This is the second Columban article on October’s Synod on Amazonia. The author, Amy Woolam Echeverria, is the Washington-based Columban International JPIC Coordinator.
This October the Church will hold its first ever Synod of Bishops on the relationship between the human and non-human natural world, focused particularly on the Amazon. Inspired by the encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invites us to universalise the Amazon so as to experience and understand the complex web of life that is both utterly specific and immensely inclusive. In the preparatory document for the Synod, we read that the biome of the Amazon is both particular and universal.
The Special Synod’s reflections transcend the strictly ecclesial-Amazonian sphere, because they focus on the universal Church, as well as on the future of the entire planet. We begin with a specific geographical area in order to build a bridge to the other important biomes of our world: the Congo basin, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the tropical forests of the Asia Pacific region, and the Guarani Aquifer, among others.
As I ponder the universality of the Amazon, I am reminded of recent visit to Columbans in Myanmar. While there, I met a man and his family who, for nearly ten years have lived in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp run by the local Caritas office. This IDP camp is less than 25 miles from his family’s home and land of generations. The ongoing conflict for years between the Burmese army and ethnic minorities has resulted in thousands of innocent people living as refugees in their own country.
During my visit, we had the opportunity to sit with the elders of the camp and hear their stories. The man I met spoke about his deepest pain that comes with living in the camp. For him the loss of the family’s connection with the land was the deepest wound. More still, he lamented that his son will not know the trees on the land. He spoke of the trees as if they were members of his family. The land was not something that the family owned and resourced, but rather there existed a kind of co-habitation between his human family and the non-human natural world. In this encounter I could hear both the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth – each displaced and torn apart from the intricately woven fabric of life shared between them.
The Lungs of the Planet
The Amazon, integral to the fabric of all life throughout the globe is often referred to as, “the lungs of the planet” (LS #38). What happens when the lungs are choked and life ceases? Pope Francis warns in Laudato Si’ against the loss of biodiversity and connectedness with God’s creatures as is experienced in the Amazon and other biomes around the world. He writes,
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right. (LS 33)
Creation as part of the salvation story of the Cross
This is not the first time we’ve heard the sirens sounding against the destruction of the Amazon. The teachings in Laudato Si’ are the fruit of an ongoing awakening in the Church since Vatican II to an ecological and cosmological theology and spirituality that includes all of the Creation as part of the salvation story of the Cross. For example, Columban Fr. Sean McDonagh has written extensively on biodiversity and the threat of extinction that so many species face. In his book, The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction, Fr. Sean explores theological and ethical questions framed by his experience with the T’boli people in South Cotabato in the Philippines which mirrors the experience of indigenous throughout the Amazon. He proposes a number of ways that people, particularly Christians, and the Church as a whole can live an ecological vocation. At the heart of this and any vocation, is being in intimate relationship with each other and the natural world so as to promote, protect, and celebrate the gift of life.
Fr. Sean and others have called for the need within the Church to acknowledge, repent, and ritualise in our liturgies and sacraments the intimate relationship between God, humans and all of Creation. Essential to this is recovering our Christian Trinitarian identity. Fr. Dennis Edwards links the Trinity with Creation in his book, Ecology at the Heart of Faith,
A doctrine of the Trinity has to do with salvation and has liberating implications for an understanding of the human person as a being-in-relationships, of creation as springing from divine communion, and the church as a living sign of this communion. Extinction of forests and other habitats, loss of species can only be an affront to a God who delights in creatures in all their diversity and specificity. Abundance of life springs ultimately from the abundance of the divine communion.
Protect against future permanent loss of life
Reconnecting with this Trinitarian doctrine and spirituality finds expression in a proposal by Fr. Sean to acknowledge, remember, and ritualize the loss of life in our understanding of All Souls Day to include all creation that is extinct. This idea has been promoted through the Global Catholic Climate Movement with resources developed to encourage Catholics to include in our remembrances species that no longer flourish in our common home. Not only are we called to remember, but to protect against future permanent loss of life. Whether it’s calling on governments to uphold the Convention on Biodiversity and the Paris Agreement from the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or committing to lifestyle commitments like the Laudato Si’ Pledge , or marking our liturgical calendar to include the celebration of the Season of Creation, there are many ways we can open ourselves to our ongoing ecological conversion.
As I ponder the upcoming Synod on the Amazon and the interconnectedness of the Amazon with the family and trees in Myanmar with the T’boli people in the mountains of the Philippines and so many other connections, I am inspired by Pope Francis’ concluding message in Laudato Si’,
Live in Communion with God and all creation
The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that Trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (LS 240)
May we have the humility to see ourselves not at the center of creation, but rather interlocked, interconnected, and interdependent with all of creation. In doing so, I believe that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor will be transformed to a symphony of praise and glory to God.