Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo calls for ‘green theology of liberation’; Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious inspires eco-citizens

April 1, 2017

Cross-posted from the Global Sisters Report.  By Gail George, 9 March 2017.  Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR) “A Call for Global Ecological Conversion,” used Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and his papal bull, Misericordia Vultus, which introduced the Holy Year of Mercy, as spiritual frameworks in exploring issues related to the environment and climate change

Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo calls for ‘green theology of liberation’

Warning of the dangers of ecological crisis, especially its impact on the poor, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon addressed participants Monday (Feb. 27) on the opening day of the 17th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious, saying, “Today, we face an environmental holocaust — it is a scary moment.”

“Climate change is real,” the archbishop of Yangon told the 132 participants in a strongly worded keynote speech that outlined “ecological sins” and the need for “ecological conversion.”

Pope Francis “is raising the great cry against this impending disaster,” Bo said. Bo cited the pope’s environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” in which Francis quoted Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew as saying: “For human beings … to destroy biological diversity … by causing changes in [the] climate … to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life — these are sins.”It is significant that the conference is in Myanmar, a country that is opening up after more than 50 years of military rule, Sr. Margaret Maung, president of the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar and a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions (known as RNDM — Religieuses De Notre Dame des Missions), said in welcoming participants.  Myanmar ranks as the second-most vulnerable nation for global warming, Bo said, subject to cyclones, floods and other disasters spawned by climate change. “We are gathered here today not against ISIS terrorists,” he said. “We are gathered here against economic terrorists and ecological terrorists.”Rich countries bear the brunt of responsibility for global warming, he said. “We are a poor nation,” he said. “Rich countries throw carbon into the atmosphere. We suffer and bury thousands after every natural disaster.”

Bo called for a “new green theology of liberation” as the major part of his address.

“We need a major revolution — a revolution in thinking — a revolution in our theology,” he said. “We need to evolve an eco-theology — a theology that integrates God’s creation as our cause and source of our contemplation.”

Thirty years ago, theologians like Fr. Gustavo Gutíerrez responded to the cry of the poor and “out came the explosion of liberation theology,” Bo said. “But theologians like Leonardo Boff point out the liberation theology needs to be complemented by an eco-theology because the cry of the poor is often caused by the cry of the Earth.

Bo is the first cardinal of Myanmar, appointed in February 2015 by Francis. Bo’s appointment was seen as recognition of his efforts in national reconciliation for peace and justice and of his support of ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims. Earlier this month at a general audience, Francis prayed for the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority being persecuted in Myanmar.

“Climate change is an atom bomb waiting to explode — not one Hiroshima or one Nagasaki,” Bo said.

“Already the desert is extending, waterways are drying, Arctic ice is melting at an alarming rate,” he said. “We are standing on the threshold of an ecological apocalypse.”

Just an increase of 4 degrees more will inundate and destroy many islands of Oceania, and countries like Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia will see millions of environmental refugees, he said.

Bo outlined several concrete proposals that religious can undertake to help counter ecological degradation, including:

  • fighting for ecological justice
  • undertaking ecological evangelization
  • paying greater attention to indigenous religious traditions, and
  • listening to Eastern religions and their concept of “interbeing” with nature that affirm the sacredness of ecology more than Judeo-Christian religions do.

Catholic religious life needs to be a counterculture to the greed and consumerism that are behind many environmental issues, and embrace a simplicity and an eco-spirituality exemplified in Eastern religions, Bo said. Buddhist monks are not allowed to own anything except a begging bowl and needle and thread. Catholic religious of the East “need to adopt a lifestyle that is more like Eastern religions: simplicity and veneration of nature.”

While his address was to Asian religious, “my message is valid for the whole world and America,” Bo said in a brief interview later. “We have to have regard for each other as human beings. There is an interconnectedness with plants and animals and the environment.”

Asked about the administration of new U.S. President Donald Trump and concerns that environmental safeguards and measures to stem climate change will be rolled back, Bo said that rich nations should use their resources to help solve environmental problems. Science needs to “really consider what the options are, because poor countries are really suffering because of global warming — I think that’s a warning for the whole universe.”

As for those who would deny global warming exists, he said, “It’s a reality. The Earth is groaning, and if she is in pain, all of us are in pain.”

Rich nations “should have regard for those who are really helpless and homeless and stateless,” he said. “Those should be the ones that as much as possible should be provided for — not only for making American great by itself but greater will be the nation that really goes out and reaches out to others who are the most needy. That will make America great.”

In the afternoon sessions of AMOR XVII, delegates from countries gave brief presentations on how climate change was affecting their nations, the response by governments and the church, and the challenges ahead. In reflections and discussions, participants suggested additional actions, including personal and congregational responses and undertaking the eco-evangelization and eco-spirituality steps proposed by Bo.

As the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII wrapped up March 3 in Yangon, Myanmar, participants said they would carry with them a renewed commitment to their responsibility as eco-citizens, the message of environmental care to their congregations and beyond, and an affirmation of the meeting’s importance in strengthening the work of religious in the region.

The conference’s theme, “A Call for Global Ecological Conversion,” used Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and his papal bull, Misericordia Vultus, which introduced the Holy Year of Mercy, as spiritual frameworks in exploring issues related to the environment and climate change.

Participants said the message of caring for the Earth, countering climate change and helping communities that global warming affects most will continue beyond the five-day Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious, known by its acronym, AMOR.

“By doing this, we have done something for the whole Catholic church and the church in Myanmar,” Sr. Margaret Maung, president of the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar, a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions and chairwoman of the 19-member working committee, said in an interview. “By the presentations and the table sharing and interacting, we came to know each other and the reality of the church, and that we are one with the Earth and the strengths and weaknesses of the environment and climate change.”

Sr. Margaret Maung, chairperson of the AMOR XVII Myanmar planning committee, greets meeting participants. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

In subsequent days, participants explored more deeply the meaning of eco-spirituality and the inherent Asian spirituality that celebrates “contemplative consciousness” and “ecological consciousness understood as awareness and sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all beings and things on Earth,” as Claretian Fr. Samuel Canilang, director of the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia, said in his presentation.

Not long ago, Canilang said, Asians may have felt self-conscious focusing such attention on the spirituality of the natural world, lest others accuse them of being pantheistic. But Laudato Si’ is liberating Asians to speak of their relationship with nature, he said.

Moreover, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in its document “Contemplate” reminds consecrated men and women of the call to ecological conversion, he said.

“The new relationship with the natural environment, which the congregation describes as ‘relational circularity,’ calls for a new spirituality, one that is ecological and contemplative,” Canilang said.

A sister watches the opening ceremony for the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII outside St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, Myanmar. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

Among other presentations, participants listened to best-selling Myanmar author Sayama Ju, whose novels and writings often focus on ecological themes. They heard from Caritas Myanmar about its work with ethnic populations and small farmers in encouraging sustainable crops and agricultural methods, as well as the organization’s continued recovery for the thousands affected by a 2008 tropical cyclone.

They visited a government-run agricultural research center that focuses in part on the development and use of organic fertilizers and seeds.

In his homily during closing Mass, Bo said participants should not fear taking on corporate giants and governments that would harm the environment.

In a follow-up interview with GSR, Bo said in urging religious women and men to take on corporate and government interests, the needs of people who live in poverty and ethnic communities caught in the middle of conflicts over natural resources have to be a key concern.

Participants at the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII in Yangon, Myanmar, listened to a variety of presentations on environmental themes, including developing a deeper eco-spirituality. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

He hoped the AMOR conference would serve as inspiration for women and men religious to “be more outspoken regarding ecological issues and destruction of natural resources and deforestation, especially connected with armed groups and ethnic groups and military armed groups,” he said. “More and more, we are trying to speak out, especially the religious as well as some of the bishops, for ecological justice and economic justice. These two things are linked together.”

Yet amid the need for strategic planning, fundraising and other aspects of undertaking missions, he cautioned religious communities about losing their spiritual dimension and encouraged them to focus on people who live in poverty.

“Our biggest temptation today is to become an NGO,” he said in his homily, underlining Francis’ message for all religious “to return to simplicity.”

Many participants took heart particularly that the conference was in Myanmar, itself a country emerging from 60 years of military rule and isolation.

Participants at the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII watch a demonstration on plant grafting at the Vegetable and Fruit Research and Development Center in Yangon, Myanmar. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

“We are coming from the area where we had war for many years and always feeling like we were the people who suffered,” said Sr. Christa Mariathas of the Holy Family province in Sri Lanka, a country that endured a 25-year civil war that ended in 2009. “Sometimes we become furious because we didn’t have opportunities, but [Myanmar] is opening once again to be with other countries. We feel that we are the same and we can come out of our boundaries just to embrace all nature.”

Several sisters told GSR that they were going to adopt practical means of furthering the recycling and ecological efforts of their communities.

Sr. Angelina Ng, a contemplative Carmelite nun from Singapore, said her community has been doing a renovation project, and workers have strewn trash around the worksite. She said she would get recycling bins and start recycling materials from the site.

Others mentioned expanding gardens, using more organic fertilizers and undertaking more awareness-building at parishes and schools on the need to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Many say the meeting was important not only for the ecological message but for the opportunity to connect with women religious from other countries.

Participants at the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII visit the Vegetable and Fruit Research and Development Center in Yangon, Myanmar, to learn about the center’s work on seeds, organic fertilizers and sustainable agriculture methods. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

“I love AMOR,” said Sr. Maria Vianney Hoang Thi Diep, an Our Lady of the Missions sister in Vietnam. “I love the way we put energy together to find ways to become ecological citizens. That is new for me, to become an ecological citizen.”

She said she plans to tell her sisters to be more aware of ecological sensitivities and raise awareness with those they work with.

“I also like the connection between contemplation, communion and mission,” which was a focus of the meeting, she said.

AMOR began in 1972 as a forum for women religious in Asia to meet every two to four years to focus on particular themes. This year, men for the first time were invited to attend, as a recognition of the broadness of the topic. Women religious will continue to organize AMOR, but men will continue to be invited to participate in future sessions. The next gathering will be in Indonesia or Bangladesh in 2021.

Sr. Lucy Zhang from Taiwan, left, and Sr. Mary Ma Suling of St. Therese of the Child Jesus from China talked during the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII, held Feb. 28-March 3 in Yangon, Myanmar. (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

Sisters from different congregations and countries networked during meals and tea breaks. During an evening of entertainment, some performed impromptu songs from their countries, and all sang a united rendition of “Lord, We Thank You” in English.

The event and the participation pleased AMOR organizers.  “We became close with each other and shared how we are doing with our ministries, to share resources, share materials and whatever we come across in congregations,” Maung told GSR.

Sr. Eden Panganiban, one of the event’s facilitators, said she hadn’t participated in previous AMOR gatherings and said she found the networking and interaction valuable. Yet follow-through is important so connections continue, she said.

Participants at the Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII in Yangon, Myanmar (GSR photo / Gail DeGeorge)

“Part of the reawakening or rebirth would be that AMOR is to really take up a mission for Asia-Pacific on how consecrated women with the support of men could be a voice in the region,” she said. “AMOR would have its own particular mission for that and become even a prophetic voice within the church structure.”

A statement summarizing the theme and goals of the meeting was drafted and discussed. Participants received this version March 5:

Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII statement by National Catholic Reporter on Scribd