This reflection by Fr Jim Mulroney is the tenth in a series of Columban articles published in preparation for the Synod on Amazonia at the Vatican in October 2019.
High on a mountain in Australia’s southern island-state of Tasmania, an enthusiastic young guide told us we were standing amidst the purest air in the world and went on to encourage our group to gulp it deeply, as every breath we took would add one minute to our lives! While most chuckled, a rather elderly man standing next to me muttered in somewhat bemused horror, “What a frightening thought!”
However, had we been on a similar sightseeing tour of the Amazon, the guide’s words may have been truly frightening, not just for the elderly man next to me, but for all of us, as the skies over its 2.1 million square miles across nine countries contain 25 percent of all the oxygen in the world. We could well have been informed that if the environment continues to deteriorate, every fourth time we gulp for oxygen, we may instead gasp in search of it.
Pope Francis has heeded the warning and taken it as the almost ultimate litmus test for the health of God’s creation and the almost final warning of the need for an ecological conversion, placing it as his top agenda for the Church this year to be considered at a synod.
The preparatory document for the synod scheduled to be held in Rome from October 6 to 27 under the theme, ‘Amazonia: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology’, tells us that the central focus will be on land use, biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples, three million of whom from 400 tribes live within the area among its 400 million-strong population.
In an article published in the National Catholic Reporter on 8 April, Brian Roewe tells us that the Amazon Basin also contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and over one-third of the global forest reserves. The preparatory document quotes Laudato Si’ (On care for our common home) as saying: “In the Amazon rainforest, which is of vital importance for the planet, a deep crisis has been triggered by prolonged human intervention, in which a ‘culture of waste’ and an extractivist mentality prevail.”
It continues: “The Amazon is a region with rich biodiversity; it is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious; it is a mirror of all humanity which, in defence of life, requires structural and personal changes by all human beings, by nations, and by the Church.”
The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, or REPAM, was formed in 2014 in response to Pope Francis’ concerns for challenges facing the region. The network, which covers the nine countries of the Amazon, has played a central role ahead of the synod, including sponsoring a conference at Georgetown University in March.
At the gathering, Korá, an indigenous leader, sang a powerful song of the wisdom of the air and water, decrying the government for exploiting the land’s riches at the expense of farmers and indigenous peoples. Land is being confiscated, rivers are drying up and the local people can no longer hold some of their traditional feasts because there are no fish, he said.
The people suffer more sicknesses and diseases because of pollution. “I am the forest,” he said. “I am here today because without it, the world doesn’t live.” The government “is against indigenous people – we need your help,” he concluded.
The conference also noted that the pope is inviting the Church toward two conversions: one pastoral, namely the need to respond to the throwaway culture; the other, a social and environmental conversion as expressed in Laudato Si’. “In our world today,” Roewe notes, “Glaciers are melting. Intense storms are strengthening. Seas are rising. Floods are spreading. Heat waves and droughts are prolonging. And the destruction and disruption all those events bring to people in all parts of the globe are increasing.”
It is hoped that the synod may go some way towards achieving what science to date has not been able to; igniting a spark to overcome the political inertia that has resisted addressing this massive change. More and more, a prevailing belief is that a moral force is needed.
In an effort to galvanise the Catholic world in getting behind the synod and the work of groups like the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Catholic Climate Covenant in the United States invited 250 leaders of ministries to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, from 27-29 June. They would try to jump start the moulding of care for creation into what it means to be Catholic, by promoting a greater understanding of the matter.
Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, from Villanova University in the United States, reflected prior to the gathering that she has seen no real sense of urgency to act on Pope Francis’ encyclical.
She told the National Catholic Reporter: “We are theologically still very narrow when it comes to reconceiving the human person within the wider realm of creation. I see no real movement. I see a lot of good people and there’s a lot of goodwill, but we are heading towards a very, very different world, a world that will bear the consequences of global warming.”
Sr Delio sees part of the problem as a hesitancy to fully embrace evolution theologically and with it, how the human person is seen and understood in a world of dynamic change and complexity. She quoted Pope Francis as telling a group of theologians in February this year, “We still aren’t conscious of this sin.”
And she insists that the reliance on theological classics like Augustine and Aquinas has, in a way, marginalised many modern thinkers, like Jesuit Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Passionist Fr Thomas Berry. She believes that this has prevented the Church from theologically taking on evolution and understanding nature from the dynamics of changing complexity, which she says is necessary to arrive at the worldview Pope Francis holds up in the encyclical.
“We can’t keep relying on mediaeval philosophies and theologies to do theology in the 21st century,” she said. “We need to really do what science does, and that is shift paradigms. And we haven’t done that.”
She is suggesting going back to the gospels, taking their values and then examining them through the lens of evolution. “If we want real change, and a green Earth, we need to get practical. We need practical theology – theology that translates into people’s lives and we need principles and language to do that,” she explains. She then adds that this is not something that we can look towards Church leadership for, as it has to come from the grassroots.
“The type of change that’s needed cannot be cosmetic. It is not an intellectual change. It is not a cosmetic change. It is a deep ontological change in the sense, in a way that we understand what we are as human persons, what we are within this wider realm of creation and how God may be acting in this dynamic flow of created life.”
Also, it is not a change for the Church only. Pope Francis addressed his encyclical to the whole world, not just the Catholic Church. He wants his message to flow to the guide on top of the mountain and even the elderly man who was inclined to resist the elixir of long life, as caring for God’s creation is the only way we have of sustaining any life.
Fr Jim Mulroney was the editor of the Sunday Examiner, the English language Catholic newspaper in Hong Kong for 16 years until 2017. Ordained in 1972, he spent his first years as a Columban in Japan, followed by a long time in Australia before going to Hong Kong.
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