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Jesuits make a call in Defence of Life – by which they mean All of Life

February 9, 2009 :

Many rare species live within the Amazon region. Image from http://wikipedia.en

NOTE: Read Mary Colwell's moving article preceding this forum, a version of which was printed by the leading Catholic weekly The Tablet in March 2009.

For the three days leading up to the World Social Forum in the Amazonian city of Belem in Brazil in late January 2009, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) held its own meeting with the theme “The Defence of Life”.

The keynote was given by Maria Osmarina da Silva, a fiercely passionate Senator for the Amazonian region, who fired people with a sense of urgency about the problems overwhelming this part of the world.

ARC’s Catholic advisor, Mary Colwell was present, leading a session on Faith, Justice and the Environment. She had a discussion where she challenged the 35 or so people in the group to think about the natural world in a different way exchanging ideas about living with the reality of nature, how we can see God in a “ruthless” nature as well as a beautiful nature, and how faith can help us care for all life.

She sent these notes from the Forum:

‘It was a call to action, but there was also a sense of despair at the power of those forces that are out for profit and have no regard for the defence of life. A stream of difficult questions emerged from her talk.

• How do we balance the needs of the poor against the needs of the environment against the needs of “development”?

• Who is taking responsibility for what is happening to the Amazon?

• And how does spirituality fit into this picture?

• There is the spirituality of the indigenous as well as the mainstream religions working throughout the area, so how can we harness this goodness?

• And where are the young people?

She looked around the auditorium - at a sea of faces of people who were mostly over 45.

“We need the young,” she said again, “because it is the young who will fight for democracy, for the rights of all people, for the right of life to exist. Where are they?”

She didn’t have to wait too long – in just a couple of days time 100,000 of them would be out on the streets – but that is to come.

A powerful part of both days was presentations by indigenous groups who were suffering the injustices that Ms Silvaa had so eloquently pointed out. These groups came from the Amazon region, Columbia, Guyana, South India, Chad, Zambia and Congo; but they could have come from anywhere in the Global South. There was a strong sense of the weak being overpowered by money, investment and political know-how. Three stick out in my mind as particularly moving:

1. The Indigenous Council of Roraima

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur work with poor farmers in the Anapu region of Brazil.
The injustice suffered by the indigenous groups living in this reserve in the NE of Brazil is shocking – torture, murder, rape, homes destroyed and intimidation at every turn – why? Because of the large businesses that want to take the Indian reserve and turn it into rice fields. People were visibly moved by what they heard and saw, and the quiet, dignified tone of the talk was in stark contrast to the pictures of death and destruction shown on the screen. Link here to access CAFOD website for more details.

2. The poor farmers of Anapu

The sense of dignity and calm also pervaded the talk by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the religious order who work with poor farmers in the Anapu region of Brazil. It was one of their community – Sister Dorothy Lang – who was brutally murdered by a large firm who wanted the land of the poor she was protecting. What was overwhelming about this talk was the sense that it was only through weakness do we find the real strength we need to stand and be strong. Proof of that was the fact that after the murder more families came to join them in their fight than ever before and they now have a strong community of local people who will not be trampled by those with more money and political power. It was at once heart-warming as well as deeply disturbing that so much has to be sacrificed to gain any ground. Link here for more details.

3. The Dalit Network of South India

The other presentation that stood out was by the group who came from South India. They told us about the appalling treatment of the Dalit (formerly called “untouchables”), particularly those who are indigenous forest dwellers in southern India. Their story was no different in many ways, but had the added dimension of the dreadful fate of Dalit women, many of whom are trafficked for the sex industry. Two of them spoke out, in their own language, to the packed auditorium. “I know I have my ancestors to help me, they are with me always, and I know I have the goodness of the forest as my protector – we can’t let them take the trees away”. Link to for the Dalit Network.

Alongside the moving presentations were theological talks that focussed on the role of ecology in modern Catholicism. Frie Betto is a Franciscan Brother is famed throughout Brazil for being imprisoned for helping people escape the country during the years of dictatorship. His talk will remain with me. To see the Jesuit blog for a summary of the whole talk: link here .

Frie Betto put humanity squarely in the vast track of time, from 14 billion years ago to now, and told us to be “re-enchanted” by science as it reveals more and more about the mystery that is the evolution of the universe, the evolution of life and the evolution of humans. But he also stressed that the inner ecology was as important as the outer, because if the rivers of our minds are polluted, if our thoughts are toxic, then how can we care for that which is outside of ourselves?

He told us to be political and not to use the excuse that Christianity is only for churches. He used the example of Christ himself as the victim of two political forces, and amplified what we had heard from the presentations – “that the best way to fight is through peace, through simplicity, through seeming weakness, because it is the love that is beyond all understanding that will eventually conquer.”

So what were the thoughts that remain now I am back in the UK? It struck me how far Brazil, at least, has come in placing concern for the earth squarely in the same place as concern for the poor and the oppressed. Defence of life is just that – defence of all life. I doubt I would have had this experience even 10 years ago, hearing such things from the Catholic Church and from secular environmentalists in such a forum, but now it is obvious that faith, justice and conservation go together and are not strange bedfellows any longer'.

***** Links

*** Link here to read Mary Colwell's thoughts on the future of Amazon and Catholicism.

*** And link here for Mary Colwell's blog.

*** Link here to read ARC's Catholic Schools Eco Newsletters.

*** Other links:

*** Link here for the Jesuits' blog.

*** Link to CAFOD's website.

*** Link here for news of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

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