Our common home

The Anchor would like to welcome Robert Rak as a monthly contributor. He is a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River. He will offer his insights into topics relevant to Pope Francis’ recent release of Laudato Si’.

Welcome to “Our Common Home.” This column is being written in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’ — on Care for Our Common Home.” This expression means “Praise be” and is derived from St. Francis of Assisi’s, “Canticle of the Creatures,” in which he writes, “Praise be to You, my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us and who produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” The Holy Father speaks of how this sister is now crying out to us due to the many ways that we have inflicted harm on our planet. As a professor of Environmental Technology, I had waited with much anticipation for the release of the encyclical. When it was released, I read it in its entirety and I was not disappointed. It inspired me to reach out to the diocese to share my knowledge of the workings of our world with you. I grew up in the south end of Fall River and was blessed to have two parents who fostered my love of science and all creation through their love and their actions. They provided me with many rich experiences to explore our natural word and to interact with its many creatures. They also loved to garden and to fish. I often wanted to bring things into school to show the class, and the Sisters of Mercy at St. Patrick’s School had learned to ask, “How many legs does it have?” It is important for kids to grow up experiencing the natural world, so that they feel a part of it. This is an essential part of the pope’s message, that we are all an integral part of God’s creation. We cannot separate ourselves from the natural world and think that our actions have no consequences. 

I later went on to Bishop Connolly High School, majored in biology at the College of the Holy Cross, and received my masters of science in Marine Biology at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth). I have worked as a research assistant for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, as a Whale Watch Naturalist in Plymouth, as laboratory director at a water pollution control facility, and as a computer instructor at an elementary school. All these experiences have prepared me as an environmental educator. The pope sees the study of the environment as vital to our Catholic education.

Pope Francis builds on the concern for the environment expressed by Pope Paul IV, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Through this encyclical, the pope wishes to speak to “every person on this planet.” The document is structured so that it not only explains the problems that exist, but how we got to this point and what we must do to bring ourselves back into harmony with our world. The Holy Father emphasizes that we cannot meet God’s desire for us to care for His Creation without caring for all of the world’s citizens. In particular he focuses on the poor and indigenous peoples, who he so rightly states, are the most vulnerable to the effects of our misuse and inequitable use of the world’s resources. Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of an area and they generally hold a rich knowledge of the natural world in which they live. They have relied on it for their sustenance and their Spiritual wellbeing. They often honor the earth as their mother, and the other creatures as their brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, in the name of progress and profits, these people, and the poor, have been, and continue to be, pushed from their homeland so that it can be developed or dug up to access energy sources and minerals.

 In the Bible’s Book of Genesis it is written, “Let us make mankind in Our image and likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, over all the wild animals and every creature that crawls on the earth.” People have used these lines as a justification for plundering our planet. The pope makes it clear that dominion does not mean reckless domination and that it means having the responsibility to care for “His” creation. He makes the point that Creation belongs to God and does not belong to us. We are the caretakers.

The pope understands that we cannot move back into the Stone Age, but he warns of our lifestyle of compulsive consumerism that can lead us away from a respect for all of God’s people and His Creation. God reveals the mysteries of the world through scientific discovery and we must use our knowledge and technology for the benefit of all peoples and creatures. 

In future columns I will discuss topics that the pope addresses such as climate change, energy usage, loss of biodiversity, water, etc., and I will strive to provide an understanding of His Creation and ways to meet the pope’s challenge of caring for it in our daily lives.

Professor Rak is a Fall River native and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Fall River. He has been a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River for 18 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a master’s degree in marine biology from UMass Dartmouth. rrak@verizon.net

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