This past May and the first few days of June, I had the extraordinary pleasure of attending the Living Laudato Si conference in Bendum, an indigenous mountain village in the province of Bukidnon, on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This conference, the second of its kind after the first in January of this year, was organized by the Jesuit Conference of the Asian Pacific (JCAP) and hosted by Fr. Pedro Walpole, a Jesuit priest from Ireland who has now been living and serving in Mindanao for over 30 years.
For those who may not be familiar, Laudato Si is an encyclical on the environment, Creation, and humanity’s role in Creation. Written by Pope Francis and published in June 2015, this document has been absolutely revolutionary (and not just in the Catholic world, either). I have met Buddhists, Taoists, atheists, Muslims, and other Christians who have all been inspired, renewed, and challenged by this official Catholic publication. Except, wait a minute. If you’ve never heard about Laudato Si, this talk about Creation and reconciliation with nature and so on and so on might sound vague. Foofy. Maybe akin to New Age nonsense. What does all this mean, and what even is an encyclical? Let’s back up briefly.
Laudato Si is an old Italian phrase meaning “Praise be to you,” referring to the Lord, and an encyclical is a letter addressed to a community. Usually, at least historically, this has meant the global Catholic community. Of course, what makes Laudato Si so extraordinary is it is addressed not just to Catholics or to the even smaller circle of Catholic clergy or religious, but to the global community: everyone. This means faithful, non–faithful, religious, non–religious, and everyone in between. This document holds nothing back and excludes no one, whether Jew, Muslim, Greek, Turkish, Filipino, Canadian, Confucian, black, white, orange, purple, pink, brown, or yellow. The document is even subtitled “On Care for our Common Home.” Pope Francis is talking to everyone.
Laudato Si, in short, is an in-depth critical assessment of where humanity stands in relation to Creation and this planet, to our own story as a human family, and ultimately to God. It is an exhortation to remedy the many different “evils” that we see around us in today’s hyperconsumerist, globalized society. It is a call to step back from this crazy, chaotic, and overstimulating lifestyle to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. These two voices, inextricably woven together, are sounding across the oceans, over rivers, through the slums of the megacities that just keep growing and growing and growing, and among the trees, up mountains and down valleys all over the Earth. Yet this noise is all but lost among the din of our daily lives, of all that happens in any given 24 hour period. There seems to be no way to hear these two voices that have become one, among all the other noises.
So. Step back again. Back to Bendum in Mindanao, for this Living Laudato Si conference. This place is truly a world apart: a seven hour journey through tropical rainforest, over the hills and across rivers, into the mountains of the southern Philippines. Here for four days, the participants, myself included, will be immersed in a village of about 250 indigenous people, who in this area are of the Pulangyi tribe. We will be seeing their life and hearing their stories: their fears, their hopes, their struggles, their redemption. We will also be sharing our own stories, and deepening our understanding of what it means to live in connection and reconciliation with nature.
Myself included, this second Living Laudato Si workshop drew in about 25 participants from across the Asia and Pacific region. This included religious and lay people from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Macao, Indonesia, and Japan. For four days, our purpose was learning how to successfully integrate the values in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si and then take this knowledge back to our various faith communities: as the very words suggest, how to live out this papal encyclical.
In reflecting about my experiences over those four days, there is one word that has continued to resonated across those six weeks since, right up to today. That word is enormous.
Allow me to explain a little bit. Enormous can refer to much more than quantifiable size: it is a word that describes something immeasurable, beyond limit or the human ability to comprehend. Enormous goes much deeper, wider, and broader than what can be conceptualized with mere letters. That is precisely what is happening here in Bendum. Everything about what is going on in these steamy, verdant, and sacred mountains is enormous: the scope of the devastation of the land, the enormity of the loss that the indigenous people have suffered, their strength and resilience, and even the grace and wonder of reconciliation, of healing and (re)growth that is happening now. Confusion and uncertainty, agony and loss, despair, hope, peace, and regeneration: it’s all simply huge.
Briefly, and as simply as I can, a recent history of the land that has led to the current situation that we stepped into as workshop participants: Japanese loggers first arrived about fifty years ago to this part of the Philippines, and all but stripped the mountains bare of their trees. Shortly thereafter, right on the loggers’ tails, agricultural and farming corporations, the transnational companies we hear about like Monsanto and Del Monte, arrived and saw the bare land. Someone said, “This is perfect,” and they started planting their monocrops: mostly corn here in Bendum. These crops were not meant for the land, nor were the chemicals, pesticides, or farming methods that the monocrop agriculture required. It wasn’t long before the land became devastated: stark, dry, and barren. When Fr. Pedro Walpole first arrived more than three decades ago, he shared that the view from his home was unobstructed. This, in an area that was at one time among the top ten most biodiverse rainforest ecosystems on the entire planet. He saw no trees, his visibility maybe akin to something you might see in the Arizona desert.
What makes all this so devastating is that here, people do not have a sense of identity apart from the forest (what is referred to as their ancestral domain). Mersie, one of the teachers at the local school and a peace and reconciliation coordinator, explained that the foundation of the way of life for the people of Bendum is care for the forest. The land is not just simply where they live, or merely a source of livelihood. They do not “use” trees, or the soil, or the crops. They are one with the trees, soil, plants, and animals. The people are as rooted to the earth and its health as are the many different species of bamboo around them (12 species, by the way). In fact, even the names of the different clans come from the rivers that define the borders of their ancestral domains. This sense of identity, and the feeling of strength that arises from having such a clear and unwavering sense of purpose and connection, is – you guessed it – enormous. These forces can literally be felt in the air, in the soil, in the rain that streams and pounds and courses through the land. There is a sense of something deeper and more sacred than words could ever describe. This pervades the spirit of Balay Laudato Si and gives it life. This feeling is in essence the very spirit of the people, the force of connection that unites them to their ancestral domain.
So. When the loggers came in? It is not hard to imagine the scale of destruction when these outsiders first came to the area in the 1970s and began to denude the forest. This loss was not just ecological. The loggers were literally tearing up and derooting the heart and soul of the people, stripping away their sense of belonging. As the land suffered, so did the people: values, cohesion, and the indigenous people’s way of life were all exposed to erosion and drought just as were the open hillsides.
It was this damage that Fr. Peter (or amay as he is so respectfully called by the local people he works with) saw when he first arrived in the 1980s. Having shown up at the height of the devastation, Fr. Peter’s work has been tireless for decades now: not just to assist the forest in its own regeneration, but to guide the people to their own regrowth. Of course, amay is meticulous in clarifying that his job is not to simply replant trees, or fix the social issues of the indigenous people. He is not a mere medicine man or an ecologist for the people. Nor is he a healer or just “another” social justice worker. He is there to assist in helping people find their own reconciliation, to reclaim their own identity, and to walk their own journey of healing. It is ultimately the people’s own work, because this is their land and their identity. Jason, a forest restoration manager and one of the leaders working with the youth, explains this in detail against the backdrop of a mural that depicts all the endemic flora and fauna of the region. He knows this forest like the back of his hand. No. Even more deeply. He knows it, he feels it inside of him. He lives it, breathes it, and so for him even trying to put it into words is difficult. In a sense it’s like him trying to explain his own soul.
Of course, this task of regrowth and reclamation is enormous. It is the work of a lifetime, of multiple lifetimes. In fact, it is the work of generations. It was easy to intuit that straightaway even as workshop attendees. We spent time discussing our concerns that not all of us can engage in this Laudato Si work in the same ways nor with the same depth that Fr. Pedro has done. Yet the workshop was aimed at equipping us with what we need, where we are and in our own capacities – in our own communities. Our discussions, for example, were centered around four goals: 1) collaborating with the youth coming up behind us – Generation 2030 – to understand their ecological hopes and challenges; 2) understanding integral ecology and applying this in daily life; 3) forming and strengthening cohesive faith communities devoted to a common goal of reconciliation with creation; and 4) discerning and setting forth concrete plans that can be carried out in our various communities of practice.
What we took from these discussions, Fr. Pedro was consistent in reminding us, would be the beginnings, the seeds, of change. These seeds are meant to grow in each of our lands, wherever we’re from or wherever we go back to.
This conference was not meant simply for exposure, nor was it merely a chance to marvel at the brilliance of these people or to weep at the enormity of their pain. It was a chance to learn how to move forward with our own skills, in our own manner, to effect change just as Fr. Pedro had been inspired to do when he first heard the dual cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth more than 30 years ago.
In reflecting on these days in Bukidnon, I came to understand that the change I seek to effect doesn’t have to be on the same scale as Fr. Pedro Walpole, or amay. It can’t. I simply don’t have his background, experiences, or number of years in service. Yet that should not – it must not, it can not – stop me from integrating and faithfully living out the challenges of Laudato Si, no matter where I end up.
I am exceedingly grateful I had this chance to worship, laugh, and cry with people who share the same hopes I have for this world. I am so humbled to have had the chance to meditate on the depth of the mysteries of creation, watching the sunrise over the sacred mountains of Bukidnon. I am filled with joy remembering my barefoot walk in the jungle, immersing my feet in the mud and the soft decaying leaves of the rainforest, sometimes stumbling but always connecting with the earth. I am thrilled to have been able to stay up late into the night talking, laughing, and dancing with others who believe in and work tirelessly for peace and reconciliation with Creation.
The enormity of my hope, right now as I write this, defies description. I believe in the idea of peace and reconciliation with Creation. I see it happening in Bukidnon among these indigenous people. Yes, their pain has been horrific over the past decades, but the balm of hope is now going to feel that much better over these scars. I feel the cooling, the spreading of this balm of grace and healing. Because of this Living Laudato Si experience, and now because I am sharing this with you, I am hopeful that the seeds of change will grow into fruit for a whole new world, and the air will be full of the sweet aroma of peace.
By the way: the view from Balay Laudato Si now?
A far cry from barren and desolate. Let hope reign!