Ilian, on Mindanao Island, the Philippines

Relationship between Human beings and Nature

The planet weeps and loses the North, as well as Human beings. The rampant exploitation of natural resources, air pollution and the growing gap between rich and poor are causing social and environmental imbalance. If we do not take care of the planet today, future generations may not be able to breathe normally. Laudato Si’ sounded the alarm. Let us look at its reception in the Philippines.


 According to the indigenous Filipino belief system, the natural world is both the home of human beings and spirits. Bathala, the supreme god of the Tagalogs (one of the main ethnic groups in the Philippines), is traditionally symbolized by the sun. Among other gods and goddesses: the moon, stars, trees, rocks, mountains, shrubs, as well as phenomena such as wind, thunder and fire. In some regions, some animals are considered sacred, such as snakes and crocodiles. In rural areas the ancient customs are still in force: asking trees for forgivness before relieving oneself or having to cut them down, apologising to the spirits of the forest for passing through it.

Called to take care of the earth

 In the Philippines, the advent of modernity brought a shift from a traditional belief based on the global inter-dependence of nature to a mistaken conception that mankind is “in control” of nature and that it is authorised to use it as it pleases. Many difficulties have arisen from a misunderstanding of what is written in the Book of Genesis: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’”, (Gn 1:28).

 Sean McDonah, an Irish priest who worked for over twenty years on the Island of Mindanao (the Philippines), has witnessed the ravages deforestation has caused the people and their environment. In his book, published in 1986, “Take Care of the Earth”, he calls into question the ecologically perverse and dangerous methods in use, showing that the first Chapter of Genesis invites people not to “dominate” creation but to “take care of it”.

Serious concern and a debate had already arisen in the Philippines concerning a loss of harmony between mankind and the rest of nature.

An increase in natural disasters

 It is clear that long before Pope Francis’ historic Encyclical, Laudato Si’, there was already grave concern in the Philippines as well as a debate concerning the loss of harmony between humanity and the rest of nature. 

 This is not surprising since that archipelago lies along what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in the last ten years has experienced a marked decrease in the number of living species, changes in biodiversity, a rise in the level of the ocean as well as an increase in typhoons, both in intensity and in number, up to about twenty per year. This makes the country extremely prone to natural disasters. In recent years, the country has endured almost half of the most violent typhoons in its history. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, they will increase over time, both in intensity and frequency. The Philippines Commission on Climate Change states that this is one of the most visible effects of climate change in the country.

An Innovative Initiative

On 29 January 1988, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines published an innovative Pastoral Letter entitled: “What is happening to our beautiful country?”. It was the first Pastoral Letter ever written by the Catholic Bishops on the environment.

 In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) — the joy of the Gospel — Pope Francis quotes passages from the Letter. He writes in particular: “Here I would make my own the touching and prophetic lament voiced some years ago by the Bishops of the Philippines. ‘An incredible variety of insects lived in the forest, busy with all kinds of tasks…. Birds flew through the air, their bright plumes and varying calls added colour and song to the green of the forests…. God intended this land for us, his special creatures, not so that we might destroy it and turn it into a wasteland…’”, (n. 215).

 Almost thirty years later, Laudato Si’ is the first papal Encyclical on the environment; and, once again, the Pope quotes from the Pastoral Letter of the Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Regarding the destruction of the oceans, Francis relaunches the appeal of the Filipino Bishops: “‘Who has turned the wonder-world of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?’”, (EG, n. 216; LS, n. 41). To the question: “How do people react to Laudato Si’ in the Philippines?”, the answer is not long in coming. On the whole, the Catholic community is imbued with renewed enthusiasm, but it is waiting for it to bear fruit.

“We are Managers, Not Owners” 

 Laudato si’ was promulgated on 24 May 2015, and on 20 July the Philippine Bishops issued a statement on climate change, entitled: “Managers, not owners”. It says in particular: “Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si’, […] strongly urges Catholics and Christians to be passionate about the environment; […] for Christians it is an obligation to be concerned with ecology and climate change, inherent in the moral notion of stewardship; stewardship implies Christian charity…. Laudato Si’ teaches us that at the root of climate change is ‘a basic question of justice…. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity…. The world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…. (n.159), our ‘dominion’ should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship’, (n.116)…. The Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has not failed in its responsibility to educate the faithful in environmental matters. We are honoured that the Holy Father quotes one of our letters in Laudato Si’”.                                                              

 The Bishops ended their Declaration with the words: “We, your Bishops, are committed to organizing colloquiums and conferences on these questions…. In this area, it is the moral responsibility of all to be informed. But we can and should take action more directly and immediately…. Mining, incineration and landfill are worrying factors in our region that immediately spring to mind. So, a council of ecclesial communities, in the name of the common good, must undertake to influence the political decision-makers and prompt collective action too…. When a cry of distress is heard, responding to it is not an option. It is an obligation”. 

Modify our methods

 In fact, in various parts of the archipelago, symposia and conferences have already been held and continue to be organized on Laudato Si’. In the days following the publication of the papal Encyclical, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, urged that a “courageous review” of policies and lifestyles be undertaken. He called on people to “study, enrich, discuss and meditate on the various points of the Encyclical”, while extending the invitation “to non-Christians, families, educators, politicians, business people, experts in science and digital technologies, the media, consumer groups, NGOs and civil associations, to study the Encyclical and its various proposals”.

 Cardinal Tagle and the entire Episcopal Conference have stressed that Laudato Si’s teaching is moral rather than scientific.

 In a message to the Caritas Confederation, Cardinal Tagle wrote: “In Laudato Si’”, Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, who “asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up’”, (n. 9). We are called to free ourselves from all that is burdensome, negative and wasteful in order to enter into dialogue with our common family”.

Voices from Elsewhere

Filipino Catholics are not the only ones to endorse Laudato Si’ and encourage its implementation. Muslims and Government officials also subscribe to it.

 Sinsuat Lidasan — Director General of the Al Qalam Institute (for Islamic Identities and Dialogue) [IQRA] in South-East Asia, Ateneo University in Davao on the southern island of Mindanao — points out that Laudato Si’opens up a field for common collaboration among people of different religious beliefs”. Lidasan establishes a link between the “integral ecology” (n. 137) proposed by the Holy Father, in chapter IV of his Encyclical, and the Islamic principle of human responsibility towards the environment implied in the concept of khilafah.

 He explains that khilafah “is an untranslatable term evoking the notions of stewardship, administration in order to develop and manage resources on behalf of the true owner”. And, since God alone is the “real owner” of the world, we must administer the earth in a way that brings glory to God. According to him, this principle is anchored in Islamic law and commits us to manage our resources appropriately, to take care of our planet as our common home. Lidasan concluded his article stating that Laudato Si’,must be positively welcomed and adopted by people of all faiths and even by non-believers”. 

 In general, the lay press in the Philippines warmly welcomed Laudato Si’ and was open to most of the points raised. As Yeb M. Saño, former commissioner for the study of climate change commented: “The climate change crisis is the crucial issue that will define our generation, and we will be judged by future generations according to how we responded to it [] to bequeath them a caring, just, safe and peaceful world”, (cf. n. 161). Noting a host of dysfunctions, he reiterated what many Filipinos insist on saying, that, “climate change is more of an ethical issue than an environmental one and, even more important, a spiritual one”.

 Saño seems to allude here to what the Catechism for Filipino Catholics terms “practical atheism”, that is to say, although there are many Catholic rituals and traditions, everyday life is conducted with no clear reference or relation to God. This does not appear to concern the Encyclical, but rather the Church. Saño affirms: “Ultimately, it is imperative that our spiritual leaders guide us in confronting the rapid deterioration of the environment … if we want to show our boundless admiration for Francis, we cannot stop at wearing T-shirts with his image. We must heed his call for change”. 

Consistence is necessary

 We speak with pride of the Philippines as “the only Christian country in Asia” with more than 86% of the population claiming to be Catholic. It is also regularly referred to as one of the most corrupt countries in Asia, where more than a quarter of its population live below the poverty line. The vast, overpopulated shantytowns, which crowd along the boundaries of the private estates of the country’s wealthy élite, silently prove this. The Church’s position on birth control is often questioned when it comes to poverty. Now, the Encyclical states: “… it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment” (n. 50), hindering the effort to overcome the debilitating poverty from which the Filipinos suffer. While adhering to the principles of Laudato Si’, Maria Isabel Ongpin — author of several articles in the Manilla Times — expresses some reserve concerning the Church and local hierarchy. She writes: “As the Pope says, the way some see what is happening to our environment and ‘… tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves…’ (n. 60), shows ‘cheerful recklessness’ (n. 59). Indeed, the Catholic Church’s view: ‘to blame population growth… is one way of refusing to face the issues’, (n. 50), smacks of ‘cheerful recklessness’ too”. Furthermore, she states: “In these regions and with the kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy we are dealing with, it is going to be a matter of interpretation depending on the mentality of the Bishops. I urge everyone to read and think about Laudato Si’ for themselves”. 

Questions of Policy

Why couldn’t the authorities in the public and private sectors in the Philippines — a Catholic country — at least be […] rational and care about people and nature?”. 

The ideals of Laudato Si’ call into question the life-style of all those who claim to belong to the Church, from which the Encyclical emanates, among whom is the political class. The questioning and the appeal are not subtle. Perhaps, this is why some Filipinos have noted that the publication of Laudato Si‘ came at a very opportune time, just before the 2016 elections. It presented a challenge and a guide to all the candidates wishing to improve the harmony and quality of life in the country.

Ernesto M. Pernia, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of the Philippines and former Chief Economist of the Asian Development Bank, in reflecting on his experience in the cities of some neighbouring non-Christian countries, asks a disturbing question: “Why couldn’t the authorities in both the public and private sectors in the Philippines — a Catholic country — be at least almost as rational and concerned about people and nature? The astonishing thing is that these officials often visit (and surely are impressed by) Asian cities that are much better governed, let alone those in the West. Behind the nonchalant indifference of our officials towards the people and the environment, should we see selfish self-interest and insatiable greed? Would non-Catholics show more consideration, humanity and gratitude for nature?”. In this regard he quotes Pope Francis’s words concerning the diseases of urban life and his idea that, “we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships” (n. 119).

Prayer and Action

 The spirit of Laudato Si’ is evident in many aspects of the life of the Church in the Philippines today.

 Workshops, symposia and seminars on Laudato Si’ continue to be held here and there in the archipelago. Some were held in places of higher education where Speakers transmitted their knowledge in various academic disciplines. Others were held by local church groups whose members shared their personal experiences and expectations. Still others enabled people from different religious traditions and social strata to come together. Evident, in the light of Laudato Si’, was a renewed feeling of the urgency to care for one another, for all of creation, and to rediscover our mutual bonds. 

Sins against ecology

 Cardinal Tagle has published a prayer in a spirit of solidarity and openness — to be recited kneeling after receiving Communion — to ask for rain. The Prayer reflects a new understanding and spirit with these words: “O Merciful God, forgive our ecological sins that have contributed to this adverse phenomenon; Forgive our indifference to the groans and suffering of Mother Earth; Forgive us our wastefulness, our disregard for the value of the gifts of creation You have given us. We promise to repent for our sins by following the Gospel of Creation, and by caring for and being mindful of Your Creation in all that we do. Give us the strength and wisdom to be good stewards of your creation and to protect the environment from abuse and exploitation. At this time of impending crisis move us, dear Lord, to share more, serve more and love more…”. 

 The true impact of Laudato Si’ will not be measured by the degree of fervour with which we kneel to recite the Prayer for Rain, but rather by our conduct when we rise to go about our daily occupations.

Missionaries of the Rosary for the Planet in France … as in the Philippines

Meeting with a group of women who pray the rosary every week at Dugny, in Blanc-Mesnil (93), France. They like to call themselves “missionaries of the Rosary for the planet” and speak of its future with conviction.

Why did you choose the text of Laudato Si’ to inspire your prayer?

At the time of Cop21, we wondered whether there were some small actions that we in our capacity could do for the health of the planet and of humanity. These actions could set those who destroy our planet through pollution and the over-exploitation of resources on the right path. Having the text of Laudato Si’ to hand, in which Pope Francis appeals to us to do something for the common home, we decided to start with the Prayer of the Rosary thinking that this could play a role of conversion, starting with those around us.

Are you worried about the planet?

Yes, we are worried about the planet because we think that today’s methods must change or the next generation will be in danger.

What connection is there between Laudato Si’ and the Prayer of the Rosary?

Saying the Rosary using Pope Francis’ text nourishes our reflection, our faith, our prayer, and changes our outlook on the environment. The Rosary transforms us. In praying the Rosary we place everything, including our planet, in the hands of the Virgin Mary, with complete confidence.         Interview by Evarist Shirima

Mutually related

A song to Nature

Earth, sea, sky are connected,

Animals, plants, human beings are inter-related.

All beings are connected in mutual dependence; All.

 No wonder Filipino singer-songwriter Joey Ayala (pictured below) echoed such traditional local symbolism in his popular 1991 song Magkaugnay (Mutually Related). In 2002, Franciscan Father Prisco A. Cajes raised the inter-dependence of all the elements of creation — as seen in the traditional Filipino faith and in Catholic theology — to the status of a key theological issue and proposed it as the basis of a Filipino and Christian Theology of Nature. Fr. Cajes and many others think that the ecological crisis, wherever it is, originates in the loss of the reciprocal connection between human beings and the rest of the natural world. 

Here is the song in the local language:

Lupa, laot, langit ay magkaugnay

Hayop, halaman, tao ay magkaugnay

Ang lahat ng bagay ay makaugnay

Magkaugnay ang lahat.

(Ref : by coutesy of Pentecôte sur le monde, Dossier, n. 888, July-August 2016, pp.12-22)

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