Vincentian Chair Lecturer Discusses Hope in the Midst of “Apocalypse”

April 27, 2022

Third World populations, many of which emit zero carbon, consistently suffer as a result of the harmful effects of climate change resulting from the careless practices of First World nations. That was the message of Rev. Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., Ph.D., S.T.D., this year’s holder of the St. John’s University Vincentian Chair of Social Justice, during his lecture, “After the End: Ecology and the Apocalypse,” held on April 25 in the D’Angelo Center on the Queens, NY, campus.

During a far-ranging discussion, Fr. Pilario wove classical and modern cultural depictions of the apocalypse together with examples of the devastation wrought in his native country, the Philippines, most recently by Typhoon Rai.

“Apocalyptic imagery, such as one finds in the Book of Revelation, most often builds on an upheaval in the natural order that foretells and inaugurates the end of time,” noted Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “The tumult within creation leads to the destruction of humankind. Using the imagery suggested by this spiritual theology, Fr. Pilario invited his audience to consider the need to safeguard our common home and protect our future. His focus on Typhoon Rai in the Philippines gives concrete emphasis to care for our earth and showing love for its people. Compassion and an acceptance of responsibility are key.”

The effects of climate change are catastrophic, Fr. Pilario stressed. “In the language and imagination of the people, this feels like the end of the world, the apocalypse. As years go by, these typhoons are more destructive and unpredictable. People are asking why.” 

He added that these beautiful islands suffer the brunt of climate change’s destructive effects because the First World has not decided how to curb carbon emissions. “We are on the brink of disaster.”

Apocalypse, Fr. Pilario stressed, is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal. There has always been a human preoccupation with the apocalypse. 

“To talk about the end has always been in our DNA,” he explained. “In turbulent times, such as natural disasters, wars, or terrorist attacks, even during lunar eclipses or certain stellar alignments, apocalyptic language surfaces. Now it occupies center stage in environmental language.” 

Fr. Pilario observed that many living in industrialized nations believe that the present ecological dangers are exaggerated, and the world possesses enough matter and energy to sustain itself, as well as the technology to counteract any negative impacts. “For them, climate crisis is nothing but ‘scare mongering,’” he noted.

In 2013, during his Christmas break, Fr. Pilario volunteered at a parish that had been decimated by Typhoon Haiyan. That typhoon left more than 10,000 people dead, thousands of families displaced, and millions of dollars in property lost. “It was the moment when people were still hungry, out in the cold, and grieving their losses. It was their most vulnerable moment.”

Fr. Pilario added that it is the victims themselves who “show us the way to the hope after the end, of life beyond the apocalypse.”

The parish in which Fr. Pilario celebrated Mass was completely washed away except for its altar wall. “The day after the storm, the people collected its headless statues, placed them on the altar, and started to pray amidst the debris. During those early morning Masses that we celebrated in their destroyed chapels, people were there with their flashlights and their umbrellas. I could sense their fatigue, fears, and insecurity. 

“Some were silent; others were singing. It was raining, but they did not leave. As they were standing there, their fragile hope became a stinging indictment of all the world’s indifference and self-sufficiency, those in my own heart included.”

Grace Musser, a Global Development and Sustainability major who serves as President of the St. John’s University chapter of Catholic Relief Services, attended a special dinner along with several other students prior to Fr. Pilario’s lecture to engage with him more deeply on these issues. “Fr. Pilario really spoke to how important relationships are, not just in terms of our Vincentian mission but in terms of development and social justice,” she observed. “It’s important to connect to people with lived experiences and learn from them.”

Pharmacy major Roberta Lekgjonaj, a native of Albania, noted that Fr. Pilario’s discussion of Third World suffering resonated very deeply with her. “We had more in common than I thought. I’m from a rural area. His discussion of community members coming together after trauma brought me back to my youth. I felt like I was listening to my own story.”