Rev. Eugene F. Hemrick
IPR Research Associate
Reverend Eugene F. Hemrick is a research associate at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, of which he has been a member since its establishment when it was known as the Life Cycle Institute. He is a priest of the Diocese of Joliet stationed at St. Joseph on Capitol Hill and assists the parish on the Senate side of Capitol Hill; and is a national syndicated columnist for the Catholic News Service [CNS] (for over 30 years); and former Director of Research at the Washington Theological Union.
His areas of expertise include the future of the priesthood; today's seminaries and seminarians; the permanent diaconate; lay voluntarism; and life issues related to abortion, racism, euthanasia, and capital punishment.
Fr. Hemrick is the author of several books, including Homespun Wisdom: Path to the Good Life (2013), The Promise of Virtue (Notre Dame, IN, Ave Maria Press, 1999), and One Nation Under God: Religious Quotes, Symbols and Images in Our Nation's Capital (Huntington, IN, Our Sunday Visitor, 2001).
Fr. Hemrick is the recepient of the J.S. Paluch Award for priestly service. He serves on the board for Humanities at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe, PA. He is regularly interviewed on the radio station, Relevant Radio.
He conducts priest retreats and convocations regularly, and is in contact with archdioceses and dioceses throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Office Phone: 202-543-4077
Website: The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood (jknirp.com)
"Dedicated to energizing the spiritual and intellectual life of the priesthood through an ongoing dialogue via the Internet." The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood
Monthly Reflections on
A Blessed Recipe for Sound Ecology
As I sat in gridlock, at least 100 cars and busses were behind and in front of me with their engines idling. It had taken me approximately an hour to drive from the U.S. Capitol to the White House, a distance of one mile. I wondered how many barrels of gasoline are wasted daily in similar circumstances.
Years ago, addressing the nation, President Bush said we need to depend less on oil. He should have been more imaginative and said that we need to be more visionary in conserving energy.
. . .If we are to win the battle of energy efficiency, another major principle must come into play. The more we and our children stretch our imaginative capacities now, the more secure the future of our energy resources will be.
Calling for increased visioning and imagination in the above rings ever truer today for developing a healthy ecosystem. Promoting creativity and pursuing new knowledge contain one of our best recipes for reducing pollution, conserving energy and valuing the earth’s resources. The more we seek new insights, and the deeper questions we raise, the greater the probability of ecological progress. U.S. physicist Robert Hutching once said, “God pity a one-dream man.” New demands of our ecological age are urging us to dream dreams like never before that expand our imagination and creativity. But is this enough to succeed, or is yet another means needed to truly thrive? The answer is yes to the latter, and the other means of which we speak is sacred realization: a profound consciousness of the Creator responsible for our ecosystem! Allow me to cite two ecological success stories to learn what is implied in and required by this assertion.
When walking through our botanical gardens in Washington, D.C., I came upon an imaginative ecological project by accident: a section of the gardens containing a rain garden. A rain garden can be any plot of land that is sculptured with dips and rises throughout it. These small shallow valleys capture rainwater and allow it to sift into the ground at a slow even pace. The sifting of rainwater purifies it while also halting it from quickly running off into sewers and ultimately polluting rivers, lakes and bays.
A placard in the garden explains that 40 percent of water consumed in Washington, D.C. is used for watering lawns. When rainwater is collected in a rain garden, it takes approximately a day to sift down into the ground and purify itself. As a consequence, there is no standing water for incubating mosquitoes, and no polluted water running off into the sewers. [At this very writing, it was reported that the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. was received a grade D. Recent heavy rains and quick runoffs of water filled with chemicals were the reason for the toxicity leading to a D rating].
Next to the rain garden sits a rain barrel. Another placard explains it can save gallons of water that can then be used for watering gardens and lawns among other things.
As I reflected on this, I said to myself, “I learned something new, creative and needed. Our hot, sun baked summers often leave our lawns burned out. Sometimes we become so dry that the city calls for mandatory conservation of water. And then with little water in the ground the roots of trees become shallow. When a heavy rain does come trees that aren’t deeply rooted tend to fall.
The creation of rain gardens and rain barrels teach us that with a little imagination and creativity, we can achieve conservation at its best. Not only are they exciting and useful, but these inventive projects often become models for others to reduplicate. For example, some years ago the city of Chicago created roof top gardens that keep buildings cooler in hot summers and also produce vegetable gardens, flowers, bushes and trees that purify the city’s air. Once word was out on this successful project, city managers from around the country flocked to Chicago to learn how to implement it in their cities. Not only this, but Midway Airport posted the success of this project throughout its corridors in order to inform and inspire airplane travelers from all parts of the country and world. These examples contain one of our most effective postmodern formulas for dramatically improving our ecosystem: imagination plus creativity plus modeling create worldwide revolutionary movements necessary for ecological progress.
Now onto a second example that completes the equation for success in our formula.
On visits to the Archabbey of St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I frequently walk the grounds. It wasn’t until recently I discovered forty-four acres of wetlands on them. After coalmines shut down in Pennsylvania, water flooded them. As a result, the water rose to the surface forming rusty, polluted swamps. The monks at the monastery and the college science department of St. Vincent’s college devised ways of purifying this muck and making it ninety to ninety-five percent clean. Not only was purification a success, but the pollutants that were sifted out were also used to make tint found in paint. I also learned that the wetlands are now home to several species of birds, flowers, butterflies, and animals making them an ideal educational opportunity for hundreds of children who visit them each year. St. Benedict must be smiling from Heaven since Benedictines throughout their history have been deeply committed to education.
In conversation with St. Vincent’s prior, Father Earl Henry, O.S.B., we spoke about the imagination, creativity and modeling that made the project a success. In our discussion I asked him what this had to do with the Benedictine spirit. “St. Benedict,” he replied, “considers all things of the earth sacred vessels,”
In that brief reply we learn that once sacredness becomes the cornerstone of our ecological formula for success, this sacred realization adds spiritual motivation for valuing our ecosystem. In addition to keeping the ecosystem healthy for the good of humankind, we are accomplishing it as stewards of God’s creation. A whole new way of thinking about preserving our ecosystem is created adding the dimensions of reverence and sacredness to it.
In German, the word for reverence is ehrfurcht, meaning to stand in awe of greatness, to avoid possessiveness or taking a gift for granted. In St. Vincent’s eco-project science and spirituality complement each other; imagination, creativity and modeling leap from earth-bond-ness to heavenly awesomeness; Creator and creature bond together; and sacred inspiration works side by side with human perspiration. Ultimately, the motivation level and awe for reverencing the ecosystem is raised to new heights.
In his book Power and Responsibility, the renowned theologian Fr. Romano Guardini moves us deeper into the profoundness that sacred realization generates. He starts by pointing out our post-modern age has acquired unheard of new powers. For example, we have achieved power over the atom, and we can harness the power of water, wind and sun to create energy. In the midst of these newly found powers, Guardini asks, where is our means of salvation? What will most lead us into the future of which we dream, keeping us safe from possible self-destruction because of abusing power?
To answer this, Guardini asks, “What is the decisive characteristic of the Christian message of salvation?” His answer, “It is expressed in a word which in the course of the modern age has lost its meaning: humility.”
He points us to the New Testament and God humbly entering the world, becoming one of us and teaching us the humble servant model is God’s model for salvation. He concedes that humility is often seen as weak. No doubt some will argue that because of its weak appearance it doesn’t speak to today’s ecological challenges. On the contrary, Guardini states, “Humility is not weak but applies to the strong, high-minded who dare to be humble.” How then does humility ensure ecological success? It is in its power, and that power is contained in God selecting humility as his first means for our salvation. This is why St. Gregory the Great called humility “the mistress and mother of all virtues.” St. Thomas Aquinas linked humility with magnanimity and tells us that the humble person can achieve great things for God and for others because, “living no longer for himself . . . the spirit is delivered of all the limitations and vicissitudes of creaturehood and contingency and swims in the attributes of God.”
Much of the abuse of the earth’s resources is due to corruption and selfish interests that take place over the interests of the common good. Laws are bent in order to stay in power. Greed and a spirit it of get-it-now-don’t-deny-your-self overrides self denial, sacrifice and the prudent foresight needed to insure a healthy ecosystem.
Here Guardini would chime in and add, “Equally evident, is the danger of power, the danger of revolt against God --- the danger, above all, of no longer being aware of him as the serious reality; the danger of losing the measure of things and lapsing into the arbitrary exercise of authority. To forestall this danger, Christ sets up humility, the liberator which breaks asunder the spell of power.”
Note the choice of words Guardini employs: “no longer being aware of [God] as the serious reality,” “arbitrary exercise of power” and “under the spell of power.”
When we no longer are aware of God, the sacred realization that is needed to successfully complement creativity, imagination and inspiring modeling is missing. God’s power to help us transcend our little world and ourselves is left out of the equation of saving this planet, leaving us to our own means of survival. We become our own guiding principle. But as any truly educated person will tell you, to speak and act authoritatively, you need to go beyond your authority and surround yourself with other revered authorities.
In the Thesaurus, the word arbitrary is synonymous with subjective, random, capricious and illogical. Note how each of these synonymy’s denote disorder, the direct antithesis to the order needed to maintain the order of our ecosystem. Note, too, Guardini’s observation that we risk the danger of losing the measure of things. How often have we experienced this in prominent people who become power crazed and lose sight of the common good, basic values, and the ultimate meaning of life?
Having asserted the need for sacred realization and all this includes, what might it look like in practice, and how might it take its rightful place in meeting the ecological challenges and demands of our new millennium?
We already saw one example of this practice in action from the Benedictines who viewed their work in terms of seeing all things in life as sacred vessel. Today the Rule of St. Benedict is being applied to some of our most demanding challenges. Not only is the Rule being applied to everyday challenges, but so too are the works of such luminaries as Thomas Merton, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius and other spiritual writers who left us timeless wisdom. For sacred realization to grow, so too must the movement grow in which universities, colleges, high schools, grammar schools and parishes make sacred realization an integral part of their educational efforts in ecology.
As Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have brought new theological emphasis and pronouncements to the area of ecology in their writings, so too must bishops, pastors, deacons, lay leaders and theologians do likewise in striving to carry out new evangelization.
As the renowned columnist John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter placed the topic of ecology among one of the most important mega trends facing the church, so too, must other Catholic columnists and reporters make it a priority in their research and writing.
As some Catholic politicians have wisely employed their Catholic tradition in dealing with national problems, so too, must they apply that tradition to the growing concerns of ecology.
In his book The Idea of a Universityi, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman describes the essence of knowledge by telling us “When I speak of knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea . . .. Knowledge is an acquired illumination.”
This article is an investment in ideas that encompass creativity, imagination, modeling, and humility as applied to our ecological challenges. It is an effort to reflect on the inspiring luminaries with whom we have been blessed and the ageless wisdom we possess for building a hopeful future. No doubt financial investment will play a large role in creating that future. Behind all financial investments, however, is motivation: well-found reasons for risking an investment. No better motivation exists than realizing we are endeavoring to save our planet for our brothers and sisters of today and our children for tomorrow, but most importantly of all, for the glory of God.