A traditional practice of the indigenous Ngäbe in western Panama is to bury the umbilical cord of a newborn child along with the seed of a strong tree, such as mango. As the child grows, so does the tree, the two symbolically tied and interconnected in this web of life. Throughout this person´s life, this union signifies the harmony with all of creation that should define the human experience.

Five years ago, the Church and the world received from Pope Francis the encyclical letter Laudato Sí: On care for our Common Home. We mark this anniversary and begin a year dedicated to the encyclical in a somewhat surreal context, with many countries on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead of ecological activities and large liturgies focused on the care of creation planned for this moment, we find ourselves with time to reflect on this important document and the effect it has had on our lives and mission. The current crisis itself calls our attention to the continued ruptured relationship between humanity and the rest of God´s creation and the urgent need to reflect seriously on the pope´s invitation to live an integral ecology.

What is the significance of “integral ecology” for the Congregation of the Mission, and what does our charism and tradition offer the current conversation about a world in better harmony with God´s creative plan?

Here I offer a few thoughts to add to this ongoing conversation…

Cry of the Earth, cry of the poor

Integral ecology is a central concept in Laudato Sí and I believe essential for Vincentian mission today. Distinct from an ecological approach that views humankind outside of “nature”, integral ecology places us firmly within God´s creation as an integral part. The encyclical affirms that “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” (LS 139). The historic error of viewing the rest of creation as exclusively in service of human wellbeing must give way to a more holistic understanding of our place in the complex miracle of life that the Creator has ordered, as well as our responsibility to foster life in all its manifestations.

A consequence of understanding that we are part of an interconnected web of life, that “everything is connected”, is the realization that “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” (LS 139). The ecological question in not merely one more in a list of aspects of human experience such as economics, housing, education, culture or health, but rather a reality that is interrelated with all these facets of contemporary life; it affects them and is affected by them. Consequently, ecological matters cannot be compartmentalized, especially in reference to the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized communities, acknowledging that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (LS 48). The degradation of God´s creation is directly tied to the realities that prevent the poor and marginalized from living the abundant life that God wills for all His children.

This interconnectedness affirms that what happens to the rivers, the desert, the forest and the urban landscape affects the lives and wellbeing of the people intimately linked with those places. On a global scale, realities such as Climate Change and the increase in extreme weather most affect the poor who lose homes, lives and livelihoods. In the day to day, the poor suffer the political and economic consequences of ecological degradation, pollution and contamination, which most often coincide geographically with where the poorest populations and racial minorities live.

Additionally, the environmental degradation and contamination that is commonplace in the lives of the poor forces them to migrate to city slums and live in sub human conditions, depriving them of an intimate and healthy relationship with creation. They are distanced from the sacramentality of creation as a sacred place of encounter with the Divine.

In reference to the current situation, in a recent study published in Scientific Discovery, John Vidal argues that the increase in pandemics such as COVID-19 does not show us that animals and “nature” are a threat to human existence as much as it affirms that human intervention on a massive scale destroys whole ecosystems which disturb a natural balance, causing scenarios such as animal-to-human virus transmission. Approaching this reality from a wide perspective, “planetary health” is a new field of study that relates the importance of the health and integrity of ecosystems to the health and wellbeing of humanity. Although we hear commentaries from politicians and the media that a virus such as COVID-19 does not discriminate against race, ethnicity or social class, we know well that we as societies do discriminate and that marginal communities, who have long suffered neglect in health services amongst other factors, are suffering the most in this current crisis.

In light of all this, when we as Vincentians read the Pope´s description in Laudato Sí of a fragile planet devastated by indiscriminate human actions, suffering humanity is not an abstract concept. We clearly see the faces of the people with whom we share our lives; the rural and indigenous peoples struggling to protect their lands from mega extraction projects, the displaced peoples due to disasters often of human making, the poor of urban shanty towns unable to establish the most basic elements of a dignified life, and currently, the high number of coronavirus infected marginalized people fighting for their lives. The cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one (LS 49).

Vincentian ecological conversion

In response to this reality in light of our vocation to follow Christ, evangelizer of the poor, what is certain is that a Vincentian integral ecology cannot be reduced to occasional pro-environment activities or initiatives. Integral ecology, as it is development in Laudato Sí, needs to be just that, “integral”; something that effects every facet of our lives and being. In this sense, integral ecology is not so much something we “do”, but rather something we “live” in our daily lives.

For the Church, as for the global community in general, the ecological question is relatively new. What the global community was ignorant to only a few decades ago in regards to the devastating effects of our actions on the Planet, and by extension the poor, is now painfully evident; our way of life is in a large sense against life itself. Francis, defining the road to a lived integral ecology, speaks of the necessary ecological conversion that allows us to remove the blinders and see what was always before us.

Conversion is an essential part of our Christian life and a foundation aspect of our Vincentian charism. As Vincentians, the awakening of ecological conversion is tethered to those most affected by our mistreatment of creation; we now carry the burden of knowing. The acknowledgment of our socio-ecological sins, be they intentional or of omission, opens the door to new possibilities, new ways of relating to creation, to our brothers and sisters and to our Creator.

Everything is interconnected

The conversion of Vincent de Paul to the heart of Christ in the person of the poor clearly did not remain in the realm of sentiment or thought; it gave birth a charism and practical action on behalf of those who suffer. In a similar way, Francis speaks of true ecological conversion as something that always moves outward, saying that “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (LS 91). Our concern for the poor and efforts to promote their wellbeing then lead to projects and pastoral approaches that consider the whole person in the complexity of their environment and all the factors that contribute or detract from their flourishing as God´s children. The systemic change model in which the Congregation has engaged along with the broader Vincentian Family is an example that lays a solid groundwork for integral ecology. Such processes affirm that “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (LS 139).

Adapting an integral approach, as Vincentians we should be cautious not to focus exclusively on indicators such as employment, income or education level, separate from wider concepts of quality of life and the importance of ecological integrity. The often-used indicators of poverty, education and health, although sometimes useful baseline indicators, do not paint a full picture of human flourishing as the local population would conceive it. There is a repeated story throughout the world of populations leaving “poverty” in a statistical sense, yet experiencing a reduction in their quality of life and human dignity, and this is often tied to ecological deterioration. “Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community” (LS 145).

Rejecting a system of consumption

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis critiques the prevailing global economic system, which is not in service of human dignity and the common good, but rather opposed to it by promoting the “consumer” image of human purpose. In Laudato Sí, the pope clearly identifies the current linear system of extraction, production, consumption and discard as one that destroys the Earth as it destroys human person. The current late-capitalism or “neoliberal” model has reduced nature to “market goods” and people to individuals in fierce competition for the accumulation of those goods. Vincentian integral ecology, in my view, necessitates a stance against the current political-economic system as we are called to honestly “question certain models of development, production and consumption” (LS 138). A true Vincentian integral ecology cannot be forced into the current heartless socioeconomic model, but rather prophetically stand outside it, alongside those who continue to suffer and die as it´s “collateral damage”.

Will the “new normal” post-COVID-19, as it´s being described, move to reestablish harmonious relationships with creation and solidarity amongst the human family? Will it negate competition as the goal of human existence, with “nature” as the market goods in play? Although we would like to be hopeful in this regard, recent history shows that those with political and economic power have a difficult time thinking of any alternative to the current model, which best serves their own agendas. The pope mentions in Evangelii Gaudium that the financial crisis of 2008 was an opportunity to rethink the economic system that places the poor in constant precarious situations. Yet the mentality that there is no alternative dominated the political and economic decisions that sought only to maintain the model of fierce competition which continues to promote an ever-growing inequity the world over, and cause unprecedented devastation of nature in its wake.

Hope from the margins

An important aspect in understanding the current ecological crisis is that we live in a finite world. It is unrealistic to envision the whole world´s population living the middle-class lifestyle of highly developed countries, as it is estimated that we would need five “Earths” to provide for such a reality, and we know we only have one. The current situation calls us to rethink many aspects of our societies and the model of life we are promoting amongst those we serve.

Marginalized peoples, for their part, often call us to a different vision of a dignified life though more creative and integral approaches. Indigenous people throughout Latin America, for example, speak of a vision of “Buen Vivir” or the harmonious full-life. Rejecting a focus on the accumulation of goods and the objectifying of nature, “Buen Vivir” flows from a worldview that places us as integral participants in a web of life and implements mechanisms of reciprocity and solidarity that maintain social and ecological balance. It is described not as alternative development, but rather an “alternative to development”.

In light of this we can understand the protest of indigenous peoples against mega extraction projects or the resistance of urban communities to the impositions of polluting factories, although those projects commonly promise employment, infrastructure and other supposed benefits of “development”. Communities of resistance speak to a vision of wellbeing that is intrinsically tied to the land and local ecosystems. The poverty of the ecological degradation, the loss of land used for agriculture and the eradication of the medicinal plants of the forest cannot be mitigated by the “development” model promised by governments and corporations. In this sense, integral ecology calls us to look at the many facets that contribute to a dignified life by a local culture, and avoid any tendency to impose models from the outside (LS 144).

Diversity and dialogue

This brings our attention to two essential and interconnected aspects of integral ecology as described by Pope Francis: respect for diversity and dialogue with local peoples. Respect for the diversity of God´s creation calls for understanding its interconnectedness, each entity holding intrinsic value aside from any recognized utility. Culture diversity is cited in Laudato Sí as having as much value, as the “disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal (LS 145). In the diversity of cultures, we may encounter the knowledge, practices and modes of life necessary to exit this global ecological crisis. For this reason, living our vocation and ministry from the reality and worldview of the local people is essential in truly building, with them, a dignified life. Starting from the local culture and being in continual dialogue with the marginalized, allows us to collaboratively confront the ecological crisis, not with technocratic solutions from the outside, but with authentic knowledge from within.

An honest look inward

For our efforts in promoting the dignity of the poor and a much more responsible relationship with God´s creation to be authentic and truly integral, I believe we must also look inward at our own life and practices as a congregation. It does little good to call out for ecological justice alongside the suffering poor if our own ecological conversion does not take deep roots and manifest itself in concrete ways.

Our charism and traditions give us good footing to journey towards an integral ecology. The foundational virtues that we hold as essential in allowing us to truly come close to the poor and marginalized easily foster integral ecology as well. Simplicity, mortification, meekness and humility, all in their own way call us to recognized that our own habits of consumption and selfishness have direct and interconnected effects on the Planet and those who most suffer its abuse. The food we eat, the transportation we use, the design of our buildings, and so many other aspects of our lives reflect (or don´t) a commitment and deep solidarity with the Earth and the poor.

We know the ecological crisis cannot place its ultimate hope in the accumulative actions of individuals; we find strength in community. “Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds” (LS 219). Our first “community network” is the Congregation itself. From there, a responsible model of living can overflow into our works. Our missionary zeal moves us to act, to make real changes in line with our mission of integral evangelization of the marginalized. We can ask ourselves what concrete steps can be taken by our provinces, parishes, schools and projects to be in better symphony with God´s plan, reducing our negative ecological impact and fostering models that truly promote the flourishing of all life. Examples along these lines can be found within our congregation and the wider Vincentian Family.

The other possible world

Our efforts as a congregation to assist the populations we serve in recovering from the devastation of COVID-19 present great challenges. What is certain is that there are no easy solutions or obvious formula in finding socioeconomic models that uphold the dignity of the whole human person, including the ecological factors. Yet we find strength in the confidence that God “does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward” (LS 245).

Ultimately, our authenticity is found in living our relationship with Christ through each and every other relationship in our lives. As we begin a year of reflection on Laudato Si in the midst of a global crisis, let us recommit ourselves as the Congregation of the Mission to continue this long journey of conversion to the heart of Christ in deep solidarity with the poor, and let this specific moment guide us to an ever deeper ecological conversion that becomes manifest in new ways of living, acting and serving in harmony with all of God´s creation.

Praise Be!

Joe Fitzgerald, CM

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Joe Fitzgerald, CM is a Vincentian priest originally from Philadelphia who has lived with the indigenous Ngäbe in Panama since 2005. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Bolivarian Pontifical University, Colombia, and is the author of Danzar en la casa de Ngöbö: Resiliencia de la Vida Plena Ngäbe frente al neoliberalismo (Editorial Abya Yala, 2019).