Columban missionaries give back to nature

Native plants and animals are also important to local culture, spirituality, history and pride - Photo:canva.comNative plants are also important to local culture, spirituality, history and pride -

International Day for Biological Diversity (22nd May) brings to the fore the vulnerability of Earth's variety of life. Columban missionaries are taking part in restorative action.  

The magnificent variety of Earth's community of life is a wonder to behold. Here in Australia, we are gifted with unique biodiversity that is admired by people everywhere. In 2022, a series of programmes on ABC TV explored the science, cultural value and importance of native trees. Australians took part in a poll that voted the beautiful River Redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensisas) to be Australia's favourite native tree. The River Redgum is unique to Australia and provides a habitat for a whole host of animal life. Yet native plants in Australia are found to be in a poor or very poor state of health, with an acceleration of deterioration in the last five years (The 2021 State of the Environment Report). Around the world, there are similar findings about the plight of biodiversity. 

Columban missionaries speak of the motivation behind their action to allow a portion of their grounds at Dalgan Park to be left to re-wild. Dalgan Park is situated on five acres of parklands and woods and is the home of the Missionary Society of St Columban in Ireland. Allowing wildflowers to grow in place of lawns enables a diversity of species to flourish, and provides habitat for animals and food for pollinators. Native plants and animals are also important to local culture, spirituality, history and pride. Columban Fr Patrick Raleigh says, "I have taken a special interest this year in my walks in Dalgan to explore God's gift of nature. It is so important not to underestimate the gift and miracle of nature." The spirit of Pope Francis' Encyclical letter, Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home is a source of inspiration and the call for land restoration also came through in December 2022 at COP 15 (Conference of the Parties of The United Nations Framework Convention on Biodiversity), a process that Columban missionaries participated in. The Irish Bishops have supported the call for Church land to be given back to nature.

Taking time to be in nature even for short periods of time offers opportunities to be seized by the wonder of being alive and realize we are part of something bigger. The process of re-connection in the community of life is invaluable. Decades ago, Passionist priest Thomas Berry said, "industrial society sees the universe as a collection of objects. That view has frozen modern consciousness" (Cosmogenesis, Brian Swimme 2022).

The Missionary Society of St Columban has for many decades included Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation as integral to its identity and mission. Columban missionaries feel there is a need to emphasize the rapid loss of the world's biodiversity and bring it into the narrative with climate change and its impacts on people living in poverty. Biodiversity is fundamental to food, water security, health, the eradication of poverty, limiting climate change and reducing pollution. And yet the biodiversity crisis is slow to attract attention.

This year, the International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22nd) celebrates biodiversity with the message, "From Agreement to Action: Build Back Biodiversity," to progress the outcome of COP 15. Ellen Teague writes that Columban missionaries in Britain joined other Church groups to be among 60,000 people who walked in the Biodiversity March on Earth Day, 22nd April. "The march sounded the alarm that one million plant and animal species on Planet Earth are now threatened with extinction." Ellen says an Earth Day Mass followed in Parliament Square with more than 100 participants and later in the day a Franciscan prayer walk focused on the call for complete divestment from fossil fuels (The Tablet, 13th May 2023).  

When communities join together it is possible to see that things are doable. Learning how to make a meaningful impact through ecological education is also important. International Day for Biological Diversity falls within the celebration of Laudato Si Week in Australia (16th-24th May) which calls the Church to action. The Australian Bishops Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace have produced reflection and action sheets to support faith-based reflection, ecological learning and action on care for creation.   

St Columbans Mission Society's Jubilee for the Earth Podcast on Biodiversity and our Sacred Story series one and two is a resource that specifically explores the beauty of biodiversity and the threats it faces.  In the Podcasts and Study Guide, Columban Missionaries around the world share aspects of their work to renew Earth.

Sr Caroline Vaitkunas RSM
Peace, Ecology and Justice Office
Columban Mission Centre, Essendon

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