Columban Missioners Share Call to Personal and Structural Change to Restore Right Relationship

November 15, 2015

Peter Hughes, Ellen Teague – Columban JPIC

With just over two weeks to go to the UN Climate Conference in Paris, the Columban General Council joins Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’, faith leaders and millions of people around the world in calling for just and legally binding agreements by governments to limit human-induced carbon emissions which are changing Earth’s climate.

Columban Superior General, Fr Kevin O’Neill, says: “Our mission experience of living with poor communities that have been marginalised and the natural world that has been exploited, as well as Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and science, impel us to seek ways to restore right relationships with all of Creation. The reality of climate change invites us to ongoing personal and communal ecological conversion which leads to both personal lifestyle and structural change”.

Specifically, Columban missionaries support the call of the Global Catholic Climate Movement for governments at COP21 to cut carbon emissions to keep the global temperature rise below the dangerous 1.5°C threshold, and to aid the world’s poorest in coping with climate change impacts.

Internationally recognised eco-theologian, Columban Fr Sean McDonagh says: “We must continually learn from science, evolve our theology, and humbly situate ourselves in the wider creation story that began with the initial flaring forth 13.7 billion years ago to the world in which we live now and in to the future. We must be open to encounter creation and learn from it.”

As Pope Francis speaks of Integral Ecology in Laudato Si’, Columban missionaries see the links between climate change and social concerns such as global migration, conflicts and war, economic poverty, and unsustainable development models. Our missionary commitments in response to the damaging impacts of climate change and inter-related concerns include: ongoing ecological conversion, formation, advocacy, inter-religious dialogue, community development, and socially responsible investing.

We join the Holy Father, people of all faiths and good will – and welcome the recent Islamic and Buddhist declarations on climate change – in pleading for a major break-through in Paris, for a comprehensive and transformational agreement supported by all based on principles of solidarity, justice and participation. True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. (Laudato Si’ #178)

We pray a Prayer for the Earth:

God of love, teach us to care for this world our common home. Inspire government leaders as they gather in Paris to listen to and heed the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor; to be united in heart and mind in responding courageously; to seek the common good and protect the beautiful earthly garden you have created for us, for all our brothers and sisters, for all generations to come.  (Prayer released by Catholic Bishops internationally on 22 October 2015)

Columban missionaries Fr Sean McDonagh and Fr Charles Rue, along with Ellen Teague of Columban JPIC will be in Paris during the climate talks. A daily blog will be produced for ICN.

For more information see:

Columban Statement on Climate Change:

Columban Study Programme on Laudato Si’:

Note on history of the Columbans (no relation to Christopher Columbus):  The Columban Missioners recently celebrated the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus (also known as Saint Columban), one of the greatest of the Irish missionary monks.  Born in Leinster around 543 and having studied in the monastery on Cleenish Island, Co Fermanagh, Saint Columbanus entered the monastery in Bangor, Co Down and was later principal teacher there. In 591, desiring to ‘go on pilgrimage for Christ’, he set out with twelve companions and travelled to Burgundy. He established monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaine. Later he founded Bregenz in Austria and his greatest foundation at Bobbio, near Genoa, where he died in 615. He is remembered as one of the greatest of the Irish missionary monks and revered across parts of Europe.  A new pilgrim walk entitled The Way of Saint Columban has been prepared by the Columban Missionaries as an ecumenical pilgrimage with nine steps along a selected route in a local parish. Each step consists of: a reading from Scripture, the words of St Columban, a brief reflection, and, the Our Father. The nine steps conclude with the litany of Saint Columban, prayers of intercession, prayer of Saint Columban and a shared Blessing.  For more information on the Pilgrim Way of Saint Columban as well as other resources including prayers and reflections by Saint Columbanus, see

Ellen Teague of the Columbans shared the following in June this year on reading the signs of the times:

Pope Francis’s forthcoming environment encyclical will be the first dedicated to ecological and planetary problems. However, his focus is not new in the Catholic world. The mission by some bishops’ conferences and agencies to care for Creation has been growing since the 1980s, particularly after discerning what Populorum Progressio called in 1967 “the signs of the times”.

In Britain, CAFOD’s ground-breaking campaign in the mid-1980s – ‘Renewing the Earth’ – came out of a realisation that the human suffering of Ethiopia’s famine was linked to environmental degradation and drought. Columban priest and eco-theologian Sean McDonagh was brought in as a consultant. I can remember the first time I met him, introduced by Brian Davies, the head of Development Education at CAFOD, who was keen to have theological underpinning of the new campaign. I read Sean’s first book ‘To Care for the Earth’ that evening and immediately marked quotes to be used in the ‘Renewing the Earth’ study programme. Based on 20 years of working with tribal people in the Philippines and listening to their insights, along with observing the destruction of the natural world and livelihoods of poor communities on Mindanao Island, his challenges included the following:

“In the view of many fundamentalists the world is there solely to be used as a resource by human beings. Since the world is doomed to pass away in the very near future, it does not really matter that the natural world is being polluted and plundered to sustain the standard of living of a small segment of humanity. Religion, in this case, can actually act as a stimulus to those who are destroying the natural world. Because of the emphasis on immediate other-world salvation they are blind to the fact that what they are doing is destroying billions of years of God’s creation and condemning every succeeding generation to poverty.”

Sean was involved when the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines issued their pastoral letter, ‘What is happening to our beautiful land?’ in 1988. They reflected that, “the assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith” and deplored the destruction of the Philippine forests, biodiversity and surrounding seas and coral reefs in the name of progress. They reflected that Jesus lived lightly on the earth and warned his disciples against hoarding material possessions and allowing their hearts to be enticed by the lure of wealth and power (Matt. 6:19-21; Lk. 9:1-6). “Our faith tells us that Christ is the centre point of human history and creation” (Eph. 1:9-10; Col 1:16-17), they said, “and the destruction of any part of creation, especially the extinction of species, defaces the image of Christ which is etched in creation”.

Various bishops’ conferences picked up the environment cause in the years following. The US Catholic bishops issued a statement in 2001: ‘Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good’ where they felt the level of scientific consensus on global warming obligated taking action to avert potential dangers.

In September 2006, New Zealand’s Catholics were urged to adopt simpler lifestyles by the country’s bishops who identified climate change as “one of the most urgent threats” facing Pacific peoples. Rising temperatures and sea levels, and the greater intensity of storms and natural disasters, they said, were already affecting the food and water supply for people on low-lying islands.

In Africa, Zambia’s Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter in 2004 deploring that “we have not taken the best care for this environment on which we depend for our survival”. The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference worked on the issue of energy, being concerned that more than 70 per cent of total energy consumption in South Africa came from coal – a highly carbon-intensive fossil fuel. In 2002, the Australian Catholic bishops took a lead in the Catholic world and set up a new agency to focus specifically on environmental issues, called Catholic Earthcare Australia.

Global warming featured prominently in the Environmental Justice section of Caritas Internationalis’ 2005 Report. “Climate change will impact food security – through diminished agricultural productivity and fishing – and could hasten the spread of waterborne diseases and accelerate desertification” it said. The Caritas network has tackled Climate Change over the decade since.

And what about missionary orders? The Columban missionaries have long described their mission as being in “solidarity with the poor and the exploited Earth”. Columban clergy, religious and laity involved in Justice, Peace and Ecology gathered in Manila in September 2007 to examine climate change. From Latin America, for example, it was reported that Peru was experiencing a six fold increase in environmental disasters over the previous two decades.

Columbans in Chile reported that 87 percent of the glaciers were shrinking with implications for rivers and water provision, and big mining projects went ahead, despite local opposition, and taken a heavy toll on fresh water and glaciers. From Pakistan it was reported that flash floods in June 2007 displaced two million people after unusually heavy rain and severe weather. Columban missionaries undertook to address global warming by reviewing energy use, undertaking education work, and campaigning for carbon reduction and ethical investment. In a statement from Manila, its 25 Justice, Peace and Ecology workers said that “the endangered Earth demands a new prophetic way of being missionaries”.

The Jesuits have an online communication platform called Ecojesuit which focuses primarily on concerns surrounding water, mining, food security, climate change, disaster resilience, energy and indigenous peoples. The Religious of the Assumption run regular ‘Justice, Peace and Creation’ events at Milleret House in Kensington. The Global Catholic Climate Movement – a network which includes organisations representing religious orders, church aid agencies, Catholic social justice advocates and others – met in Rome last month to prepare for the encyclical launch. The movement plans a prayer vigil in Washington the night before Pope Francis’ 24 September address to Congress, where he is likely to touch on environmental protection.

Just last Friday, the Catholic Church in the Philippines voiced “strong opposition” to coal mining. Fr Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice, and Peace (NASSA)/Caritas Philippines, stressed that the Church strongly disapproves of the Philippine government planning 26 new coal plant projects by 2020. “In the guise of providing more efficient energy source, higher tax revenues and the so-called greater development, the state and the multinational coal companies are opening another door for the Philippines to becoming the major contributor to climate change,” stressed Fr Edwin at the launch of a major petition against the plans. Fr Edwin is speaking at July’s National Justice and Peace Network conference in Derbyshire – an important opportunity for Church people here to build solidarity with Church groups internationally building a more sustainable world.

I recently interviewed two church leaders who give me hope that Pope Francis will have allies within the Church when his mission to care for Creation is highlighted next week, but they are aware of the tensions surrounding an encyclical focusing on the environment for the first time. Cardinal Luis Tagle from the Philippines told me that, “even in my first diocese as a bishop 13 years ago I saw effects of environmental problems”, he said, “but I also saw that concern for the environment and stewardship of creation are not well integrated into Christian discipleship”.

Bishop Enemesio Angelo Lazzaris, of Balsas in northeast Brazil and President of the Brazilian Bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), told me that in his recent Lenten message he criticised the commodification of the natural world, specifically multinational corporations monopolising the trade of seeds and setting up large monocultures such as soybean, cotton, and sugar cane which use pesticides intensively, replacing the production of healthy and diverse foods. “This reality provokes outrage in those of us who witness it” he said.

Bishop Enemésio, whose diocese includes semi-desert and parts of Amazonia, knew personally Sr Dorothy Stang who was murdered ten years ago in Amazonia while working for the CPT and he felt that “environmental martyrs” like her should be recognised by the Church.