water and oil in baptism, bread, and wine in the Eucharist, fire in the Easter Vigil. We need to experience nature in us spiritually and ourselves in creation in an integral manner. Otherwise, we just continue exploiting, consuming, and abusing nature, rather than accepting our responsibility as co-creators with God of our common home. The frugal, liturgical and contemplative dimensions of Christian spirituality will help motivate the necessary personal, social, and systemic changes: all radical ones!

9) Among the many impacts it generated, can you mention some initiatives particularly inspired by Laudato Si’?

The Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), also celebrating its 5th anniversary, has 900+ Catholic member organizations from large international networks to local parishes, plus religious congregations, grassroots leaders, and thousands of Catholic men, women, and young people. GCCM helped to organize this wonderful Laudato si’ week we are living right now.[3]

Other examples include local organic farming in Latin America, buildings refitted ecologically in Europe, solar energy installed in Africa. A number of Catholic schools have taken Laudato si’ as their primary interdisciplinary teaching to promote ecological responsibility and to mobilize students and their families in caring for our common home.


[1] G. Costa S.J. e P. Foglizzo, “Cinque anni con la Laudato si’”, Aggiornamenti Sociali, maggio 2020, 357-64.

[2] John Paul II, Message for World Day of Peace 1990, § 15.

[3] Pope Francis’s Invitation to Laudato si’ week, in english: https://www.instagram.com/p/CAQBz7HIGzj/?hl=en in Italian: https://youtu.be/uFQAB2vuaQw

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