Contact Us

Caring for the earth as a missionary challenge

28 November, 1999


The writer senses we have a call as Christians to care for the earth.

Many parts of Ireland are renowned for their beauty. Places like Killarney, the Burren and Donegal spring to mind and are well patronized by tourists. North Tipperary, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, does not figure prominently on the tourist trail. And yet it is a place of great beauty, with rivers, mountains and especially Lough Derg as part of our heritage. Growing up before the advent of television meant that the world of nature was a source of joy and pleasure. I spent many a happy summer’s day boating and fishing on the lake.

Idyllic summers
Agriculture was the dominant activity in North Tipperary in the 1950s. During the summer months young people were expected to help out with saving hay and cutting turf. Both these activities were highly structured. The hay was cut, shook out a number of times to dry, raked into small cocks and eventually into larger trams, before been brought home to the hay-barn.

After the hay was ‘saved’ there was the annual trip to the bog. I still marveled at expertise of the cutter. In a single movement the man with the ‘slean’ cut the turf and pitched the sod of wet turf to the ‘catcher’. My job was to lay the wet sods out to dry in the summer sun. In time I was also taught how to ‘foot’ turf. The ritual in my part of the country involved placing four sods in an upright position with two sod placed horizontally on top and a final one capping the architecture like a pyramid.

The days in the meadow and trips to the bogs were always associated with tea, sandwiches and homemade tart served outdoors. As we ate we could hear the never-ending song of the larks as the birds soared higher and higher into the heavens. Unfortunately this simple pleasure is no longer available to this generation. Recently during a lecture I asked the participants whether they had heard a lark recently. To my horror I discovered that none of those under 30 had ever heard a lark sing.

It would be easy to romanticize traditional farming and discount the hard physical work involved before the advent of tractors and other machines. One could forget the heartbreak when rains destroyed the hay or the fact that money was generally in short supply. Nevertheless, I felt a deep affinity with the world of nature.


Winds of change

To be fair the renewing winds from the Council began to blow through our seminary in Dalgan by the mid-1960s. Theology began to reconnect with the scriptures and the challenges of the contemporary world were at the heart of the document The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Encyclicals like Populorum Progressio focused our attention on the fact that injustice had more than a personal dimension. Structures of exploitation were equally responsible for the unjust divide in our modern world between the rich and the poor.

The only time creation emerged in theology was when original sin was discussed. The crucial question at the time was whether the traditional presentation in the book of Genesis could be reconciled with the scientific understanding of evolution.


Devastation of rainforests

Once the trees were cleared and the area burned the exposed topsoil began to silt up rivers and the beaches, especially after heavy mosoon rains. Watching the rivers in raging floods sweeping the soils down to the sea was like watching blood hemorrhage from a body.

While in the T’boli hills I read environmental literature in an attempt to inform myself about the issues. I learned that tropical deforestation, global warming, acid rain, extinction of species, depletion of the ozone layer, soil erosion, the chemical pollution of land and water were global problems.


Silence on ecological crisis

I resolved that my work as a missionary in among the T’boli would have a strong environmental flavour. Like many other missionaries we were involved in setting up primary and secondary schools. We insisted that the curriculum include environmental concerns, especially local ones like how to stop deforestation and promote tree planting. Each school also had its organic garden and a compost pit. Parents were encouraged to revive their backyard gardens and cultivate them in an organic way. This threw up a need for agricultural advisors who were trained in organic methods. Most of the university and third-level graduates in agriculture were hooked on conventional, petro-chemically intensive agriculture.


Health care programmes

Creation figured very much in our religious programmes and liturgies. This was not difficult as the T’boli were very sensitive to the presence of ‘spirits’ in the world of nature. We tried to present the gospel of Christ as good news for humans and all creation. We incorporated planting and harvesting rituals into our ceremonies. The various creation symbols in the Easter vigil liturgy allows for all kinds of creativity in music, symbol and dance.


Ecological theology

After the publication of the book I began to lobby Filipino bishops to publish a pastoral letter on environmental issues. The conference gave the green light and eventually What is Happening to our Beautiful Land? saw the light of day in February 1988. This was the first pastoral letter from any bishops conference devoted exclusively to environmental problems and I was honored to have played a part in the drafting.


First papal letter


that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith. As a result, they are conscious of a vast field of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation opening before them.

Recently the pope has become even more alarmed. On January 17th 2002 in an address on the destructive interaction between humans and the rest of creation he said:


However, if one looks at the regions of our planet, one realizes immediately that humanity has disappointed the divine expectation. Above all in our time, man has unhesitatingly devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted the waters, deformed the earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, upset the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, blighted green spaces, implemented uncontrolled forms of industrialization, humiliating — to use an image of Dante Alighieri (Paradiso, XXII, 151) – the earth, that flower-bed that is our dwelling.

It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain the “ecological conversion,” which over these last decades has made humanity more sensitive when facing the catastrophe toward which it was moving. Man is no longer “minister” of the Creator. However, as an autonomous despot, he is beginning to understand that he must finally stop before the abyss.


By any account this is extraordinary language from a pope. In this article I am attempting to respond to the pope’s call to stimulate ecological conversion. It is my story of how I came to preach an ‘environmental gospel’.

This article first appeared in

Irish Missionary Union Report, 2003.

Slowly the environment has begun to appear on the radar screen of Catholic teaching. The first papal document devoted exclusively to ecology appeared on January 1st, 1990. It was entitled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation. In number 15, the pope stated that Christians should realise On the wider front I began to talk and write about the ecological crisis that I saw unfolding in Mindanao and right around the world, including Ireland. In the early 1980s I sent a manuscript of my first book To Care For the Earth to almost twenty different publishers in Ireland, Britain and the United States. All responded with a polite refusal, saying that they did not feel there was a market for ecological theology. In fact, for most of the publishers, including those where publishing radical liberation theology, these two worlds did not intersect at all. Finally in 1984 a British publisher agreed to publish if market research convinced them that there was a market for this new theology.Our primary health care programmes were very focused on increasing food production to boost nutrition and ensuring that the water sources were protected against contamination. The high levels of infant mortality in the T’boli hills in the late 1970s was due to malnutrition and gastro-enteritis. Sister Cecilia Lorayes, who was responsible for the health care programme, focused a lot of her energy in getting communities to build proper latrines so that the run-off would not pollute the village wells. She also promoted gardening and the planting of a variety of fruit trees so that the people would have a more nutritious and balanced diet.Given the magnitude of destruction that was taking place and the fact that it will impoverish each succeeding generation of humans I was flabbergasted to find that the Church, either in the Philippines or globally, was silent on the ecological crisis. It was all the more difficult to understand seeing that the Church had a credible record on human rights abuses and social justice issues and that nature played such a central role in catholic sacramental theology.My schooling in ecology began when in the mid-1970s after finishing a degree in anthropology in the United States. After a short stint teaching anthropology and linguistics at the Mindanao State University in Mindanao I was asked to work with a tribal people called the T’boli who lived in the rainforest in South Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. There I saw at first hand the appalling damage that the logging craze of the previous two decades had done to the forest, rivers, lakes and even to the coral reefs.Unfortunately I learned little about the destruction of creation during my seminary days in the 1960s, even though Racel Carson’s devastating critique of the use of petrochemicals in agriculture, especially organochlorines, was published in 1962, the same year that the second Vatican Council began. The Council was virtually silent about the ecological devastation that even then was evident to more perceptive and prophetic people like Racel Carson.