VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Thursday proposed that caring for the environment be added to the traditional seven works of mercy that Christians are called to perform, taking his green agenda to a new level by supplementing Jesus’ Gospel call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.
Francis made the ambitious proposal in a message to mark the church’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, which he instituted last year in a bid to highlight his ecological concerns.
Officials said the call was the logical extension of Francis’ landmark and controversial ecological encyclical issued last year. In it, the world’s first Latin American pope called for a revolution to correct what he said was a “structurally perverse” economic system in which the rich have exploited the poor and turned the Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”
This year, the Sept. 1 day of prayer for the planet falls during Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy, a yearlong focus on the church’s merciful side. Throughout the year, the faithful have been urged to practice the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy, which were first outlined in the Gospel and have been articulated over centuries by philosophers and theologians.
In addition to the corporal acts of mercy, the spiritual ones include counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant and praying to God for the living and dead.
In the message, Francis said the faithful should use the holy year to ask forgiveness for the “sins” against the environment that have been committed by the “irresponsible, selfish” and profit-motivated economic and political system.
He called for all of humanity to take concrete steps to change course, starting with repaying what he called the “ecological debt” that wealthy countries owe the poor.
“Repaying (the debt) would require treating the environments of poorer nations with care and providing the financial resources and technical assistance needed to help them deal with climate change and promote sustainable development,” he wrote.
On a smaller, individual scale, recycling, turning off the lights and carpooling can also help, he said.
Finally, he proposed that caring for the environment be added as a “complement” to the seven spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
“This message is the next logical step after (the encyclical), for it is showing us how to internalize its teaching in our lives and in our world,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped draft the original encyclical and is Francis’ point man on environmental matters.
Turkson on Wednesday was also appointed to head the Vatican’s new super-dicastery responsible for the environment, migration, health care and peace and justice matters, issues that are all closest to Francis’ heart.
Terrence Ward, author of the book “The Guardian of Mercy” and a panelist at the Vatican launch of the new document, said the works of mercy Francis is asking people to perform are “not about changing the world tomorrow.”
Rather, they’re about changing mindsets and performing even small actions — such as turning off the lights. Doing so, he said, shows reverence for the miracle of life and creation and actually allows for all the other works of mercy to follow.
“To give polluted water to someone who is thirsty doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Clean the water up first.”