And human beings are the apex of that creation, he stressed.
“Human beings are God’s creation that most perfectly reflects His own divinity. If we are to begin to safeguard God’s creation, we must launch an increased reverence for every human life,” the archbishop said.
For Archbishop Gregory, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si” proposes an “integral ecology” that reminds us “that we are the custodians of creation and not its exploiters.”
“God’s creation invites us to enter into a threefold relationship – with God, with one another and with nature itself,” he explained. “Each of these relationships is interconnected and ultimately they are intended to enhance and to strengthen one another.”
Despite important concerns for the planet’s fragility, safeguarding human life is “the very starting point of environmental security,” he said.
Respect for human life extends from those in the womb to frightened immigrants who may or may not have documented status. It extends to the mentally or emotionally fragile, prisoners guilty of “horrendous crimes,” and the neglected poor who “may be seen as inconvenient but who nonetheless are our brothers and sisters in the Lord,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Gregory, who was the first African-American to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also discussed recent racial tensions, unrest and violence.
Baltimore itself witnessed protests and severe unrest in April 2015 after an African-American man arrested by police died after injuries apparently received in police custody.
“For the past several years, our nation has faced a tragic eruption of widespread violence that has directly impacted the African-American community as well as the law enforcement communities in too many different locations – including this City of Baltimore,” the archbishop reflected.
The violence has put neighbors “on edge” and has threatened the peace of neighborhoods.
“We Americans have begun to discuss our common future as though the civil rights achievements of the past generation had not taken place,” he said. “Our public language has grown so more severe and offensive.”
“Some people have begun to question if not even to doubt our future as a home community unified by a sense of national identity,” Archbishop Gregory continued.
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He noted the U.S. bishops’ conference has worked to discuss these trends. Archbishop Gregory praised the leadership of the Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori in aiding an ecumenical and inter-faith response to the Baltimore unrest. These efforts are “signs of hope,” he said.
Returning to environmental issues, Archbishop Gregory said the Atlanta archdiocese partnered with the University of Georgia’s environmental department to prepare a local response to the encyclical.
The archbishop lamented the “destructive exploitation” and the “wanton damage” done to the environment and reminded his audience that the poor are especially harmed by environmental destruction.
He cited the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who “saw God’s fingerprints throughout every element of creation.”
In the face of threats to the earth from technological exploitation and greed, he suggested Catholics need to ask St. Francis “to rekindle within each one of us a share of his profound spirit of wonder, awe and gratitude for God’s creation.”
“Without the benefit of our modern scientific acumen and expertise,” he noted, “Saint Francis was able to view all of nature as a precious treasure that God has entrusted to us to be shared and preserved for those who will follow us.”