A Week of Moving Experiences
Bishop Edward K. Braxton served as the Chaplain of the historic Chautauqua Institution the week of July 4-10, 2015. He was invited to serve in this capacity by Reverend Dr. Robert M. Franklin, Jr., the Director of Religion at the Institution and the Bishop’s former student at Harvard Divinity School. This invitation was prompted by the Institution’s interest in the Bishop’s World Day of Peace Pastoral Letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States.” During the week, the Bishop celebrated the Saturday evening Mass in the Hall of Philosophy and preached on Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si’” on the Care of our Common Home, at the Sunday morning worship service to 4,500 people in the Chautauqua Amphitheater. He also gave a presentation in the Hall of Philosophy on the challenges involved in the journey of faith in a secular culture in which belief in God and Christianity are all but excluded from the public square. He focused on what he termed “the riddle of human existence” and told his listeners that as we make progress in the journey of faith we are compelled to let go of images from childhood of God as a very large human being above the clouds who fixes the world and come to terms with the existential fact that God is not God the way we would be God, if we were God.”
Every morning at 9:15 AM, the Bishop delivered an in-depth scriptural meditation in the Amphitheater on each of the central themes of “The Racial Divide.” After each meditation, many of those who came to the morning prayer service visited with the Bishop on the “back porch” for a follow-up conversation. People of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, as well as “searchers” of no particular faith joined him in critical, serious conversations, some of which were continued in one of the cottages later in the day. These were among the most moving experiences of the week.
What is the Chautauqua Institution?
Bishop Braxton is the first Roman Catholic Bishop ever to be invited to serve as the Chautauqua Chaplain. Chautauqua Institution is the somewhat unusual name for a renowned center for culture, learning, and recreation which was established by visionary Protestants. It was founded as a Methodist teaching camp for Sunday School teachers in 1874 by inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Vincent. Methodist Sunday School teachers came to the beautiful shores of Lake Chautauqua (an Iroquois word possibly meaning “jumping fish”) to pursue Bible studies and other activities for religious and cultural enrichment. The Institution gradually developed into an ecumenical and interfaith campus which now features houses sponsored by many Protestant traditions, a Catholic House, and a Jewish House. An Islamic House is under consideration. These houses sponsor regular religious services and they have clergy from the different faiths as well as accommodations for guests of all backgrounds.
The Institution, which is a ninety-minute drive from Buffalo, N.Y., has operated each summer since its founding, gradually expanding its season length and program offerings. The nine-week season embraces not only religion but also the arts, political leadership and government, social and moral issues, education, and many forms of recreation. In addition to these activities, the Institution offers various forms of sporting events (including sailing, tennis, golf, and swimming), popular entertainment, professional theater, cinema, a professional symphony orchestra, a ballet company, opera performances, and visual arts exhibitions. During his week at Chautauqua, Bishop Braxton participated in many of these events.
Its 750 acres contain both a non-profit adult education center and summer resort and a charming residential community of uniquely designed “cottages” renowned for their colorful exteriors with extraordinary gardens filled with rare and beautiful flowers. During the long winter snow season, the area is extremely cold, blanketed with many feet of snow and only about one hundred Chautauquans remain. But in the summer, it welcomes tens of thousands of visitors from around the world. During his stay, the Bishop resided in the Hall of Missions, which was built as a residence for the leaders of the Methodist Church. It now houses the guest speakers.
The Chautauqua Institution has had many distinguished speakers, including United States presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Bill Clinton, and other prominent Americans including Booker T. Washington, Margaret Mead, Amelia Earhart, Thurgood Marshall, Jane Goodall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Elie Wiesel, Kurt Vonnegut, and Al Gore. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic “I hate war” speech was delivered from the podium in the Chautauqua Amphitheater in 1936.
The Events of the Week
During the week, Bishop Braxton attended a number of brunches, dinners, and receptions given for him and other speakers at the Institution’s President’s Cottage, various Protestant Houses, the Catholic House, and on the veranda of the historic Athenaeum Hotel. These informal social events provided opportunities for the Bishop to respond to questions about the Catholic Church, Catholic social teachings, the ministry of a Bishop in governing a diocese, the role of the Pope and the Vatican in the Catholic Church, and contemporary trends in Catholic theology. In these ecumenical and inter-faith settings, many participants indicated that this was their first opportunity to discuss such topics face-to-face with a Catholic Bishop.
In the course of Bishop Braxton’s week at Chautauqua, Dr. Robert Franklin gave an overview of the challenges and opportunities young men and their families face today. Joseph Echevarria, retired Deloitte CEO, spoke about President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which he co-chairs. Psychologist and author Michael Thompson spoke about the emotional lives of young people and the societal impact on their development. Neuroscientist Frances Jensen discussed her book, The Teenage Brain. Author and youth advocate, Wes Moore, spoke about his advocacy work and the importance of social outreach for inner-city youths. Author Jon Krakauer addressed the topic of the college culture of sexual assault examined in his book, Missoula. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of Children’s Defense Fund, spoke on Ending Child Poverty in America Now. Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle spoke about his successful work with street gangs in Los Angeles. Harvard Law School Professor, Laurence Tribe, gave the Robert H. Jackson Lecture on the complex and controversial rulings by the Supreme Court on Confederate Flags and Free Speech, Voting Rights and Redistricting, Religious Signs and Free Speech, the Affordable Care Act, and The Constitutionality of Same–Sex “Marriage.” During informal conversations with these speakers, the Bishop shared the Catholic Church’s perspective. These exchanges were always lively and thought provoking, since many were of different faiths.
In addition to participation in these presentations, the Bishop was a guest at performances of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Our Town”; Verdi’s opera, “Macbeth”; and various performances of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, including a world premiere.
The Bishop’s Sermon of Pope Francis’s Encyclical on the Environment
On Sunday morning, July 5, 2015, Bishop Braxton preached in the Chautauqua Amphitheater on Pope Francis’ Encyclical concerning the universal responsibility of everyone on the planet to care for our common home, the earth. The Bishop selected the account narrated in the Book of Genesis of God creating the heavens and the earth, “in the beginning.” Each section of his homily began with the refrain: “And God looked around at all of His creation and said that’s good.”
Excerpts from the Homily
“We come together here in Chautauqua from many places on this tiny speck of dust floating amid the flaming stars of the heavens. We meet in the vastness of the universe in this our common home. Because the earth is God’s good gift to us, we have a spiritual responsibility to care for all life on our tiny home, beginning with human life and caring for all of the many living beings that make earth a kind of Garden of Eden. When we endanger and destroy our earthly home, it is as if we are eating of the forbidden fruit and turning whole portions of our habitat into what the Holy Father called a pile of filth. Since the day-to-day lives of most middle class and wealthy Americans are not touched immediately by the negative impact of the ways in which human actions are placing the earth in peril, many can largely ignore it for now. However, those who are poor cannot ignore it because global warming and climate change are having a significant impact upon their lives today. The Pontiff’s Encyclical is a clarion call reminding the whole human family that the time is long overdue for a global conversation about what homo sapiens is doing to the planet. Much of what we are doing is not good. Not good for the planet, not good for the poor, not good for world economic stability, and not good for the human race, whose life-span on earth may be rather brief within the billions of years of the time-span of the universe.
“The Holy Father makes clear that he did not write this Encyclical as a scientist, or a government official, or even as an industrial leader. He wrote it as the Pastor of the worldwide Catholic Church, who cares about the wellbeing of the human family. He does not wish to impose his personal ideas on the world. His desire is to propose ideas about which most of the scientific community agrees, concerning the challenges we face due to global warming and climate change brought about in part by the human neglect of the environment. While the Pontiff is not enunciating new Catholic doctrine, he is applying Catholic moral principles to our new, unprecedented dangerous situation. Recalling the clear teachings of his predecessors and of many Episcopal Conferences, he brings an authoritative moral voice to the world conversation from his unique office as Bishop of Rome, the 266th Successor of St. Peter.
“The Pope is encouraging everyone to enter the discussion and debate about the impoverishment of our earth, in part, because of the widespread use of fossil fuel. He points out that everyone has a moral responsibility to care for the earth even if they do not embrace Christianity and do not participate in any religious tradition.
“The encyclical reminds us of St. Francis of Assisi’s teachings on humanity’s intimate personal relationship with all living things and brother sun, sister moon, and mother earth. The Pope teaches clearly that we are not lords and masters of the earth entitled to plunder all of its resources, without regard to the impact of our actions on the earth and on fellow human beings. He expresses special concern for those poor communities, which become helpless when they lose the forests, seas, and animals they depend on for their living. Those who burden and lay waste to the earth must not forget that we all come from the dust of the earth. We breathe her air and are refreshed by her water. When we do harm to the earth’s eco-system, we intensify the unbearable lightness of being. Pope Francis called for an integral ecology in which we recognize the interconnectedness of all life on earth. The Pope believes that it is urgent for the members of the human family to come together to build a sustainable living space for all.
“He underscores the fact that the poor live in the places most affected by global warming. Fishermen and farmers have no other resources to adapt or tools to face natural disaster. They are forced to migrate. They leave their homes and there is a tragic rise in the number of migrants as they flee poverty caused by environmental degradation. He argues that the many species of life on earth have value in themselves. But a great number are becoming extinct because of human activity and we will never benefit from their gifts. We are not God, the Pope teaches. The earth was here before us and given to us. In his judgment, the view in the Judeo-Christian tradition that gives man absolute dominion to exploit the earth is not faithful interpretation of the deepest truth of the Genesis narrative. The Biblical account affirms that the human race was created in the ‘divine image’ and given dominion over the earth. However, this does not give us absolute dominion. We do not have the earth; the earth has us. We do not have God; God has us.
“Pope Francis points to the use of fossil fuels as a primary challenge to stopping global warming. He calls for corrective action with speed. Climate change has great consequences and the Church hopes that the Papal letter will influence correctives in the policies of nations that exploit our common home. When Pope Francis comes to the United States in September to speak to a joint session of Congress, address the United Nations, and speak to a gathering focused on the family, he will surely touch on these issues raised in “Laudato Sí.”
“Some commentators and political figures have sharply criticized the Pope, suggesting that he has been persuaded to accept scientific views about fossil fuel and global warming that other scientists do not embrace. They question the “well-established science” that humans cause global warming. Others think the Pope and the Holy See have crossed the line moving out of the sphere of religious doctrine, prayer, and helping those in need, and moved into complex areas that he should leave to government officials and leaders of industries. In their view, he is attacking capitalism. Blinded by his Argentinean experience, he is taking insufficient note of the positive impact of capitalism, which the Pontiff’s critics suggest has done more than any other economic system to eradicate world poverty. These critics seem unaware of the Second Vatican Council’s mandate that the Church must read the signs of the times and be actively engaged in shining the light of Gospel truth on the vexing problems of the modern world.
“What are we to do? We must think, listen, learn, pray, decide, and act. Each us must do what we can where we are, even if what we can do seems small. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta frequently said to those who genuinely wanted to be of service to the poor that they should not be discouraged because of the big things they cannot do. They should be encouraged because of the small things they can do. Do what you can. We are all capable of choosing the good, the right and the just for ourselves, for our sisters and brothers, and for the planet. Do what you can. Faith and spirituality can make a unique contribution to the discussion of an integral ecosystem. They are reminders of the spiritual nature and destiny of the men, women, and children who inhabit this grain of sand in our immense galaxy. They remind us that we did not create our world and we should not endanger it, for it is our common home. Do what you can!”
Commenting on his Chautauqua experience, Bishop Braxton said, “I have had the opportunity to participate in very valuable gatherings of people of different faiths in settings all over the world. Chautauqua was among the most profound of these experiences. This was due to the beauty of the setting, the diversity of the participants, the wide range of issues explored, the intensity and seriousness of the exchanges, and the wonderful welcome I felt as the first Catholic Bishop to serve as Chaplain during a remarkable week. The week was certainly not a vacation. Nor was it anything like my annual retreat with the Trappist Monks. Yet, it was refreshing like a vacation but spiritually renewing like a retreat. I am already in conversation with the leadership of Chautauqua about returning again next summer and the summer after that!”