On the first Sunday after Pope Francis issued a landmark document on the environment, Roman Catholics attending Mass in Kenya, France, Mexico, Peru, and the United States said they were thankful that he is using his pulpit to address climate change, pollution and global inequality.
But few priests or bishops — other than in parts of Latin America — used their own pulpits on Sunday to pass on the pope’s message, according to parish visits, interviews with Catholic leaders, and reports from Catholics after Mass.
Despite the urgent call to action in Francis’ document and the international attention it received, it will take some time to know whether Catholic clergy are familiar or comfortable enough with its themes to preach them to the faithful.
It traditionally takes months for papal teaching documents, known as encyclicals, to be read, understood and disseminated. And this one, “Laudato Si” or “Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home,” is long, nearly 200 pages, and intricately weaves spiritual and moral teachings with economic, scientific, and political analysis. It includes a forceful denunciation of a global economic system that the pope says plunders the resources of the poor for the benefit of the rich, leaving the poor to disproportionately suffer the consequences, including the effects of climate change.
“There has not been that much awareness among parish priests of climate change,” said the Rev. Aris Sison, a spokesman for the Diocese of Cubao in Manila, the Philippines capital. “The Holy Father has now made a clear connection between the environment and morality. He has given us a whole new way of thinking about the environment.”
Word that Francis was to release a major encyclical on the environment, expanding the Church’s long tradition of teaching on pressing contemporary social issues, emerged months ago. So some priests were primed to preach on it.
“Here in Peru, we see that the glaciers are disappearing,” the Rev. Alberto Mercado said in his homily to about 400 congregants during the 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Lima. “Sometimes, I travel in the bus and I see people polluting and throwing their garbage on the road. Small things also accumulate and the Pope himself says that this world is becoming an ‘immense pile of filth.’”
“Pope Francis makes this call on us in a paternal way,” he said to the church, “and shows us that we are disfiguring the Lord’s gift of creation.”
Mercado said in an interview that he had downloaded “Laudato Si’” from the Internet when it was released last Thursday, printed it out, looked at summaries of the most important points, and researched a variety of perspectives by environmentalists.
Many parishioners in the Peruvian capital applauded the Pope and their priest after Mass for speaking to their real concerns.
“We are running out of clean water and people throw garbage out on the street,” said Isabel Torres, 49, a nutritionist. “I’m worried about how people will feed themselves.”
Octavio Mogollón, 75, a retired mechanic, agreed and added, “I hope the Pope isn’t just referring to the people’s actions, but also to the big corporations and mining companies who are also destroying the planet, so he should tell them to their faces that what they are also doing is wrong.”
In fact, the encyclical does indict corporations and mining companies that exploit natural resources and leave behind denuded, polluted landscapes. But it also has a message that the Earth belongs to all, and everyone is responsible for its care.
In Mexico City, the Rev. Francisco Zamarrón focused on this point in his homily during the crowded noon Mass at Saint Rosa of Lima, a Dominican parish in the central neighborhood of Condesa.
“The pope wants us to modify our actions that are doing harm. He asks us to do simple things that aren’t foreign to us,” said Zamarrón, such as not wasting water, and recycling paper and plastic. “We have to build this reflection, this awareness that we are responsible for our actions.”
But in some parishes in Mumbai, Lagos, and Rome; the pope’s hometown Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile; Rhode Island, and North Carolina, the encyclical went unmentioned during Sunday Mass.
In Nairobi, churchgoers walked down rutted roads littered with trash and drove from homes with manicured lawns dressed in their finest clothes to attend a special Mass at St. Joseph Mukasa Catholic Church in the Kenyan capital where Cardinal John Njue confirmed dozens of children. He did not mention Francis’ encyclical on the environment in his homily, speaking instead about faith and human dignity, and the need to not be afraid despite the recent attacks by militant groups like al-Shabab and the Islamic State.
Outside the church, Patrick Kariuki, 30, said he had heard of and appreciated the pope’s message on climate change. “It is a big issue,” said Kariuki. “We’re currently experiencing it. You see, these days we can’t even predict the seasons.
“Something urgent needs to be done,” he said. “You can see it all over the place — a lot of trees have been cut and companies are polluting everywhere.”
The pope’s encyclical makes just such connections among climate change, corporate pollution, and deforestation, whether by logging companies or rural villagers who cut down trees for firewood. It says that everything God created — from plants and animals to human embryos to coral reefs — is interconnected and worthy of preservation.
Soon enough, priests in many countries will receive guides from their bishops’ conferences with suggestions on how to teach the encyclical in their parishes. A guide by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is already online.
The encyclical was mentioned only briefly by a priest celebrating one of the Masses at Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica in Marseille, a 19th-century Neo-Byzantine church that sits atop a hill and has sweeping views of the city and the sea. As they admired the view, four Dominican sisters from the Saint-Pierre-des-Canons abbey in Aurons said they hoped the encyclical would push politicians to act to prevent climate change.
“For us, the encyclical is very important,” said Sister Solange. She pointed at the small gift shop next to the basilica. “We wanted to buy a hard copy of it, but it isn’t available yet!”