'Laudato Si'' and the Firefly Dilemma

We called them “Lightning Bugs,” though I think we might also have said “Fireflies.” Hard to remember. It’s been half a century since I went hunting for them. They’d appear this time of the year, flickering above the grass of the lawn, as the last light of a long, summer eve faded. I thought them nothing less than miraculous, sparkling and darting about. Had someone told me that they were cousins of Tinker Bell, I would have believed it.

A summer Lightning Bug hunt might close a day spent at the pool or Little League. You got a Mason jar from your mother. She’d ask if you wanted a large or a small one. Back then, all Kansas mothers had Mason Jars. I think it was the law. Then you’d ask your father for a hammer and nail, because you had to punch holes in the aluminum lid so the Fireflies could breathe. You put a branch, some grass, and water in the jar. The idea was for the Lightning Bugs to live in captivity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up at night, and see the little sprites by your bedside? Perhaps you could gather so many, your bedroom would never go dark!


Out you would run, into the yard, Mason jar in one hand, lid and screw top in the other. The challenge, of course, was keeping the first Firefly in the bottle, while you caught the second. Once in a great while you accomplished this trick, and even got a third, before your Mom said it was time for a bath. But the next morning the Fireflies weren’t buzzing about, and, by evening, you knew that they had died. Maybe not enough grass. You asked what Lightning Bugs ate, and where that could be caught. You didn’t want the little creatures to die. You only wanted them to be yours, all yours.

Already as children, my siblings and I had made a mistake about God’s creation and our place in it. As Pope Francis warns, we had “come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (§1). "Laudato Si'" insists that ecology is never severed from ethics.

Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.” Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is (§5).


This is why, the pope insists, ecology is more than a question of technology or business. “Integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human” (§11).  

For Francis, when those alone dictate policy, no one suffers more than the poor, “many of whom live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming” (§25). The poor are also particularly impacted by the quality and quantity of water available to them. “Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (§30). “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (§49).

The first five chapters of Saint Mark’s Gospel establish the identity of Jesus. He can drive out unclean spirits. He heals the sick, even the lepers who were lost to society. He rebukes the wind and it obeys. And now, in the climax of revelation, Jesus is revealed as the Lord of life and death itself. He raises Jairus’ daughter to life. For Saint Mark, Jesus is more than a wonder worker. He is the presence of God among us. In him, the words of Wisdom take flesh and act.

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying (1: 13-14).


Jesus is purity, wholeness, health and life. In his person, in the gift of his own self to the world, the Kingdom of God appears as the restoration and glorification of the original gift of creation.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature,” for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion (§76).


Another great theme of "Laudato Si'" is that there can be no sound ecology without an adequate anthropology. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. “When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes’” (§118). Environmental degradation is not an expected product of human progress, and certainly not the intention of the creator. The wounds of Mother Earth reveal our alienation from God and from one another. They are sin take flesh.

True to his namesake, Assisi’s great lover of the poor and of nature, Pope Francis seeks to rebuild both Church and cosmos.

If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships (§119).


I didn’t want Fireflies to die. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t simply capture them and make them mine. Much later, in the Boy Scouts, I begged others not to throw a frog on the campfire just to see what would happen. I was learning.

"Laudato Si'" will be received and accepted far beyond the faith which produced it. Like Jesus, it bears testimony to the truth and goodness of God. “We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that ‘not one of them is forgotten before God’ (Lk 12:6). How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” (§221)

Wisdom 1: 13-15, 2: 23-24  2 Corinthians 8: 7-9, 13-15  Mark 5: 21-43

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