Scott Wright is Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, based in Washington D.C.
Recently, I attended an interfaith service to commemorate the deaths of six immigrant children from Central America who had died in US custody during the past year after crossing the US-Mexico border with their families seeking asylum. We were reminded by Juanita Cabrera Lopez, Executive Director of Mayan League, who spoke at the vigil, that five of the children came from indigenous Guatemalan families:
“Each indigenous child whose life was stolen was forced to migrate, because they are the most affected by centuries of structural inequality and discrimination in Guatemala. Our children often have no future in the rural and extremely impoverished communities that they come from.”
In many ways, these indigenous children and the hundreds of thousands of migrant families crossing the US/Mexico border every year are the human face of climate change in the Americas. Centuries of exclusion and the continued impact of transnational corporations and governments exploiting the natural environment for profit have reached the point where the poor can no longer survive on the land. Changing weather patterns caused by global warming and the pollution of air and water caused by mining operations have forced people to flee in order to live.
We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family…There is no room for the globalisation of indifference. (LS 52)
Easter is a season of resurrection, but in the resurrection accounts we are told that when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room, his wounds were still visible. The Resurrected One is the One who was crucified. We still live in a world in which “all of creation cries out” as a mother groaning in labor, and “tired huddled masses” are still “yearning to breathe free.”
On June 18, the Catholic Church marks the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’ ground-breaking encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
The encyclical letter is addressed “to everyone living on this planet,” and it calls each of us individually, and all of us globally, to a radical revision of the way we think about the world, the way we live in the world, and the steps we need to take to make this common home we share something more than a place where nature is ravaged, resources are consumed and thrown away, profits are maximized, and the needs of the poor and the vulnerable are ignored.
Right from the beginning of his encyclical letter, Pope Francis asks: “What is happening to our common home?” and he addresses in the very first chapter the manifold challenges we face as a human family: pollution and waste, scarcity of water, loss of biodiversity, decline in the quality of life and breakdown of society, extreme consumerism and global inequality. His answer to the question he asks sets the tone, not only for the encyclical, but for his entire papacy.
We must hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (LS 49)
Since the publication of Laudato Si in 2015, which came out shortly before the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor have grown ever more urgent.
According to the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are on track for a 3.0 C rise in temperatures above pre-industrial revolution levels, twice as high as what was recommended by the scientific community and the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to sustainable levels. Unless we are able to keep fossil fuels in the ground and move globally to a renewable energy framework, we will face unprecedented levels of droughts and flooding, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and severe weather events leading to severe famines, endless internal conflicts, and millions of climate refugees.
Truly we are in need of an ecological conversion, beginning with the way in which we see the world, not as a place to ravage and consume, but as a place to reverence and cultivate for the good of all, especially the poor, and to preserve and sustain it for future generations. It’s all about living in right relationship to creation and to each other, connecting the dots and seeing our lives as holy. We need the wisdom of First Nation peoples to remind us that we stand on holy ground and all life is sacred.
For Pope Francis, “everything is interconnected” (LS138) and we have a special obligation, not only to the poor and to the earth, but to future generations, what he calls “intergenerational solidarity” (LS159).
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? (LS 160)
Only a month ago, Pope Francis met with the corporate heads of the transnational mining companies, many of which have investments in the pan-Amazon region, including fossil fuels and precious metals, and many of which are tied to large-scale hydroelectric and infrastructure projects that have wreaked havoc on both the indigenous communities and the natural environment of the region. Francis did not mince words:
“The precarious condition of our common home has been the result largely of a fallacious economic model that has been followed for too long. It is a voracious model, profit-oriented, shortsighted, and based on the misconception of unlimited economic growth. Although we frequently see its disastrous impacts on the natural world and in the lives of people, we are still resistant to change.” These words echo what he had said four years earlier in Laudato Si’: “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to … the pursuit of economic gain. (56)
Signs of Hope: The Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor in the Amazon Region
But not all is discouraging. One sign of hope in this Easter season is a special Synod on the Amazon called by Pope Francis to be held in Rome this October. In preparation for the Synod, the Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), together with indigenous and church leaders, held a three-day conference at Georgetown University in Washington DC in March on “Integral Ecology.” There cardinals of the Church and indigenous leaders issued a prophetic call in defense of life and in defense of creation.
Why is the Amazon so important to the planet and to the Church? What is at stake? For Columban missionary Peter Hughes, the answer could not be clearer nor more urgent: “The destruction in the Amazon puts in jeopardy the future of the world’s drinking water as well as the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It also affects directly the chaotic effects of climate change, increases in flooding and droughts throughout the planet.”
What is happening now in the Amazon region has significance for future life on the planet. (Fr. Peter Hughes, SSC)
Fr. Hughes, the former director of the Justice and Solidarity Commission of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), was instrumental in the creation of REPAM, and works closely with its episcopal leadership, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM and Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto, SJ. Along with Mauricio Lopez, they recently met with Pope Francis in Rome.
For Fr. Hughes, these disastrous impacts are an open wound in the heart of the Amazon, crying out for life and denouncing a project of death that has only brought ruin to the region:
“Today, the Amazon region is the target for huge capital investment in the exploration, production and exportation of commodities, energy resources of oil and natural gas, electricity through the construction of mega hydroelectric dams; mining and precious metals; the expansion of vast areas of land for agribusiness by burning the rainforest for production of sugar, soya and palm oil. The Amazon has been transformed, negotiated by nation states giving concession rights to global corporations for exploitation of its natural resources with little or no regard for ecological environmental preservation and the rights of its original inhabitants.”
These words of denunciation describe, not only what is happening in the Amazon, but what is happening throughout the Americas, and much of the entire world. Market solutions and profit motives are wreaking havoc on nature and people. The stakes could not be higher. In Pope Francis’ words: “What is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is up to us. It has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (LS 160).
The Spirit of God blows where it will and breaks in, transforming reality … We are living an absolute Kairos of God. (Mauricio Lopez, Executive Director of REPAM)
The Synod on the Amazon is an opportunity and points to an urgent need to deepen the vision of Laudato Si’, and to implement an integral ecology in all of its diverse dimensions. According to Mauricio Lopez, Executive Director of REPAM: “We want the Synod to be profoundly territorial,” in the sense that “the voices of those who live in the Amazon are actively present,” and “the indigenous peoples and communities in the Amazon are subjects of their own history.” But the implications of the Synod go far beyond the Amazon and address the concerns of other biomes of the planet, including the Congo River Basis, the Asia Pacific region, Mesoamerica and many other regions of the Americas. The current global economic model is not sustainable.
Fr. Hughes agrees with this assessment: “For Pope Francis, the Amazon is a major challenge for the Church in Latin America and beyond. The Amazon Synod highlights the importance of the periphery as the center of God’s presence in history. The Church must relocate there. REPAM is committed to the search for a true Amazonian face of the Church, inspired by love for the indigenous people.”
The Amazon Synod highlights the importance of the periphery as the center of God’s presence in history. (Fr. Peter Hughes, SSC)
What does this mean, then, for the future of the Amazon and the future of the Church?
For Mauricio “the defense of the indigenous peoples includes many risks. Every day, in all of the diverse regions of the Amazon, there is persecution, violence and profound suffering, assassination of human rights defenders and indigenous leaders, including the most vulnerable of all, the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.”
“We need a theology that responds to the signs of the time today, that embraces the new reality that the Spirit is revealing, the pastoral process that Pope Francis is leading, a pastoral conversion to become a Church that goes out of itself and responds to the world of today.”
“This is where REPAM is putting its focus, encountering Christ incarnated in the reality and culture of the indigenous people,” in such a way that we learn “it is possible to live in harmony, and with hope for the future, for the Kingdom of God is profoundly woven into the living expressions that reflect the mystery of God in the peoples of the Amazon.”
“The indigenous peoples want a presence that accompanies them in their daily life and struggles, and in the defense of their territories, as was the case of so many missionaries who were prophetic signs of the Church, in a process of mutual enrichment, shared evangelization, and from the perspective of discovering the signs and living presence of Christ’s mission in their particular reality.”
I am talking about the Church accompanying indigenous people and sharing the same fate, one of death and of suffering, but also of celebration and hope. (Mauricio Lopez)
Something new is happening in our common home. A new spirituality of creation is emerging, one deeply tied to the fate of the Earth. The stakes – the fate of the Earth and future generations – are high. Indigenous communities and women play a crucial role. The spirituality of creative nonviolence is deeper and more holistic, rooted in the gift of creation.
Significantly, while the church commemorates the fourth anniversary of Laudato Si’, we are invited to consider the connections between care for creation and climate change, welcoming the stranger and the refugee crisis, option for the poor and global inequality, nonviolence and a world at war with itself. These are the challenges but also the Christian virtues and witness required of all of us, on a global scale. We have a shared vocation and a common hope.
So, returning to Pope Francis’ initial questions: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us?” “What kind of world are we leaving the children?”
Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can ask ourselves the question Jesus asked: “Who made themselves a neighbour” to the one fallen by the roadside? How can we today make ourselves neighbours to those who suffer the devastating impact of climate change? to the refugees and immigrants crossing our border? to those who are famished and in danger of starvation? to the families and children who suffer the violence of war without turning away from their faces or their cries for help?
That is the Gospel message that Pope Francis presents us with in Laudato Si’. It is a challenging message, but it is also an invitation to share “the joy of the gospel,” knowing that we are called to be who we are, one human family living in one common home, to share this beautiful creation with each other and to protect and sustain it for future generations.
God, who calls us to generous commitment, offers us the light and the strength needed to continue on our way. Praise be to God! (LS 245)
Our spiritual traditions are deeply enriched by the spirituality of indigenous peoples rooted in the gift of creation. As Christians, we know that the joy of Easter is the victory of Christ over death, and that life, not death, will have the last word. But even as we celebrate the joy of Easter, the passion of the Earth and the passion of the poor continue in the drama of countless nonviolent struggles of poor and indigenous peoples for life, for future generations, and for all of creation. As we anticipate the celebration of Pentecost, we pray to the Spirit that unites us all and binds us to creation: “Come Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the Earth!”