What follows is the text of a homily delivered by Fr. Ryan Lerner, Chaplain of St. Thomas More Chapel of Yale University, in November of last year. We are grateful to Fr. Lerner for permission to reprint it here—Ed.
The annual Harvard-Yale football game doesn’t usually make the front page of ESPN, but on the evening of November 23, 2019, it did: “Spectators rushed the field to stage a climate change protest at halftime of Saturday’s Harvard-Yale game,” the article began, “delaying the start of the second half by nearly an hour and causing the game to finish in near-darkness. The 136th edition of The Game between the Ivy rivals went to halftime around 1:40 p.m. ET, and students from both schools occupied midfield after the Yale band finished performing.” It was reported that this was the first time in college football history where students arranged a sit-in.
Witnessing firsthand this act of unity among our youth around the shared and urgent concern for climate change and its impact on our world reminded me of our Holy Father’s words in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. . . . Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all (#13–14)
Every year, in the changing of the seasons, the shortening of days, the month of All Souls when we pray for our beloved dead while contemplating our own preparedness for the end, and the transition from Ordinary Time into Advent, our attention is drawn to the end of this world, creation as we know it. We are aware that we all must ultimately make an account, whether we’re focusing on Christ ascending his throne and entering into paradise by way of the cross, passion, death, and resurrection, or whether we’re focusing on Christ coming into his kingdom in Matthew 25, with the sheep on one side and the goats on the other, saying, “Whatever you did it to the least of these, you did it for me.”
The question posed to all of our consciences is: “Who have we been present to? Who have we ignored? Who have we protected? Who have we neglected?” This is Pope Francis’s whole thing. Laudato si’ is not simply an encyclical about the environment; it is a moral statement about our relationship with Jesus Christ, creation, and one another. The concern for the environment is about the creation that God has entrusted to us as stewards on behalf of others, on behalf of the entire human family with whom we share this world today and the unborn many who will one day live in it. To neglect creation in the modern world is to neglect the poor, the excluded, and the most vulnerable among us.
The urgent questions the Holy Father poses to us throughout Laudato si’—and consistently throughout his writings, homilies, airplane statements, and actions—is this: “How are our words and actions, as well as our silence and inaction, in service to Christ and all that he has entrusted to us as stewards?” On the morning of November 24, 2019, in Hiroshima, the Holy Father said:
With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of universal weapons is immoral. We will be judged on this. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples on earth.
And the constant question from Christ the King of the Universe is this: When we take a stand, are we doing it for us or for him, and him present in the holy ones who will flourish from the inheritance we pass on to them?
Many may disagree on the timing and the appropriateness of what took place at the Yale-Harvard game. As Yale’s athletic director Vicky Chun remarked, “While we respect the rights of Harvard and Yale students to protest, their efforts should not impact their fellow students’ ability to pursue their passion as athletes on the field of play, and those who support them.” Perhaps we might say to the students, “OK, you’ve made your point. The world—at least over these last 24 hours—is watching and listening. Now is this about the environment? Or is it about you? Is it about your anger or frustration, or is it about the human family as impacted by our decisions and choices—big ones, such as supporting this industry or policy at the institutional level or not, or not-so-big ones, such as how we use technology, consume products, dispose of our trash, or how we travel? How we align our everyday actions with our convictions—all of which have ripple effects that impact all of creation—and the well-being of each of our sisters and brothers?”
We move through life knowing that our actions may elicit either criticism or hatred, or support and love. Given these potentials, what matters in the end is the purity of our own actions and our fidelity to Christ. If it’s just about you (or if it’s just about me), then we’ve lost our gaze on Christ. As St. Paul reminds us, “In Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things, making peace by the blood of his cross; through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
Indeed, the King of the Universe has made us “fit to share in the inheritance of the Holy Ones in light.” To seek after the salvation of creation apart from Christ, and Christ present in every human person from conception to natural death, is to ultimately find ourselves sitting in the dark, or sitting at the foot of the cross, seeing just another thief or imposter who could not save himself, rather than Christ, the King of the Universe, who has come to save us and to sanctify and restore creation to the full.
Fr. Ryan Lerner was appointed 8th Chaplain for Saint Thomas More in March 2019 and is currently the chancellor of the archdiocese of Hartford. He is a native of Manchester, Connecticut. He holds a B.A. in History and Religion and a M.A. in Public Policy from Trinity College.