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Indigenous Leaders, Jesuits, Cardinals Call for Ecological Conversion to Protect Creation

March 29, 2019 — From every corner of the planet, they gathered earlier this month at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to share strategies for protecting our common home: lay and religious leaders from Catholic and other international organizations, representatives of indigenous communities, 20 Jesuits, 10 cardinals. At the heart of their conversations was this urgent question: How can the faith community best live out Pope Francis’ call to respond to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor? 

Fr. Paulus Wiryono Priyotamtama, SJ (left), rector and president of Sanata Dharma University, and José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal (right), president of Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)

The conference on what the Holy Father calls “integral ecology,” which was co-sponsored by the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and other Catholic groups committed to the care of creation, was held in preparation for October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazonian region. 

Cándido Mezúa Salazar (center), General Chief of the Emberá-Wounaan Region and Chairman of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP) and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu (right), Archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Here are three key takeaways from the gathering.

1. The Catholic Church has something essential to offer the world: the concept of integral ecology.

Pope Francis used the phrase "integral ecology" frequently in his encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si’, and it was an ever-present theme throughout the conference. What does it mean, exactly? Most basically, integral ecology is the idea that the well-being of the environment and the well-being of people go hand in hand and cannot be separated. In the words of the Holy Father himself:

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, Philippines

When we speak of the environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it… 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. –Laudato Si’, Paragraph 139 

Archbishop Bernardito C. Auza (left), Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Ted Penton, SJ (right), Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States 

Tuntiak Katan (center), 
Vice President of the Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)

2. The participation of cardinals and bishops, who spent much of the gathering listening to the stories of indigenous leaders, revealed the institutional church’s commitment to protecting creation. 

The presence and participation of Catholic leaders from the highest levels of the institutional church was an important sign. They gave talks and participated in panels during the gathering, certainly. But even more importantly, they listened to testimony from indigenous leaders who shared stories of how environmental degradation and climate change are affecting their communities. They shared in one-on-one conversations over meals and during breaks. Whatever responses the church takes to combating the destruction of creation must be rooted in the experiences of those most affected by the problems. This approach was modeled throughout the summit. 

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, Philippines

Indigenous human rights defender and Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga 

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Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga said, "Many (women) are the ones who have paved the way. We are the ones who have confronted a lot of these trespasses ... in the Amazon." 

3. We are all called to “ecological conversion.”

According to a Catholic News Service reportParticipants called for a shift, an ecological conversion, that leads to a change of mind, but also a change of lifestyle, one that keeps the stewardship of the planet's resources in mind. They discussed a wide range of topics, including the role of women in the environmental movement; how the church can help indigenous populations facing violence during efforts to maintain their ancestral homes; poverty; and the social exclusion linked with environmental degradation; but also why these questions should matter to Christians and those who care about building a culture of life. 


Cecilia Calvo (left) and Ted Penton, SJ (right), of the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology with Fr. Roberto Jaramillo, SJ (center), president of the Jesuit Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean (CPAL) 

Cecilia Calvo, the Jesuit Conference’s senior advisor on environmental justice and a key organizer of the summit, talked about the importance of connecting issues like climate change to our own daily lives. “How am I connected to this broader issue of global climate change? And what is my role in that response?” she said. “When we look at that issue we need to think about what’s happening in other parts of the world and how my consumption is connected to, say, indigenous communities in the Amazon that are facing displacement as a result of oil or gas development or mining. So we’re trying to make these connections and look at how each of us can play a role in responding.” 

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