As tiny snowflakes fluttered gently to the ground on Saturday, 80 Religious Sisters, undaunted by the inclement weather and distance, made their way to St Peter’s Vauxhall for a Lenten Day of Reflection which had been organised by Fr Jim Hurley, the Vicar for Religious, and his Vicariate Team of Southwark Archdiocese - Sisters Sheila Molony DMJ, Marion Short VS, and Ann Hoskison FMA. On the previous day, 30 Sisters had attended a similar Day of Reflection at The Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury.
The Speaker, on both occasions, was Ellen Teague who is a well-known freelance Catholic journalist. She is on the Columban Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Team, and before that worked for CAFOD and also served as a lay missionary in Nigeria with the Volunteer Missionary Movement. She has chaired the National Justice and Peace Network Environment Working Group for seven years. With this experience and background, it is not surprising that her topics were, ‘What on Earth is the matter’, ‘The Greening of the Church’, and ‘The Need for Ecological Conversion’. The last was based on the 2001 statement of Pope John Paul II who said in January that year: “We must encourage and support ecological conversion which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe towards which it has been heading”.
Ellen’s input was interesting, informative and challenging. She encouraged us to raise awareness of ecological issues in our parishes – through the Live Simply Parish Award -, in schools – through Eco-schools, on Twitter and Face book and also by our lifestyle. Her enthusiasm and conviction for her subject was infectious as she gave two powerpoint presentations in which she quoted many of the famous writers and activists working for JPIC. Her slides graphically showed the effects of global warming on the Philippines, where recent typhoons have wreaked havoc on lives and homes. Poor communities have been especially hard hit and Typhoon Bopha last December, for example, killed at least 1,000 people.
We saw how multinational companies often behave unethically, whether causing river pollution through large-scale mining, or pushing genetically engineered crops to small farmers who have traditionally used their own seeds. Ellen pointed out that if the environment is polluted or degraded, or small farmers lose control of their land or seeds, then it is always the poor who suffer most. She drew our attention not only to human suffering but also to the extinction of creatures, revealing that we are currently living through the biggest extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs, as documented in Columban Sean McDonagh’s book, ‘The Death of Life’.
One slide showed the acronym, ‘Loaf’, which will, hopefully, remind us to do our bit for the environment through using food that is:
L ocally produced; O rganically grown; A nimal friendly; F airly traded.
Ellen helped us further in becoming aware of ecological issues by providing a bookstall and also a selection of pamphlets and newsletters of JPIC groups. Her handout with the names of relevant organisations and websites will prove invaluable in increasing our awareness of and involvement in environmental issues. The website of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has an excellent ‘Environment’ section with links into useful resources and organisations such as Christian Ecology Link and Operation Noah. Events included Climate Week (4-10 March), CAFOD’s Religious lobby of parliament on Food on 15 May, and Creation Time, the ecumenical initiative running from 1 September – 4 October, which is the Feast of St Francis.
Her three handouts for group work summed up the salient points of her examination of Creation Theology. In the handout, 'Valuing Creation', the group discussed the Church’s attitude to environmental justice work. Her quotation from Elizabeth Johnson’s book, ‘For God so loved the Cosmos – Jesus and the Environment’ is saddening but definitely challenging: “But the odd thing is, that with some notable exceptions, many religious people and the church as a whole are curiously silent about the Earth. We are like the disciples asleep in the garden of Gethsemane while Earth undergoes its passion and death.”
In her handout, 'Role of humans in Creation', Ellen quoted Pope Benedict XVI who said in 2007: “Obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive.” Her third handout dealt with “Our Understanding of Sin”. In it, Ellen quoted a passage from the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines, who said in their 1988 statement: “The attack on the natural world is rapidly whittling away at the base of our living world and endangering its fruitfulness for future generations. As we reflect on what is happening, in the light of the Gospel, we are convinced that this assault is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith.” We were left reflecting on two questions: How can our notion of ‘structural sin’ incorporate environmental justice? What challenges would the broadening of our moral code to include destruction of God’s creation present to our churches?’
We concluded the day taking these questions and reflections to the celebration of the Eucharist where we offered the whole of creation and invoked the Holy Spirit to make it holy. At the end of Mass, Fr Jim thanked Ellen once more for the way she opened our eyes and minds to ecological issues. He also thanked the Sisters for their hospitality and each one of us for coming. Finally, after enjoying tea, scones and hot-cross buns, we left, hoping our carbon footprint would fall as gently as the tiny snowflakes on our beautiful and fragile planet.