Tag Archives: expressive individualism

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: the Environment


Within a week or so we’re expecting the encyclical of Pope Francis on the Environment. An encyclical is a letter that the pope sends to the church throughout the world about a matter of Christian belief or morality or a major concern, like the environment, that’s important for living our lives in this world. As we know, the condition of our natural world is not only a concern of Catholics, it concerns everyone in our world today; it’s also a concern for the world of tomorrow. Many, in fact, are waiting to see what the pope says.

Some people say the environment is really a concern of scientists and politicians and the pope should keep away from the subject and stick to religious questions . But the popes have spoken out strongly on social issues throughout history and particularly in recent times.

At the end of the 19th century, for example, Pope Leo XIII spoke out against the awful conditions of workers in the western world because of the Industrial Revolution. Pope Leo wrote that workers had a right to a just wage and a right to unionize to promote their just interests. The bad conditions in which people were working affected families and their children. The pope was a voice speaking for social justice. (Rerum novarum)

Today, in speaking out on the environment and climate control, Pope Francis is following what recent popes like Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have already said about the issue. He’s looking are at the world prudently, which is not the same as looking at the world personally, or scientifically, or politically, or economically, or even spiritually.

Let me explain:

Looking at the world prudently is to have a larger vision of a question. Let me give you an example. Suppose today the weather people announced that another hurricane like Sandy was going to hit the Jersey shore in a few days and I lived on the Jersey shore. Suppose they announced that 97% of weather people said it was going to hit. Suppose I said that’s not 100% sure and I decided to say a little prayer and stay in my house.

I would be personally imprudent, don’t you think? We can’t think of an issue as large as the environment only as an individual, a scientist, a politician or an economist. We need scientific, political, economic wisdom, to be sure, but we need a larger vision, a prudential vision that incorporates all of these.

We need prudence today. Unfortunately, we can misunderstand this important virtue. We think prudence is being overly cautious, afraid to act or to change. Prudence is not that at all. Prudence is a virtue that’s not afraid to look at things as they are and react reasonably according to what we know. That’s what the pope will be urging us to do in his encyclical.

We’re living in an age of “expressive individualism,” the philosopher Charles Taylor says. We tend to see the world as a stage to express ourselves. We find it hard to think of and to act in a world bigger than ourselves.

Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection to natural world that supports us with life. One of our most important spiritual tasks today to regain our respect for the earth that God has given us. Because of “expressive individualism” we can lose our connection with the rest of the human family, especially with the poor. I’m sure we will hear all those themes in Pope Francis’ encyclical.

How fast today?

“The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,

“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,

but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn

as long as the bridegroom is with them?

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,

and then they will fast.”

For a brief moment in time, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, appeared in the flesh. Then, he rose from the dead and his appearances in the flesh ended.

Now his disciples have to fast, according to today’s lenten reading from Matthew 9, 14-15. What kind of fasting should they do? Certainly a little fasting from food, drink, entertainment would help, for sure.

But how about turning  from that “expressive individualism” that Charles Taylor calls the trademark of our western world. A more subtle kind of fasting.

There’s a commercial on television calling us to go to the Florida Keys, where  you’re free to express yourself and do what you like, where freedom reaches its highest expression. Sounds like that “far off country” that beckoned the Prodigal Son.

Does our fasting means fasting from  too much attention to ourselves, which leads us to turn our backs on our own? Do we need to pay more attention to helping the poor, where Christ can always be found?

Shepherds for Changing Times

I’m going to Scranton today to discuss with Fr. Cassian Yuhaus some material on Fr. Theodore Foley, who is being proposed as a candidate for canonization. Someone asked me yesterday, “Why him?”

I said he was a man devoted to the common good and devoted to the future of the church and his community at a time when it looked as though everything was falling apart–the 1960’-70s.  He was thoroughly grounded in the past, personally conservative in his thinking and in his habits of life, yet willing to engage others and trust in them and their ideas.  He trusted in God’s plan when it was hardly visible.

In a time of “expressive individualism” he believed in the basic institutions that support so much of our lives and he gave himself to shepherd them through dark valleys of change.

We need people like him today. Shepherds for changing times. It’s a holy, saintly task.