Canadians draw climate and Indigenous parallels from Pope’s Amazon exhortation

19 February 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

In his apostolic exhortation Beloved Amazon Pope Francis is talking about much more than just the Amazon.

“What really struck me in several places was how you could take the word ‘Amazon’ out and put the word ‘Canada’ in,” said Agnes Richard, co-ordinator for the Global Catholic Climate Movement in Canada. “We’re talking about exactly the same things.”

Jesuit Rev. Peter Bisson, in charge of encouraging and co-ordinating Jesuit-Indigenous relationships across Canada, saw the same parallels between Canada and the Amazon as he read Querida Amazonia, the Latin title of Pope Francis’ reflections on last fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

“A lot of our situation in Canada is not the same, but it’s analogous in a strong way,” Bisson said. “You’ve got the boreal forest, which is the largest forest in the world (not all of it is in Canada, more of it is in Russia) and we’ve got the Arctic zone that is experiencing climate change far more radically than the Amazon is. And Indigenous communities live in all those zones.”

Threats to both natural environments and to the Indigenous cultures tied to them are immense both in Canada and the Amazon, Bisson said. The reasons they are under threat are also the same, he said.

“The Pope uses the words colonial and colonialism so often,” noted Bisson. “We’re not used to hearing that and when we hear it in Canada, we’re a little shocked. But certainly that’s a term that Indigenous scholars use again and again.”

What Pope Francis calls “extractivism” — treating the environment as a source of raw materials and the Indigenous as an obstacle — is embedded in our economics and our mindset, said Bisson. The Pope requires Catholics to find a better way to relate to the natural world and to Indigenous cultures.

For many observers, the media focus on whether Pope Francis would allow or not allow married deacons to be ordained priests in remote Indigenous communities has been a frustrating distraction.

“Literally every headline from the Amazon synod this morning is about the priesthood,” Development and Peace’s Luke Stocking wrote in a Facebook post. “I thought it was a synod about the Amazon and what the Church needs to do and be in the face of ecological crisis.”

Sr. Linda Gregg of the Sisters of St. Joseph said she found herself reading a document with a deeply Catholic vision for the 21st century.

“Pope Francis stresses the importance of contemplation,” said the director of Villa St. Joseph, an ecologically focused retreat house in Cobourg, Ont. “We are taken into the thrall of the technocratic and consumerist paradigm that robs us of our spiritual source of peace. Engaging in contemplation and prayer calls us beyond this superficiality, into the heart of God in creation.”

The disagreement over issues such as married priests aren’t just a distraction, it is destroying our sense of what it means to be Catholic, said David Deane of the Atlantic School of Theology.

“This is so horrifically toxic. It’s impeding both the papacy and the Church from having a 21st-century life — these 20th-century debates,” said the Irish theologian.

“Francis is in keeping with Christian tradition. He is trying not to speak into this stereophonic nightmare of right and left. And yet, everything he says is being interpreted through these lenses.”

The Pope’s call for a Catholicism fully integrated into Indigenous culture in the Amazon revives the kind of adaptive Christianity that gave us Celtic Catholicism more than 1,000 years ago, he said.

“You know St. Brigid, her evangelical capacity was on the basis of the fact that she co-opted pre-existing Celtic motifs, pre-existing Celtic models. We were left with a kind of syncretistic, explicitly Christian saint that was infused with these plural cultures and traditions,” said Deane.

“That’s what every single emergent Christian culture has done. Every single one of them. Francis is saying that’s what’s happening here in Amazonia.”