Ecological Conversion: an ecclesial awakening?

Fr. Patrick McMullan is from New Zealand. He was ordained in 1987 and missioned in Korea. In 2009, he edited a collection of academic papers by Columbans which was published as 'Climate Change: the Agenda for Mission Today'. He is currently a member of the regional council in Korea and recalls how working in a country parish early in his ministry helped him appreciate the significance of the Lunar Calendar and its intimate connection with culture and life. This article was first published in the May/June 2021 issue of the Far East magazine.

It seems normal now, but when I first came to Korea, I was surprised that the country celebrated two new year’s festivals: the Lunar, and the Solar New Year. I found myself puzzled because the Lunar calendar festivals, especially New Year and Chu’sock (thanksgiving for the harvest), were culturally more significant than the Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas which, in my naivety, I presumed were universally significant.

Not that I understood it then, but what I was really learning through these and other “surprises” was to appreciate both the validity of different worldviews and their importance in defining “the normal.” I was awakening to my limited biases and preconceptions. In simple terms, a worldview is the (mostly) unconscious framework we all hold, which explains and shapes the rhythm of life inherent in a particular historical, cultural, and geographical context. Worldviews are how we make sense of the world.

It was not, however, until I worked in a country parish that I really appreciated the significance of the Lunar calendar and its intimate connection with culture and life. Outside of the major festivals, nowhere was this connection more obvious to me than the increase in activity which came with the Gyungchip, one of the 24 seasonal divisions of the lunar calendar which usually occurs in early March on the solar calendar. Gyungchip marks the moment when the entire country seems to awake from the Winter hibernation, farmers stir, and the frogs chirp.

There is, as I have learnt, a delightful comfort in the predictable rhythms of nature articulated by the Lunar calendar: the world just hangs together. However, it now feels as if something has gone seriously astray. As the global ecological crisis deepens, we can no longer presume either the benevolence or the predictability of the seasons and their weather patterns: the rainy season, when or if it arrives, seems to have intensified; the winter weather pattern seems to have altered significantly; summer, which seems to start earlier and finish later, is increasingly hotter and for longer periods; and the chirp of frogs is increasingly difficult to hear.

Globally, the picture is one of worsening, more frequent and intensifying floods, fires, droughts, famines, disappearing forests and inexorably encroaching seas. Even if we do not want to talk about it, all of us are experiencing the impact of a global ecological tragedy which is increasingly challenging our worldview and the related political, economic, social, cultural, and religious institutions. From a believer’s perspective, the “seamless garment of God’s creation” is fraying badly, if not disintegrating (Laudato Si #9).

Put another way, how do we pray the first proposition of our creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” As Christians, we have been good at longing for a heaven created by God, it is the creation of earth that is the problem. In our present day, we can see our Church’s leadership struggling with the significance of God’s creation. Papal language has moved from talking about environmental awareness and protection to ecological conversion (LS2-6). The change in language is worth pondering. We have become accustomed to the language of awareness and protection, and to varying degrees, take part in the various campaigns to protect the environment by living more frugally, reducing waste, and limiting our consumption of energy.

Ecological conversion, however, involves something entirely different. First, ecological conversion is a rediscovery and deepening of the Hebrew insight that God creates, not just saves, the entire world.  Genesis 1-11 is a story of God creating a cosmic temple in which humans are called to worship as tillers and keepers of creation (Gen 2:15; LS66). The Christian vision reinforces this insight by praying, as in the Lord’s prayer, that God’s name be hallowed not just in Heaven but on Earth too!

However, the cost of sin, understood as our arrogant desire to be like gods (Gen 3:5), results in the disunity of creation and the shattering of humanity’s relationship with the Creator. Fear comes to dominate human existence in the cosmic temple: “I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10).

Sadly, it is not just our relationship with God which suffers, but also our relationships with other human beings and, indeed, the whole of created reality. Ecology, which studies the complex interrelationship of organisms and their environments, takes on a whole new meaning when seen in this context of creation, sin, and disordered worship in the cosmic temple.

Presuming ecological stability, the Church has, for two thousand years, focused its thinking on our relationships with God and with neighbours. We have asked important questions which include: “Who is God?” “What is a proper relationship with the divinity?” “Who is my neighbour?” “What is a proper relationship with my neighbour?” The overriding question has been, “How do we live a moral life?” Our theological libraries and imaginations are full of answers which, while both beautiful and profound, are now proving to be inadequate in the light of the emerging ecological catastrophe. For example, what is a moral life in the face of the unrestricted destruction of biodiversity across the planet?

Presently, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics scattered around the world. Almost one in five people on this planet have some sort of allegiance to our church. For a moment, just imagine if this group of people were to promote consciously their ecological conversion and act to protect the biodiversity of the beautiful gift which is our planet. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul beautifully captured this ecclesial awakening, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Rm 8:19). I am sure the frogs would chirp for that!

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