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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Vatican conference breaks for Sunday: “Were our hearts not burning within us?”

They urged him, “Stay with us,
for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24: 29-32

A productive Vatican conference on global sustainability has paused for the third Sunday of Easter—a day that offers Luke’s great Emmaus resurrection account and the finding of Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

This passage, read today at all Masses across the world, has much to say about trust, doubt, hope, life, and the often unexpected place of Christ in our lives. As it turns out, it is particularly meaningful for the Vatican’s international gathering that is exploring life, relationships, and shared choices. 

"Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility" (known in the Twitterverse as ) has wrapped up two successful days of deliberations. The event is slated to end Tuesday evening with a talk by Enrico Berti titled “Social Ethics: Humanity’s Responsibility Toward Nature,” followed by observations from Andy Revkin of the New York Times, one of the few reporters covering the event. His Excellency Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, will then wrap things up.

Summarizing this conference will be a tall order. Even at the halfway mark, there is much to consider about science, policy, hopes, and at least one “sad truth.”

I was particularly interested with Saturday’s discussions on climate change. After a talk by Anil Kulkarni on the use of glaciers as water supplies, attendees deliberated on how best to communicate the realities of anthropogenic climate change to those who are suspicious of what science is telling us.

This led to a heartfelt, pastoral question by Bishop Sorondo—a question that many of have asked: How do we convince others about the reality of climate change?

Answering in context of the day’s discussions was the panel leader Hans Joachim Schellnuber, the founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change. He noted that research on “black carbon” is concrete enough to persuade people about localized climate change realities. But as for global warming? “We need the overall body of evidence … the full picture that is convincing in the end.”

He then went on to say something important.

“Some people will only be convinced if they’re completely overwhelmed by the evidence, which may be too late, actually, for their own sake. That is the sad truth.”

Of course, Bishop Sorondo’s question and Dr. Schellnuber’s answer are the same ones asked and offered by many involved in the front lines of ecological protection. My colleagues and I certainly wrestle with these issues. With my work at the Department of Environmental Management increasingly focused on how natural hazard from climate change will increasingly impact the Ocean State, I have become aware that while many people and communities in Rhode Island understand the dangers they face, others don’t, and some scoff at the very notion of climate change.

To help authentically communicate the realities of climate change—and to do so before it is too late—my office is adding public and media outreach to an upcoming series of vulnerability assessments of wastewater infrastructure. The hope is that we can use this opportunity to present what science is showing us by working with the media and others on outreach throughout a narrow study of vital and low-lying infrastructure.

The goal will not be to speak down to others, but to speak with them.

This same point was made yesterday when the story of Emmaus entered into the homily at my God Daughter’s First Communion. Listening to the pastor—who is also a friend of mine—it occurred to me that this gospel has something to say about communicating climate change. Speaking mostly to the adults, the pastor stressed that on the road to Emmaus Christ entered into relationship and listened to the disciples before He tried to teach them anything. 

“Teachers sometimes think that they can just teach without first getting to know the student,” the pastor said. “But no one is going to listen to you if you don’t listen to them first.”

Like Pope Francis, this pastor is known for his humble demeanor, his “journeying with,” and his desire to listen to the stories of others before he lays out in no uncertain terms the truths of the gospels. And so bringing Christ to others and others to Christ in the Eucharist was at the center of his homily—because true communication comes when people are first in an authentic communion.

In the ecological and social realms, the goal of our encounters with the public and our environmental educational efforts must similarly be this communion. Providentially, this is precisely the work taking place by all those attending the Vatican's sustainability conference. 

The two disciples journeying to Emmaus were busy discussing the problems of the day when they unknowingly met the Risen Lord and later recognize Him in the Eucharist. Their experience was similar to St. Paul’s on his road to Damascus. In encountering and dialoguing with the risen One in their journeys, their hearts and minds opened and their lives were changed forever.

This, then, is a model for all of us engaged in ecological protection. As noted by Cardinal Maradiaga at the conference opening, authentic education must be focused on the whole person if it is going to transform lives, lifestyles, and thus protect the planet.

And so on this Sunday—as we pause and consider our own journeys, stories, troubles, and hopes—let us continue our prayers for this important gathering hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

With faith in the transformative grace of Godwho is not at all satisfied with letting others journey alone when night falls around themmay the truths spoken at this conference be passed throughout the Church and through the work of others. May these truths thus be made available to all who journey in the twilight of an age facing difficult choices. And may minds be opened and hearts set on fire so that worry over sad truths may be quickly replaced with confidence in happy ones. 


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