Address of Fr. Gabriel Lamug-Nanawa, SJ during the Season of Creation Paraliturgy held on September 20, 2023 at the Loyola School of Theology. Fr. Gabby is the Jesuit Philippine Province Assistant for Ecology and Coordinator for Reconciliation with Creation in the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP).
Do you know what the longest river in Southeast Asia is? It is the Mekong River in the Indochina peninsula, measuring around 4,900km in length. For comparison, the Philippines, from the Batanes islands in the north to Tawi-Tawi in the south, is only 1,850km long. The Mekong River flows through 6 countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It supports the largest freshwater fishery in the world, making the communities around it, especially the people of Cambodia, the ones who eat the most freshwater fish in the world. Unsurprisingly, the name Mekong comes from the words Mae “mother”, Nam “water”, and Khong “things”, referring to the river as “the mother who gives many things”. Thus, the Mekong River, vast and beautiful with its mineral-rich, coffee-colored waters, has long been regarded as mother, supporting millions of people with food, livelihood, cultural identity, and so much more.
As you know, the image for this year’s Season of Creation is a mighty river, with the theme: “Let justice and peace flow”. It is inspired by the words of the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Given the urgency of today’s climate and ecological crises, we are called upon to join together and help facilitate the flow of justice and peace to God’s people and to all of God’s creation. Perhaps at this point, it would be helpful to call to mind a river which is significant to you, probably one from your hometown or when you were young.
In my opinion, there are generally two paths that we usually take when we approach nature. The first one is through awe and wonder at the beauty of God’s creation. Here we focus on and relish the beautiful and inspiring characteristics of nature. We compose poems that speak about the gentle caress of the cool breeze, the smell of morning dew on soft blades of green grass, or beholding the different hues of yellow, orange, and red of a steadily setting sun. Moved by the beauty of nature we are prompted to pray, to feel and find God’s presence around us. An example would be the Canticle of Creation by St Francis of Assisi, who says, “Be praised, my Lord, for our Brothers Wind and Air, and every kind of weather by which you, Lord, uphold life in all your creatures. Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water, who is very useful to us, and humble and precious and pure.”
The other path in approaching nature is through an awareness of the different ecological crises, recognizing the urgent need for action, and actually trying to make an impact. There was a great flood in Pakistan around this time last year, where nearly 2,000 people died, including 647 children. The floods damaged and destroyed more than 2 million homes, about 13,000 km of roads, and over 22,000 schools. In total, that single flood event in 2022 severely affected the lives of 33 million Pakistanis, most of whom have not yet recovered, making it one of the worst “natural” disasters in the country’s history. The floods were primarily caused by extreme precipitation from heavier-than-usual monsoon rains, filling up the rivers to overflowing. However, the unusual downpour was believed to have come in from the Indian Ocean, south of Pakistan, where sea surface temperatures had increased due to global warming. More heat, more evaporation, more rain. Are we then somehow related to this disaster, as having contributed to its cause in some way? Given that our own use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions are part of the global total, it is hard to say that we are not at least partly responsible. What then about our role of helping justice and peace flow?
Last July, in a global average, was the hottest month on record, with 21 of its days among the 30 hottest days ever recorded. And the second-ranked month with the highest temperature was just the month after, August. Thus, 2023 is on track to be the year with the highest temperatures we have ever experienced. And as you know, increased temperature is not only about more heat, but also about more floods, stronger storms, and other related repercussions such as new disease patterns and irregular crop yields. Perhaps for these reasons, Pope Francis, at the end of this Season of Creation, is expected to release a new apostolic exhortation, a follow-up to Laudato Si’ focusing on the climate crisis.
This situation and its projection into the future has become so dire that some scientists such as Dr Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability in the UK, published an academic article in 2018, claiming “social collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible”. Because of this, a number of his peers have called him an extremist, an alarmist, and a doomsayer. But when more than 15,000 scientists, in a letter in Nov 2017, warned that due to the continued steep decline of plant and animal biodiversity caused by habitat destruction and heavily extractive industries, that we are bringing about the beginning of a sixth mass extinction event, then perhaps Dr Bendell’s conclusions were not unfounded. Surely, we should sit up and have a serious look at this.
These two paths of approaching nature, one of beauty and wonder, and the other of crisis and urgency, are not mutually exclusive pathways. In fact, both are needed and necessary, like two branches of the same river.
According to Laudato Si’ the human roots of the ecological crises are our over-dependence on and misuse of technology, and our toleration of a misguided anthropocentrism, even an androcentrism. But both these roots point to our original sin, that is, our alienation or disconnection from the rest of creation. We ourselves have perpetuated our separation from the Garden of Eden; we no longer recognize other creatures as kin, as our brother sun or sister moon or mother river; we are less and less familiar with the workings of the natural world.
Because of some health concerns, I have been recently put on a strict diet, watching how much I eat but especially what I eat. And I suspect that like myself, many others don’t really know where our food comes from, or what exactly is contained in tasty but highly processed foods, or that cheese rolls and ensaymadas cause internal inflammation and are detrimental to our health, especially in the long run.
Alienation is the breeding ground for our ignorance and arrogance towards nature. Both are harmful to others, our neighbors, and to creation, also causing apathy and resulting in increased social inequality. In fact, according to a study by Oxfam International in 2017, only eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity. Such unthinkable disparity!
The phenomenon of alienation has adverse effects even on the cellular level. Dr Zach Bush, a physician specializing in internal medicine but who also engages in research related to planetary health, made this observation: that good relations are key to good health and that alienation results in problematic situations, both valid over multiple scales, from cells to families to the human species. To illustrate, he says, if a group of cells is isolated from other cells, disrupting their relationship with their neighbors, that group of alienated cells begins its journey towards becoming cancer cells. Likewise, when teenagers responsible for violent school shootings in the US have their backgrounds and upbringings analyzed, we see that they too have histories of isolation and difficult relationships with family and friends. And finally, Dr Bush says, because humans have become dis-integrated and distant from nature, we have developed to be this malignant force towards the natural world. When there is isolation and disconnection, justice and peace cannot flow.
In this situation of alienation, our antidote is the grace of conversion, the gift of ecological conversion. The phrase “ecological conversion” was first used by Saint John Paul II in a general audience in 2001 referring to how “in recent decades humanity [has become] more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading”. And then rather recently, Pope Francis, in paragraph 217 of Laudato Si’, called us to ecological conversion “whereby the effects of [our] encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in [our] relationship with the world around [us]”. The call to ecological conversion is really a call to reconciliation, with God, our neighbors, and with creation. Perhaps one concrete way towards reconciliation with creation is to recognize our deep and inherent relatedness to all of God’s creatures.
There is a painting by William Blake from 1795 entitled “And Elohim Created Adam” where we can see God hovering over Adam, who is lying on the ground. God’s right hand is holding Adam’s head, forming him as God draws him forth from the earth. Thus, Adam, as we all do, comes from Adamah, meaning soil or earth. Thus, reconciliation is to remember that we are always in close communion with the earth and all of God’s creatures.
And so as religious sisters and brothers, theologians and seminarians, in this Season of Creation, we are called to keep in mind the people under our care, especially the poor in our parishes, the children in our schools; to foresee the kind of future they will have. We are called not just to study theology, but to theologize and interpret once again God’s eternal word for these times. May you help facilitate our ecological conversion, help bridge our alienation with creation, and shed light on how to navigate the future, in faith, according to God’s will.
Finally, using the words of prayer for this season, we beg that God may “Bless us to walk together with all people of goodwill so that the many streams of the living waters of God’s justice and peace may become a mighty river all over the Earth. In the name of the One who came to proclaim good news to all creation, Jesus Christ. Amen.”