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National Justice and Peace Talk

National Justice and Peace Talk

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Published by Mary Colwell
The lecture I gave at the 2014 NJP conference on the church and the environment.
The lecture I gave at the 2014 NJP conference on the church and the environment.

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Published by: Mary Colwell on Jul 20, 2014
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10/03/2014

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 1 A year or so ago a friend gave me a book to read
 
“Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather. In it she wrote, “From an atheist to a believer, tell me why I love this book?” It
was written in 1927 and is about Bishop Latour and his friend Fr Vaillant who are sent out from Rome to New Mexico in the middle of the 19
th
 Century to re-
invigorate Catholicism there. It is a beautiful book, described as “economical and distilled as poetry.” A.N Wilson called in “Quite simply a masterpiece.”
 Amongst the many memorable, haunting passages one stands out strongly. It describes the Bishop towards the end of his time in New Mexico
 and of his life. This gentle, holy man who treated everyone with respect and was greatly liked and admired, suffered from w
hat Mother Theresa described as, “an emptiness so great I look but do not see, I listen but do not hear.” One such troubled, cold
night he lay in his bed unable to sleep. In the dead of night he got up. It was very cold and the snow looked ghostly in the moonlight. He put on a thick, fur-lined cloak and went down to the church to pray alone. Everywhere was white with snow, and the church stood out sharply in the faint light from the moon. In the doorway of the sacristy he saw a crouching figure
 a woman - and she was weeping bitterly. Her name was Sada, which means Pure, an old Mexican woman who was kept as a slave by an American family who were Protestants and hostile to her Catholic faith. They would not allow her to go to Mass, or to receive any vis
its from a priest. On this cold winter’s night when the
family stayed in warm rooms they put her out into a wood shed. Unable to sleep for cold she had crept out unseen and ran to the Church to pray. When she found all the doors locked she sank down and wept. This is how the bishop found her. She had no socks on her feet, just old, worn out shoes. Her thin shawl was little protection against the cold over a thin, patched dress. She was shivering. He wrapped his cloak around her and took her into the church. There they prayed together and the bishop heard her confession. He gave her a holy medal and told her he would always pray for her. The bishop had never seen such pure goodness shine from a human face in the way it did from this poor, abused old woman. It is hard to think of another piece of writing that brings together the Christian understanding of how suffering and pain bind the poor to Christ and dignify it.
This old woman’s pain was beyond anything the bishop could personally
experience
 he was rich and respected, she a peasant and slave. He was deeply
moved by her piety and said that the Church was Sada’s house and he was but a
servant in it.
 
 2 The end of this section tells of the Bishop looking at the trail of dark footprints that Sada had left in the snow as she hurried back to her captivity. Although offered she would not take his cloak for fear her owners would find it.
The plight of Sada struck a deep chord with me. Why didn’t the bishop do
everything in his power to help her?
He was a good and holy man. Why didn’t he
demand her release or at least demand
that she be treated well? Why didn’t he
take her into the protection of his house
hold and refuse to let the family “own” her again? But he didn’t, even though many local w
omen were asking the Church
to step in. Why? Because, he said, “the time is not right.” The family who owned
her could cause even more trouble in the town, they already led a group of militant
Protestants who disrupted meetings and services and he didn’
t think it was right to make matters worse in the community. So Sada remained a prisoner and slave, mistreated and abused. I have read and re-read this passage because it works on so many levels. From a spiritual point of view it talks of lifelong commitment to God despite doubt and hardship. It highlights compassion for the poor that defines the heart of Catholicism. It talks of the beauty of the sacraments, which are a comfort and source of inspiration for many. It describes beautifully the presence of goodness in the most wretched of circumstances. But it also brings to the fore a more perplexing, and disturbing facet of Catholicism - fractures that have dogged the
Church through time when obvious need is not met because “the time is not right.” Th
e confused and ineffectual teachings on slavery, Nazism and votes for women are three obvious examples. In this passage the injustice that goes unchallenged is the oppression of Sada. The book is set in the time of slavery and human bondage was established as the way of society. It was largely accepted by the Church, which even at times supported it. But for me though this passage can be seen in another light. Sada represents the earth. In an unexpected way Cather has expressed how I feel about the Ca
tholic Church’s attitude to nature. The animals and plants of this
earth are abused and mistreated for selfish reasons, often for greed and avarice. They are used to fuel the making of money that most often does not contribute to the common good. They are treated wastefully and with a profound lack of respect. Often they are treated cruelly. When challenged those who have vested interests react strongly. Many of us feel compassion for their plight and wish it could be different. Officially however not much happens. The treatment of the
natural world remains low on the list of priorities. “The time is not right.”
 
Why is it not right? Let’s try to understand this. It is important because in my
opinion we are failing in our duty to be true to our baptism
 the theme of this conference - if we fail to protect nature. I want to highlight some examples of what I mean when I use this analogy from Death Comes for the Archbishop.
 
 3 This last spring Chris Packham went to Malta to bring to the attention of the world what happens in the skies above a devout Catholic country. By law 10,000 hunters can shoot 16,000 migrating birds. These birds fly to and from Europe to Africa
 between their breeding and wintering grounds. The journeys are long and hazardous. They have to cope with storms, extremes of temperature, natural predators and long distances. They have to find enough food and shelter en route in a world that is shifting fast. The spread of urbanization, intensive agriculture and deforestation make that hard. They also run the gauntlet of men with guns. Many more than the allotted number are shot,
though figures are obviously hard to come by. And it isn’t just Malta,
other countries that are largely Catholic such as Spain and Italy and France, all take their share too. They use horrific methods, tethering live songbirds to poles with glue. Their calls attract others which are trapped or shot. Small songbirds that would fit into the s
ize of a child’s palm, or huge, impressive birds of prey, shot
down all over the Mediterranean each spring. John Muir, the founding father of conservation and of
America’s National Parks,
and a deeply spiritual man, deplored the similar traditional practice of hunting migrating song birds in America in the 19
th
 Century.
Not even genuine piety can make the robin-killer quite respectable. Saturday is the great slaughter day in the San Francisco bay region. Then the city pot-hunters, with a rag-tag of boys, go forth to kill, kept in countenance by a sprinkling of regular sportsmen arrayed in self-conscious majesty and leggins, leading dogs and carrying hammerless, breech-loading guns of famous makers. Over the fine landscapes the killing goes forward with shameful enthusiasm. After escaping countless dangers, thousands fall, big bagfuls are gathered, many are left wounded to die slowly, no Red Cross Society to help them. Next day, Sunday, the blood and leggins vanish from the most devout of the bird-butchers, who go to church, carrying gold-headed canes instead of guns. After hymns, prayers, and sermon they go home to feast, to put God's song birds to use, put them in their dinners instead of in their hearts, eat them, and suck the pitiful little drumsticks. It is only race living on race, to be sure, but Christians singing Divine Love need not be driven to such straits while wheat and apples grow and the shops are full of dead cattle. Song birds for food! Compared with this, making kindlings of pianos and violins would be pious economy.
It is gross hypocrisy, suggested Muir, to preach a peaceful, love filled Kingdom of God while blasting innocent creatures from the sky. He had the same contempt

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