Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Dueteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
29 August 2021
Today is Social Justice Sunday. Taking their lead from Pope Francis, our bishops have issued a statement entitled Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis added his papal amplifier to the alarm bells being sounded by scientists on the issues of pollution and climate change, water shortage, and the loss of biodiversity. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms the need for us all to reach net carbon zero emissions by 2050. This is now the preferred ideal outcome acknowledged by our political leaders on both sides of the aisle in Canberra. It will be embraced by most world leaders when they gather for the Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. As ever, the debate and disagreement will be about how to get there. There will always be political differences over the extent to which you let the market decide and the extent to which government and the state can intervene with taxes, laws and policies. As ever, there will be differences of temperament, oscillating between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Some will continue to say, “She’ll be right mate. Technology will come to the rescue.” Others will say, “We must take radical action, changing course, now, before it is too late, putting in place measures which force everyone, including the freeloaders, to reduce their emissions.”
Neither the Pope nor our bishops claim to have the answers on the right mix of markets, state regulation, research and development, and just downright public shaming. But they are adamant that the preferred answers are not simply to environmental questions. As Pope Francis said last week: “The Encyclical Laudato Si’ is not only a ‘green’ Encyclical, it is also a ‘social’ Encyclical.” Our bishops have responded to the key insight offered by Pope Francis that we need to be responding to three cries: the cry of the planet, the cry of the poorer, less developed nations on the planet, and the cry of the poorer, more marginalised members of each society. Pope Francis is not being politically ideological when he says ‘there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded’. The excluded are the nations and the people who are “brought up as an afterthought”, “treated merely as collateral damage”, “at the bottom of the pile”. Francis puts the challenge directly to people like us and our politicians and media commentators. Our life of privilege and social isolation is part of the problem. It’s not just a matter of being a ‘Greenie’ or voting ‘Green’ and continuing to live a middle class consumer lifestyle as we always have. Francis says:
“Many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Our bishops are calling upon us this Sunday to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor – both the poor nations, and the poor living in our own society. We can no longer answer one cry without attending to the other. In the social justice statement, the Australian bishops are inviting us to listen with an open heart to those who are most affected, and to draw wisdom from Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and human knowledge, so that we might be converted to new ways of living, both personally and collectively.
This is a call for bright, motivated university students and young professionals to consider the science, economics, politics, philosophy and spirituality of getting to net zero emissions by 2050. We all need to be better informed, more motivated, better connected, more grounded, and more committed. We are not just being invited to think differently about our world. We are being urged to live differently. We are being called to personal conversion and to collective action. In his book Superpower: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity, Ross Garnaut who conducted the Climate Change Review for the Australian Government in 2008 writes: “Laudato Si’ sees climate change imposing costs disproportionately on people in poor countries and poor people in all countries, and thus as a social justice issue. Francis declares that it is a flaw in our political and economic systems that the private profit motive unconstrained by concern for the public good has led us to damage our common home – the same flaw that has generated and tolerated great poverty.”
At the Amazonian Synod, Pope Francis constantly referred to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Amazon. In his most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti in which he reflects on fraternity and social friendship in the context of the global pandemic, he has reminded us: “The pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realization of our own limitations, brought on by the pandemic have only made it all the more urgent that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.”
Francis goes on to say: “If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. … The world is itself crying out in rebellion. We are reminded of the well-known verse of the poet Virgil that evokes the ‘tears of things’, the misfortunes of life and history.”
In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas visits a temple where he sees a mural depicting scenes of the Trojan War, he having been one of the few Trojans not to be killed or enslaved. Delighted, he says:
“Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety.” 
We must never lose hope that the praiseworthy has its rewards, even if only ultimately, and for us Christians that may be only in the life to come. We must try to do right in all manner of things and to all manner of people, here and now. We live in a world where we not only shed tears for things; we witness tears of things. We must be released from our fears, committing ourselves to play our part so that all persons might live in a climate and an environment becoming of a common home for all humanity and all God’s creatures.
This is not a day for us to be weighed down by the world’s woes. It is a day to be lifted up by the vision the Lord puts before us. Let’s take heart from the question Moses puts to the people in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “And what great nation is there that has laws and customs to match this whole Law that I put before you today?” Let’s hold not just our politicians, but also ourselves, to account. Let’s pray the prayer with which Francis concludes Laudato Si’:
God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good,
advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you! Amen.
 Pope Francis, Message to Laudato Si’ Seminar, 24 August 2021, at https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/events/event.dir.html/content/vaticanevents/en/2021/8/24/videomessaggio-congresso-argentina.html
 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, #49
 Ross Garnaut, Superpower: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity, La Trobe University Press, 2019, p. 24
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, #33
 Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, line 462
 Deuteronomy 4:8
 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, #246
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
Download the Social Justice Statement Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor here.