Creighton student, alumna address Pope Francis on climate change
Creighton student Henry Glynn and alumna Emily Burke, BS’21 (pictured above with Pope Francis), had a clear and burning question for Pope Francis:
In a world in which secular and Catholic leaders have failed to address climate change with the proper urgency, how can young people embrace nonviolent action to force the issue?
The question was part of a historic meeting Feb. 24 between Pope Francis and university students from across the Western Hemisphere. Hosted by Loyola University Chicago, Building Bridges North-South: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students, allowed groups of students from North, Central and South America to directly engage the pope on issues related to worldwide mass migration.
Glynn and Burke were chosen by their peers to speak directly to the pope from a working group of more than 20 students representing the central U.S. and Canada. They became involved with the event through the recommendation of Richard Miller, PhD, a professor in the Department of Theology, and Dan DiLeo, PhD, associate professor and director of the Justice and Peace Studies program.
In discerning what issue to raise with the pope, Glynn, Burke and the rest of their working group settled on bringing up nonviolent Christian action because they felt Francis would be especially receptive to the message. In a 2017 World Day of Peace message, and in remarks to the U.S. Congress on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the pope praised nonviolent direct action.
Climate change, too, is also an issue close to the pope’s heart. In 2015, Francis published an encyclical Laudato Si’, calling on the Church to address the looming climate crisis as a moral imperative. But not all in the Church have been quick to act. Last year, Burke co-authored a study, published in Environmental Research Letters that found most U.S. Catholic bishops have been silent about climate change.
When their turn to present came, Glynn, a political science and theology major in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences, cited stark figures for the pope: According to estimates from the United Nations, climate change will displace 29 million people annually, resulting in at least 1.4 billion climate refugees by 2060.
“The Church has a responsibility to act through its people, money, infrastructure, land, schools and advocacy efforts,” Glynn said. “Our synodal group discerned a shared frustration that U.S. Catholic leaders have not taken approximate action.”
“Our generation values authenticity and deplores hypocrisy,” he continued. The failure of U.S. Catholic and political leaders to take meaningful action, “sows doubt and cynicism among us.”
The answer, Burke proposed, is a strategy somewhat new for climate change, but celebrated throughout Christian history: Nonviolent direct action.
Following in the footsteps of civil rights activists such as King, James Lawson and Creighton’s own the Rev. John Markoe, SJ, the pair proposed establishing centers of nonviolent direct action that would train activists to organize and empower them to more effectively appeal for science-based climate action. A solution to a crisis so big, Burke said, must happen systematically, not spontaneously.
“As young people eager to respond to your admonition (in the 2017 World Day of Peace message), how do propose that we make nonviolence a way of life as we work to address the climate crisis?” Burke asked Pope Franics.
Through a translator, the pope replied that the very act of neglecting the environment is itself an act of violence. And that, he said, is in direct opposition to the Christian idea of God full of “tenderness and compassion.”
“Nonviolence is the way that brings us to sincerity,” the pope said. “As a brother, as a father, as a grandfather, as a friend, please don’t fall into the trap of hypocrisy … Hypocrisy poisons everything … Sincerity helps you to live in harmony with the rest of the world.”
He continued: "God forgives always. We forgive sometimes. Nature never forgives. If we destroy nature, then we create a chain of violence, and we can see that with our own eyes.”
DiLeo said he was proud of Glynn and Burke for having the courage to address such a critical issue with the pope.
“Like Pope Francis, I admire Emily’s and Henry’s courage to speak their truth and propose concrete action informed by history, the social sciences, and Christian ethics,” he said.
For Glynn, having the opportunity to speak directly with the pope and hear his encouragement firsthand provided an invaluable spiritual lift that cemented his commitment to making a change in the world.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so nervous and so excited at the same time. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t stop smiling when Pope Francis spoke,” he said after the event. “His encouragement that ’non-violence is the way to sincerity’ reaffirmed what has been present in our hearts throughout this process: Our faith leads us to nonviolent direct action out of sincere love for our fellow persons and our Church.”