By Scott Wright, Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
“St. Francis was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” – Laudato Si, 10
These words are a fitting way to remember Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century saint whose Feast Day we celebrate this Season of Creation, which began on September 1 with a Prayer for the Care of Creation, and will conclude October 4, with a new encyclical on fraternity and social friendship from Pope Francis entitled Fratelli tutti, or Sisters and Brothers All.
Especially now, during this time of global pandemic, we are invited, called, challenged to greater empathy and compassion, generosity and solidarity with those with whom we journey on this planet earth, especially those who are different and perhaps more vulnerable than ourselves to the lack of justice and solidarity in the world today.
Like so many religious congregations, denominations, and communities of lay women and men, Columbans have lived and worked on the margins and among believers from other religions for many decades. We have learned that the best and most effective way to address the pressing social issues of poverty, injustice, environmental degradation and violence is by harnessing the collective wisdom and energies of other religions – including the wisdom of indigenous communities – and by doing things together with others rather than in isolation. That means we advocate for transformational dialogue and for a culture of encounter.
The most basic reason for dialogue among human beings is our common humanity. We are, as the title of Pope Francis’ new encyclical reminds us, sisters and brothers all, caring for our common home, with a deep concern for present and future generations.
During this Season of Creation, we celebrate many “seasons” as well, beginning with the Season of Creation itself (September 1 – October 4), the Catholic Days of Nonviolence (September 21 – October 2), the World Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees (September 27), and the Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4), whose love for the poor and big heart open to God inspire us even today.
St. Francis authored the beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and embraced the care for creation and all creatures, great and small, who inhabit our common home.
St. Francis was a mendicant, a street preacher, forever on the road, an eternal pilgrim whom migrants and refugees today might well embrace as a spiritual companion on the journey.
St. Francis abandoned his family’s wealth and embraced poverty, becoming the poorest among the poor, dying a poor man, his body marked by the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.
St. Francis went to war as a young man, was taken prisoner, and embraced peace, fearlessly seeking out his “enemy,” the Sultan, in a nonviolent witness of dialogue and reconciliation.
The life and witness of St. Francis certainly embodies values to which we are called as Christians, and ones embodied in a special way by those who have answered the call to solidarity; but they are also values we find in our encounters with the poor, and ones we see reflected in those migrants and refugees who are forced by circumstances – climate change and environmental disasters, forced displacement and persecution, hunger and dire poverty, and endless violence and cruel wars – to cross borders of all kinds in search of justice and peace, basic human dignity and the common good.
The poor are the ones who, like St. Francis, bear the stigmata; they are the ones who, like Christ, are crucified by unjust social and economic structures and racist and xenophobic policies that oppress, marginalize and ultimately exclude the poor and ravish creation.
In our own day, the poor are especially found among families who have lost loved ones to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly African American, Hispanic and Native American families made poor by systemic racism and systemic poverty, and those who are first responders, risking their lives as health professionals and caregivers, farmworkers and grocery clerks, mail carriers and sanitation workers.
St. Francis is good news for the world, and for our church. He heard a voice from heaven: “Repair my church in ruins.” We, too, are invited to make this call our own, and to “repair our world in ruins.” During this Season of Creation, we invite you to reflect with us on the various “seasons” within this Season, including a season of care for creation, a season of migrants and refugees, a season of solidarity with the poor, and a season of peace and nonviolence: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
Pope Francis has made care for creation and solidarity with the poor the heart of his passionate and compassionate response to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (LS 49). He has put the poor, and all of creation, with its wonderful cultural and biological diversity, at the heart of his urgent concern.
At the same time, scientists have warned that the devastating impacts of climate change will require a major restructuring of the global economy if the impact of global warming is to be reversed. The United Nations Environment Program further warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding the impact of climate change on food security, livelihoods, social cohesion, and global security. Time is running out, especially for the poor but also for our planet.
For more than 30 years, Columbans have been at the forefront of protecting the environment from destructive practices and addressing the urgency of climate change. Our mission experience of living with the natural world and with communities that have been marginalized and exploited impels us to seek ways to restore right relationships with all of Creation. That means advocating for bold action to address climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainable development, and access to clean water.
In the countries we call home, we have seen how over-consumption of fossil fuels is driven by an economic model that causes climate change, and places profits over the common good. This raises serious moral and ethical concerns about the distribution and use of our planet’s finite resources and the wanton destruction of biodiversity, fragile ecosystems, and the web of life. We see how the massive extraction of natural resources – through drilling, mining, and deforestation – is at the root of many other injustices, including species extinction, climate change, forced displacement and violence.
In 2019, Columbans joined the bishops of the Amazon for a special Synod in Rome to discern how people of faith can stand in solidarity with the exploited earth and the survival of indigenous communities in the Amazon. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the cry of the Amazon is even more desperate. Religious congregations, including the Columbans, as well as bishops and indigenous communities have formed the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM) to bring these urgent concerns to the world’s attention.
Pope Francis has traveled out of his way to greet migrants from Syria, the Middle East and North Africa who took refuge on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea, and to extend a fraternal embrace to Muslims and Jews alike, calling on nations to abandon war and to seek peaceful solutions to bloody conflicts the world over that forcibly kill and displace millions.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 80 million people – one out of every one hundred people on the planet – are displaced from their homes, either by poverty, violence or climate change, and forced to seek refuge, if possible, in another country. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of countries have closed their borders, and millions of displaced persons, refugees, and asylum-seekers have nowhere to turn.
For 25 years, Columbans have been accompanying communities on both sides of the US - Mexico border. We have seen how border communities can be models of hospitality and creative cross-cultural encounter. Today, however, those borders are closed, due to immigration policies that exclude rather than welcome our sisters and brothers fleeing violence and hunger in other lands. We also see how inhumane immigration enforcement and extreme militarization sow fear and distrust of migrants and refugees in nations across the globe.
Columbans continue to serve migrants and refugees in fifteen countries throughout the world, including the Asia Pacific region and the Americas, Europe, and the United States, but it has become increasingly difficult to do so because of the coronavirus. Despite these challenges, we believe we are all called to both serve the needs of migrants and to address the root causes of migration. That means welcoming the stranger, advocating for action on the root causes of migration, just and compassionate immigration reform, and reforms to end human trafficking.
Pope Francis has made the poor, and the scandal of the growing divide between rich and poor in the world, the heart of his ministry and of the church’s witness. He has called attention to the ravages of global capitalism driving climate change and environmental destruction and has called on the nations of the world and all of us to end our fatal dependency on fossil fuels and to seek life-giving sustainable alternatives. He has also supported the poor to organize for justice.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a pre-existing global food crisis and increased the prospect of widespread famine of “biblical proportions,” according the United Nations World Food Program. At least 265 million people are being pushed to the brink of starvation, facing a potential hunger pandemic more devastating than the virus.
Among people living in the margins in fifteen countries, Columbans witness the increasing hardships brought about by destructive global economic structures and policies. For many farmers and workers, as well as those who survive day to day in the informal sector, poverty and exclusion from the global economy is a life or death matter, especially now in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. As people of faith we are called to walk in solidarity with the economically poor and call for a global economy and global markets that serve the people, not corporate profits.
We recognize the moral challenge of reversing the increasing divide between rich and poor and are called to deepen our Gospel commitment to the poor. That means accompanying the poor in their struggle for social and economic justice and standing with marginal communities in their struggle for human dignity in the face of systemic racism. It means advocating for sustainable development and just economic models, for fair trade and debt relief; and access to health care and life-saving vaccines, especially now in times of COVID-19.
Pope Francis has embraced nonviolence as a Gospel teaching of Jesus and a force more powerful than violence: “To be true followers of Jesus today,” he said in his World Day of Peace message, “also includes embracing Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence.” The pope has seen how violence has caused enormous suffering in the world, forcibly displacing millions of people and diverting vast amounts of resources away from the vital needs of the poor.
Recently, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Pope Francis and Pax Christi International have all called for a global cease-fire so that we may respond effectively to the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus and the economic crisis it created have aggravated existing conflicts and increased the suffering of people already experiencing the adverse impacts of violence and war.
For many decades, Columbans have worked in countries torn by violence and war. In these situations, we have worked to heal, reconcile, build bridges, and create mutual understanding through prophetic dialogue. Central to this mission is a commitment to building communities of peace. We are called to be peacemakers. That means caring for creation, welcoming the stranger, promoting justice, defending human rights, and creating a culture of peace and nonviolence.
Today more than ever we are called to promote a deep care for creation, just social and economic structures, active non-violence in the face of oppression, and a Gospel commitment to peace that fosters a sense of inter-connectedness and solidarity with all living beings and all of creation.
In all these ways, Columbans have joined Pax Christi and so many other communities dedicated to peace and nonviolence in responding to the call to heal, reconcile, build bridges, and create mutual understanding through dialogue, expressed through solidarity with marginalized people and the exploited Earth. This is the great venture of our times, and the invitation to all of us to become sisters and brothers in this season of creation.
Copyright © 2020 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.