“The Church is there for life, not for profit” says Columban missionary

24th July 2017 - by Ellen Teague

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“The Church is there for life, not for profit” a Columban priest and CAFOD partner told the National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales annual weekend conference on 22 July.

Based for five decades in Latin America, Irishman Fr Peter Hughes was contrasting Church support for marginalised communities with the destructive practices of large-scale mining and agribusiness companies in the Amazon rainforest. He lamented destructive practices of extractive industries, and described the Amazon’s three million indigenous people as “today’s lepers, reduced to nothingness”. He said he was not totally against mining, “but it must be done in a more respectful way, respecting international law”. He warned that the planet’s fresh air, water and biodiversity are all being undermined with consequences for the whole Earth community.

He spoke about the REPAM initiative, which led him and Church leaders to accompany indigenous leaders from the Amazon to Washington in March to meet the American Commission for Human Rights, members of the U.S Congress, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This was an important step towards promoting a Church with an Amazonic Face – supporting indigenous peoples in their struggles to defend land, rivers and rainforest. “They made quite an impact in their feathered headresses” he said “but lives have been reduced by extractive industries and could be reduced to oblivion in a very short time”. He felt we have much to learn from peoples who have lived sustainably in the Amazon for thousands of years, “never ceasing to have harmony with their habitat”. The U.S. Bishops expressed support for REPAM’s work, and he hoped the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian Amazon in January next year will highlight the plight of its indigenous peoples.

Fr Hughes was speaking to the weekend conference on the theme, ‘A Sabbath for the Earth and the Poor: The Challenge of Pope Francis’, and around 260 Justice and Peace activists attended from most dioceses of England and Wales and some in Scotland. He is an advisor to the Instituto Bartolome de las Casas and CELAM, the collegial council of Latin American bishops. He thanked Pope Francis for his inspirational leadership in producing Laudato Si’ six months before the discussions in Paris that led to an international Agreement on Climate Change. He pointed to Paragraph 139 of Laudato Si’ which says: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

His suggestion that we need to review our notions about progress and good living were picked up by Ruth Valerio of Tearfund, whose talk focused on the need for “inner ecological conversion”. She urged the conference to “get out and reconnect with the natural world”. Her books, ‘Just Living – Faith and Community in an Age of Consumerism’ and ‘L is for Lifestyle’, are about living more simply and avoiding rampant consumerism. She felt “Pope Francis has presented us with the challenge of living with love and joy in this our common home”.

Kathy Galloway, a former leader of both the Iona Community and Christian Aid Scotland, lamented that the poorest suffer most from environmental destruction when they have “drained resources the least, waste nothing, and don’t fly around the world”. She urged that we live more sustainably and avoid a “privatised religion” which does not engage with the struggles of the most marginalised. There was a plea to support campaigns that challenge unjust and violent structures, and “to look outside the holy places for places where God’s reign is breaking through”. Examples in Scotland ranged from anti-nuclear protests on the streets, churches opening their doors to asylum seekers and “guerrilla” gardening. She reported being very moved by a panel organised by Church Action on Poverty from the Leeds Poverty Truth Commission which highlighted the suffering caused by poverty in Britain and the role of Church groups in building up support and hope.

The challenge to work at a macro level tackling structural injustice and the micro level of living more simply was reflected in workshops and “sabbath” time. The first included workshops on Care for Creation; Sustainable Agriculture; Mining; Indigenous People; Stigmatisation of the poor; Divestment from fossil fuels. And there was time for relaxing and contemplative activities such as a nature walk, visiting prayer spaces, an art session on the theme of the beauty of creation, and Tai Chi on the lawn. Discussing the harvesting of elderflowers and the production of elderflower cordial is not usually discussed at an NJPN Conference! And having time to visit the NJPN oak tree, now 30 feet tall, which was planted at the Swanwick Conference centre on NJPN’s 25th anniversary.

Saturday evening saw a performance of “Romero – the Heartbeat of El Salvador” and during the conference Mass Archbishop Oscar Romero was adopted as NJPN’s patron.

At the final action planning session feedback included Arundel and Brighton Diocese setting up a diocesan environment group, East Anglia producing a draft environmental policy and Westminster pushing to become a fairtrade diocese. The Jesuit parish in Preston, Lancaster Diocese, is working towards becoming a livesimply parish. Steve Atherton of Liverpool Archdiocese, who said he felt like as “endangered species” as the only full time J&P worker left in England and Wales, spoke about producing resources for Autumn’s Creation Time which have been picked up by many Liverpool parishes.

Children at the conference produced a video “Can children and young people make a difference”. The answer was positive, with one quote being, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. The youth group – whose programme was run by a Columban, Pax Christi and Salesian team, including Columban JPIC workers James Trewby and Julia Corcoran – told participants: “Sometimes it is easier to say than do, but we all need to get out there and do it!”.

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