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Healing the earth

30 November, 1999

John Scally takes a look at the remarkable work which Seán McDonagh SSC has done to promote the ecological movement among Christians and to develop in people a Christian sense of responsibility towards all creation.

Most of my early education came from listening to, and especially from watching, my grandfather. He was the dominant male influence in my life – following the death of my father when I was a young boy. In particular, I loved the almost addict’s passion with which he talked about animals.

Self-inflicted pain
One day walking in the fields with him lives in my memory. There was plenty of fresh air about on that cold, grey day. The lake was a mirror to the clouds. We walked gingerly towards a privet hedge where I had recently spotted a group of pheasants. The privet was empty, though a gaggle of geese were stamping their webbed feet nearby in hopes of scraps.

Suddenly, I spotted a rabbit with its leg caught in a snare. She was alive but whimpering, terrified. Her eyes were deep pools of pain. The snare had dug deep. My grandfather delicately held the creature with one hand and tried to loosen the snare with the other. He whispered softly to the rabbit, tenderly telling her he was only trying to help. But he knew from the way it squirmed that the rabbit couldn’t separate the pain of the snare from his efforts to free it. With each convulsion, the snare bit deeper.

My grandfather finally got the snare wire off the leg. At first, the rabbit just remained shivering. Then, it realised it was liberated and fled, bruised but free. My grandfather pulled up the peg that held the snare and flung it into the lake nearby. The memory of the rabbit’s fierce struggle with the snare has remained with me as a metaphor for the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering on itself. It could also be seen as a metaphor for the last century in terms of humankind’s capacity to inflict pain on the environment.

Two passions
One man determined to reverse this situation is Columban Fr Sean McDonagh, though he modestly sums himself up as “just a missionary who is into flowers.” A native of Co Tipperary, close to the shores of Lough Derg, he grew up in a part of Ireland where there are two religions: Christianity and hurling. He talks with a passion about an annual event, the Munster hurling final which, he says, is one of the last genuine folk festivals left to us. There is no lens wide enough or screen big enough to take in its uniqueness, the ritual and razzmatazz and throbbing public excitement of it all. Who could resist its rustic charm? In all of sport, there is no arena to match it.

If it is true that when we die the major moments of our lives are replayed before our eyes as we enter the heavenly gates, then the immediate aftermath of the 2001 Munster final will be one of them for Sean McDonagh. He finds it difficult to talk about it in anything less than sacramental language, ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’

Yet, his real passion is for the environment. After ordination in 1969, he spent the next years in parish and teaching ministry in the Philippines as a Columban missionary. From 1980 onwards, he worked among the T’boli people of South Cotabato, and it was during this time that his concern for the destruction of the environment grew. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the environment. The title of a recent work of his, published by Veritas, says it all: Why are we deaf to the cry of the earth?

At the moment, he is co-ordinator of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Programme of the Columban Missionary Society worldwide, as well as chair of the Irish environmental organisation, VOICE.

“During my 20 years as a missionary in the Philippines, I witnessed enormous destruction of the rainforest, mangrove forests, rivers, lakes and the soils of the country. A city like Manila was, and is, choking with air pollution and smog. It faces major problems supplying basic services like water and sanitation to its citizens in the coming years.

“During my time in the Philippines, I became involved in environmental issues. I worked with groups who were trying to protect what was left of the rainforest, and at the same time, replant in suitable places.”

Effects of greed
Stripped to its core, Sean’s message is straightforward: greed is ruining our planet, and if we don’t have the environment, then we have nothing.

This is not just a problem for the Philippines, it is also an Irish one. Recently, former Taoiseach, Dr Garret Fitzgerald wrote that “the Celtic Tiger threatens to devour Ireland’s much-hyped pristine environment.” Economic success has come at a price.

“It is sad and ironic that the present ecological crisis is the result of considerable human success,” says Sean. “Everyone will admit that greed, covetousness and other commonly recognised human vices have undoubtedly contributed to our present crisis. Nevertheless, the principal cause of ecological devastation in our world today has been the unrelenting pursuit of what many people consider a good and desirable thing – the modern, growth-oriented, industrial model of development. What many people long for is in fact destroying the world.

“There is very little appreciation that this generation has obligations to future generations. The challenges of intergenerational justice are seldom discussed. As a people we seem to be very insensitive to the environmental maxim that ‘we do not inherit the earth, we borrow it from our children.’

“We should not overlook human greed and selfishness as an important element in the destruction of nature. Greed, in the sense of an intense selfish desire for money and material goods, is virtually synonymous with the sin of avarice as presented in the New Testament. As such, it has been condemned in Catholic social teaching as the motivating force for economic behaviour. In Catholic social thought, the needs of the common good have always taken precedence over unreasonable individual self-interest. The numerous tribunals under way at the moment are a testimony to the fact that greed, rather than public service, has motivated a number of people in public life in Ireland in recent years.”

Past the time for talk
Fr McDonagh believes that we are long past the time for talk.

“Given that the Christian churches have arrived at these challenges a little breathless and a little late, they must now make up for lost time and, in co-operation with other faiths, throw all their energies into urgently addressing the challenge of justice, peace and the integrity of creation,” he says. “Unless this awareness is gained in the very near future, human beings and the rest of the planet’s community will be condemned to live amid the ruins of the natural world. The first and most important contribution that the churches could make to the present ecological crisis would be to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and urge people to face it with courage.”

At the heart of Fr Sean’s philosophy is a deeply spiritual message.

“The ecological crisis is a moment of real challenge for our contemporary culture. Unless positive choices are made now, irreversible damage will be done to the earth’s fabric. Responding to the challenge will demand concrete choices for individuals and institutions to help bring about this new age. The church, which Vatican II sees ‘as a sign raised up among nations,’ should be in the forefront in trying to usher in this new ecological age where a mutually enhancing relationship ought to exist between humankind and the rest of creation.

“Christians should also support environmental non-government organisations who are trying to raise awareness about ecological issues and campaign for change.

“We know that the God who created and sustains this beautiful world mourns the destruction that is taking place in our time, and that he is calling all of us in our own way to dedicate ourselves to healing and caring for the earth.”

Fr Sean sees the worldwide growth of the ecological movement as a reminder of the truth of the words of Gerald Manley Hopkins:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink east-wards, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.


This article first appeared in Reality (March 2002), a publication of Irish Redemptorists.