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Opinion Pope Francis’s guide to caring for our home in the universe

Michael Duggan teaches Religious Studies and Theology and is the CWL Chair for Catholic Studies at St. Mary's University in Calgary.

"Hello Earth. Can you hear me?" The voice of Philae, heard again this week after a seven-month silence, unites the world in hope and wonder. This fragile robotic probe clinging to a tiny comet after a 6.4-billion-kilometre journey over the past 10 years enchants us with a vulnerability that echoes our own as we travel through the universe.

Philae's homeward call resonates with the title of Pope Francis's encyclical, or comprehensive message, about the earth, "Laudato si: On care for our common home." In step with Philae, Pope Francis appeals to humans to listen and realize that we are on a cosmic journey ourselves.

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As Philae rides the comet, humans are increasingly aware that we inhabit a planet that began 4.55 billion years ago and its earliest life forms originated 450 million years later. Relatively speaking, humans have only just arrived and we can already fathom our end. We participate in the unfolding of the cosmos.

Pope Francis suggests that our vulnerability can inspire us to cultivate wisdom, compassion and justice. The Pope's name and his document resonate with Francis of Assisi, who renounced militarism, abandoned wealth, and encountered the divine presence in the afflicted and in creation.

Before becoming Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio lived like Francis of Assisi. As a Jesuit superior, he engaged the treacherous Argentinian military junta during the Dirty War. As archbishop, he served people in the drug-infested slums of Buenos Aires. As Pope, his first visit was to African and Middle Eastern refugees who had fled from poverty and war to Italy.

This Pope leads by example. He has addressed financial and systemic corruption in his church; washed the feet of prisoners; welcomed the homeless to the Vatican; confronted the Mafia; pursued reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis; cultivated dialogue among Jews, Muslims and Christians; forged steps to unity among all churches; learned from atheists; and connected Cuba with America.

Grounded in his life experience, Pope Francis' encyclical invites everyone to cross boundaries to become a citizen of the world in solidarity with everybody else, beginning with the person who is most abandoned. His vision originates in Jesus's assertion that the least are the greatest and the last are first.

In his encyclical, the Pope claims that the Earth is at risk principally because the world economy prevents it from belonging to all people. Rather than being treated as a living organism, the Earth is exploited as a commodity. This system generates a gross inequality in the distribution of the Earth's benefits. The Pope is not alone in his thinking. Oxfam predicts that in 2016 the wealthiest one per cent will possess more than 99 per cent of humankind.

Pope Francis emphasizes that climate and the natural environment belong to all and access to drinking water is a fundamental human right. The climate is changing because of boundless consumption that produces unprecedented waste. Burning fossil fuels is a major factor in global warming. New technologies alone will not resolve the problems generated by industries that ignore their environmental impact. To care for the Earth is to care for its people.

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Pope Francis advocates for all life forms and holds that animals as well as humans have rights to healthy habitats. He is hopeful. He envisions humans as making the Earth a home that is more, rather than less, beautiful. We begin by realizing that genuine richness is in relationships. As we put people before things and the natural world before acquisitions, then we who are materially well off will come to realize that less is more.

The encyclical suggests that caring is the key to the next step in our evolution. Caring for one another, for the vulnerable, for the animals and all living beings will transform competitors into collaborators. As all seven billion citizens of the Earth more fully cultivate peace, we shall enhance our instincts for living together in our beautiful home and advance the human contribution to the unfolding universe.

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