Is the Pope for Parks?

October 1, 2015, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

He’s informal, witty and personable, but does Pope Francis really like parks?The short answer: You bet he is. A justifiable amount of hoopla has attended Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States. After all, there are rock stars and then there is the pope. Pope Francis has commanded the world stage with a presence rarely seen throughout history. Yet for all the worldwide recognition, he is informal, witty and personable. Pope Francis’ candor and humility in addressing the most challenging issues of our time has won him much acclaim, both from world leaders and the general public. Presidential candidates would lust to have even half his approval ratings.

The pope has understandably spoken out on social and religious issues, but he has also spoken with surprising fervor about the condition of our environment and how it affects every one of us who live on planet Earth. This outspokenness is no surprise to those who have studied his early career as a pastor and archbishop in Argentina before being elected as the first pope from the Americas, but his recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, directly takes on the weighty subject of the health of our global environment and why the care and stewardship of the environment is everyone’s responsibility. 

The encyclical, basically a pastoral letter, sets forth how we should approach the critically important responsibility of the care of our environment. Pope Francis minces no words in his call to stewardship — he chastises those who are responsible for pollution and environmental degradation and skewers those who put economic gain above all other goals. Pope Francis also makes a point of thanking people who work to improve environmental quality and who presently provide stewardship of lands and resources, writing, “Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share.”

The pope’s pastoral letter rightfully speaks to all people, not just Catholics. He addresses environmental and social conditions in a global context, but the encyclical is also intensely personal at times, particularly when he speaks to the quality of life in cities and local communities. 

Regarding the global environmental challenges humanity faces, he writes, “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” 

He goes on: “Indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

In addition, the encyclical speaks to the problems created by a “throwaway culture,” such as the lack of clean water for much of the developing world and the depletion of natural resources, including the extinction of many wildlife species. Pope Francis challenges nations that have the technology, wealth and means to devise solutions to these problems to step up.

And as we might expect, the pope speaks out most forcefully about human dignity and the need for social equity and environmental justice. He emphasizes the need for parks and green spaces, especially in urban areas, writing, “Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty…Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”

In a larger sense, the pope says that we cannot separate nature from the social context in which it is found. “When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it,” he writes. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it…It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

In reflection, the pope’s messages in Laudato Si’ cannot help but strike a deep chord in all who work to improve human dignity and health through parks and recreation.

But have we answered the question, “Is the pope for parks?” True, there is no bumper sticker on the Popemobile that reads “I Love Parks,” but I think it is safe to infer that Pope Francis really likes parks. After all, when he wants to have a celebration of faith and speak from the heart about his messages, he comes to parks. Where else but a park can you go to have a million friends join you for Mass and a picnic?

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.