A Columban contingent of priests lay workers and lay missionaries attended the 45th annual conference of the National Justice and Peace Network on 21-23 July in Derbyshire. Between them, they were on the conference planning group, chaired a session, ran a workshop, concelebrated the conference Mass and ran a stall. They were warmly thanked in the conference booklet.
The conference addressed issues crucial to the common good and the well-being of the natural world, with a particular focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Commitments at the end included lobbying politicians and leaders in general, involving the Bishops’ Conference, to remind the UK government of its promises in terms of the SDG goals. “No new oil, coal and gas” was another call and a promise to live more simply as individuals and in our communities.
In a Question and Answer session chaired by James Trewby – head of the Columban Justice and Peace Ecology Team – Christine Allen, CAFOD’S Executive Director, talked about work putting the SDGs into practice with partners around the world. “Work for justice is part of preaching the Gospel,” she said in her presentation. A video was played of partner Caritas Brazil, which was founded by Dom Helder Camara, and embraces the SDG principle of ‘leave no one behind’. Caritas Brazil works to tackle social injustice and defend indigenous populations, “who are the primary guardians of forests and rivers,” and promotes the rights of nature as well as human rights.
In another presentation, Brian O’Toole, Director of the Presentation Sisters Justice Desk for Ireland and England, said the International Presentation Association is committed “to respond to ‘the cry of the Earth and to people kept poor’ and it is doing this by embracing the SDGs in a human rights framework, addressing such issues as women and children, care of creation and indigenous peoples.”
In a talk entitled, ‘Advocacy and Faith Action’, Sir John Battle, an NJPN patron and activist with Leeds Justice and Peace, said, “We need to shift from charitable action to challenging the causes of injustice in line with the preferential option for the poor.”
The 2023 NJPN conference gathered around 150 Justice and Peace campaigners from across England and Wales, taking the theme: ‘Sustainability? Survival or Shutdown’. Justice and Peace activists from 16 dioceses and National Justice and Peace Scotland, priests from three missionary societies – including the Columbans – and six orders of religious sisters joined representatives of CAFOD, CSAN, CARJ, Missio, Pax Christi England and Wales, SVP, Archbishop Romero Trust and the Laudato Si Movement to highlight social justice issues, structural injustice, climate change, conflict, and migration.
The weekend included a screening of ‘The Letter’ film. It follows the stories of front-line environmental champions from around the world, each of whom is facing the effects of our planetary crisis, as they come into dialogue with each other and Pope Francis and build new bonds to face the future with hope. A ‘Just Fair’ hosted more than 20 stalls, including Columbans, Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Justice for Palestine, and Global Justice Now. Ecumenical partners included Christians Aware, Christian Climate Action, Green Christian and Church Action on Poverty.
Of the 12 workshops, Columbans – Mauricio Silva and Catherine Bridgwood – explored responses to people seeking asylum in the UK in the light of the Illegal Immigration Bill. Mauricio is the Columban Inter-Religious Dialogue Coordinator and Coordinator of Fatima House in Birmingham. Catherine is a former Columban Faith in Action volunteer who is now Restore’s Befriending Coordinator.
In other workshops, Westminster J&P introduced materials for bringing the Season of Creation into the life of parishes and schools. Christians Aware looked at, ‘Farming in the Future’, CAFOD explored Pope Francis’s call to live more simply, and Pax Christi focused on, ‘Being peacemakers in time of war’.
The conference chair was Anne Peacey of Hallam Diocese, vice chair of NJPN. The Conference Mass was celebrated by Fr. Dominic Robinson SJ, Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, and by Columban Fr. Ed O’Connell. Fr. Dominic highlighted the Hope that Justice and Peace’s work brings. He talked about “the huge amount of good work going on”, singling out support for asylum seekers and people in need of food banks and advocacy on decarbonisation, “but we need more”. He called for more integration with local Catholic communities. Liturgy throughout the weekend was led by the Lay Community of St. Benedict and involved children’s contribution of artwork and hymns with a strong theme of social and environmental justice.
During the Mass Fr. Ed paid tribute to Brian Davies, former Head of Education at CAFOD, whose death was announced at the conference. “Brian was a long-term supporter and justice and peace and a mentor to many here,” he said. Fr. Ed has recently returned from a mission in Peru, but in the 1990s sat on the Executive of the National Liaison Committee of Justice and Peace. He worked closely with Brian on producing a popular version of the papal document, ‘The Coming of the Third Millennium,’ which called for a jubilee or forgiveness of the foreign debts of countries in the global south.
Fr Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development sent a video message to the conference urging participants to promote the SDGs and the Laudato Si Action Platform. “May justice and peace embrace so that the life of all can flourish,” he said. Tomas Insua of the Laudato Si Movement in Assisi said in a second video message that, “the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth are deeply connected, and I hope this gathering motivates action for our common home, particularly during the Season of Creation in the Autumn.”
Almost eight years have passed since the international community agreed to take bold and transformative steps to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a UN plan to end poverty while protecting the planet. Yet, only about 12% of SDG goals are on track to be achieved by 2030. The international UN SDG Summit, in September 2023, must mobilise the political commitment and breakthroughs our world desperately needs on such issues as poverty, climate change and protecting biodiversity. The NJPN conference showed how people of faith can support that process.
The overall message of the conference was one of Hope. Participants were urged to bring hope by advocating back in their dioceses for the political will to take human rights and sustainability more seriously.