An Environmental Vocation

by Anthony Egan SJ

This is a busy Sunday: the Fourth Sunday of Easter and Vocations Sunday in the Church, and Earth Day throughout the world. Cynics, viewing both the level of ecological ignorance, indifference or denialism and the low levels of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Church (across all churches in fact), might well dub it ‘Hopeless Causes Sunday’. Christians concerned about vocations may resent the fact of Earth Day falls on Vocations Sunday as a distraction, while secular ecologists might respond that this reflects the Church’s own insularity, introspection and lack of real concern for the planet.

While all three positions have both merits and limits, an underlying connection is being missed: the fundamental psychological and spiritual common ground of both days in the sense of ministry.

Ministry is service of the Other, whether people, the planet or God. Ministry moves beyond self-interest into a bigger world, rooted in concern for that world. It displaces self from the centre of our attention and replaces it with other people, the environment and, for those who believe, God. Vocation calls us to move beyond ourselves and the respond through life choices and action.

Vocation is at bottom of the conscious decision to choose to live for a reality greater than ourselves. It is the difference in quality between ‘having children’ and being parents, working for an NGO and serving its purpose, earning a living as a lawyer or doctor and practicing Law or Medicine, embracing deeper values (like justice and health). It is also the difference between becoming a priest, religious or contemplative as a job that provides income (however small!) and security and doing it as an expression of love for God, humanity and – one hopes – the planet.

Real environmentalists, as opposed to those who do it as a job or to attain fame and glory, have vocations. Environmentalism is a vocation: a response to a call from the Earth to care for the Earth. As with any other vocation it is a call to sacrifice self-interest for a greater good. As Pope Francis reminded us in Laudato Si’, echoing religious and secular ecological thinkers before him, it is a call to move beyond the temptation to place ourselves above the rest of world, to think only of our personal comfort, and to see – and act – on the bigger picture. In seeing it, in seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole, our response is to do our best to serve the common good oVocaf the ‘common home.’

Given this, as Christians pray this Sunday for vocations we need to keep the spirit of Earth Day in our minds. Whatever our callings may be, however we serve them out in our lives as clergy, religious, contemplatives, parents, professionals and workers, we must discern how to live them out ecologically. In doing that we truly honour the voice of our call by whatever name we call the Ground of Creation.

We may even manage to defeat the cynics including the one within each of us.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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