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Saint John Paul II: The Ecological Conversion
In the hymn of praise just proclaimed (Psalm 148:1-5),
the Psalmist convokes all creatures, calling them by
name. Angels, the sun, moon, stars, and skies appear on
high; 22 creatures move on earth, as many as the letters
of the Hebrew alphabet, to indicate fullness and
totality. The faithful is like "the shepherd of the being,"
namely, the one who leads all beings to God, inviting
them to intone an "alleluia" of praise. The Psalm
introduces us into what seems a cosmic temple, which
has the heavens as apse and the regions of the world as
naves, and in whose interior the choir of creatures sings
to God. This vision could be the representation both of a
lost paradise as well as that of the promised paradise. In
fact, the horizon of a heavenly universe, presented by
Genesis (Chapter 2) at the very origins of the world, is
placed by Isaiah (Chapter 11), and the Apocalypse
(Chapters 21-22) at the end of history. Thus is seen the
harmony of man with his fellow creatures, with creation and with God, which is the plan willed by the Creator. This
plan was and is continually upset by human sin, which is inspired in an alternative plan, portrayed in the Book of
Genesis itself (Chapters 3-11), which describes the affirmation of a progressive conflictual tension with God, with
one’s fellow men, and even with nature.
The contrast between the two plans emerges clearly in the vocation to which, according to the Bible, humanity is
called and in the consequences caused by his infidelity to that call. The human creature receives a mission of
government over creation to make all its potential shine. It is a delegation attributed by the divine King at the
very origins of creation, when man and woman, who are the "image of God" (Genesis 1:27), received the order to
be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, to subjugate it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the
sky, and over every living being that crawls on the earth (see Genesis 1:28). St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the
three great Cappadocian Fathers, commented: "God made man in such a way that he could develop his function
as king of the earth. Man was created in the image of him who governs the universe. Everything reveals that
from the beginning his nature is marked by royalty. He is the living image who participates in his dignity in the
perfection of the divine model" (De Hominis Opificio, 4: PG 44,136).
Yet, man’s lordship is not "absolute, but ministerial: it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of
God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God"
(Evangelium Vitae, No. 52). In biblical language, "to name" creatures (see Genesis 2:19-20) is the sign of this
mission of knowledge and transformation of created reality. It is not the mission of an absolute and uncensurable
master, but of a minister of the Kingdom of God, called to continue the work of the Creator, a work of life and
peace. His responsibility, defined in the Book of Wisdom, is to govern "the world in holiness and justice" (Wisdom
However, if one looks at the regions of our planet, one realizes immediately that humanity has disappointed the
divine expectation. Above all in our time, man has unhesitatingly devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted
the waters, deformed the earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydrogeological and atmospheric
systems, blighted green spaces, implemented uncontrolled forms of industrialization, humiliating—to use an image
of Dante Alighieri (Paradiso, XXII, 151)—the earth, that flower-bed that is our dwelling.
It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain the "ecological conversion," which over these last decades has
made humanity more sensitive when facing the catastrophe toward which it was moving. Man is no longer
"minister" of the Creator. However, as an autonomous despot, he is understanding that he must finally stop before
the abyss. "Another welcome sign is the growing attention being paid to the ’quality of life’ and to ’ecology’,
especially in more developed societies, where people’s expectations are no longer concentrated so much on
problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living conditions" (Evangelium Vitae,
27). Therefore, not only is a "physical" ecology at stake, attentive to safeguarding the habitat of different living
beings, but also a "human" ecology that will render the life of creatures more dignified, protecting the radical good
of life in all its manifestations and preparing an environment for future generations that is closer to the plan of the
In this newfound harmony with nature and with themselves, men and women will once again walk in the garden of
creation, seeking to make the goods of the earth available to all and not just to the privileged few, exactly as the
biblical Jubilee suggested (see Leviticus 25:8-13,23). In the midst of those wonders we discover the voice of the
Creator, transmitted by heaven and earth, day and night: a language "without words whose sound is heard,"
capable of crossing all frontiers (see Psalm 19 :2-5).
The Book of Wisdom, echoed by Paul, celebrates this presence of God in the universe, recalling that "from the
greatness and beauty of creatures, by analogy, the Creator is contemplated" (Wisdom 13:5; see Romans
1:20). This is what the Jewish tradition of the Hasidim also sings: "You are wherever I go! You are wherever I stop
... wherever I turn, wherever I admire, only You, again You, always You" (M. Buber, I Racconti dei Chassidim,
Milan 1979, p. 256).
General Audience Address, January 17, 2001. © Copyright Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
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