“Indian Ambassadors of the Environment” or “Reading Laudato Si’ in downtown Pune”

In this morning’s Sakaal Times, Pune’s Bishop Thomas Dabre, while promoting Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, added that his diocese would promote greater austerity and sustainability measures across Pune.

His response caught the general reaction of Catholics here in India. In fact all the major newspapers, The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Sakaal Times covered the encyclical’s launch favorably. Interestingly the only dissenting voice reported in the newspapers was Jeb Bush’s!

Indian Catholics already recognize the need to respond to climate change. For instance, Sr. Julia George, SSPS, a lawyer who advocates for women domestic workers told me that women bear the brunt of environmental challenges in India. In rural and urban areas, women are the ones who need to find and carry the water, for instance, that is needed for their families or for those for whom they work. As the environment worsens, so does the plight of women throughout India.

Sr. Nameeta, OCV, a physician from Mumbai, asks, "Can we sing a Canticle of Praise to the Lord, when we wound Mother Earth everyday? This is an enigma. The encyclical exposes our hypocrisy."  Like other Catholics, she believes deeply that the time for the encyclical is now.

Not surprisingly, then, Indian Catholics began taking initiatives before the encyclical. Last year, in response to initiatives by Pope Francis’s earlier summons for greater respect for the environment, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of neighboring Mumbai, invited Catholics to go "green"' for Lent.

One of the pope’s inner circle of cardinals charged with reforming the Roman Curia, Cardinal Gracias called on the city’s 600,000 Catholics to go on a “carbon fast” to reduce pollution, protect the environment and create a more sustainable world. He added that Lent also provides an opportunity to help people "rediscover a different relationship to God, creation and each other.” 

While proposing every day a useful activity to cut fuel consumption and protect nature and the environment, the archdiocese effectively provided 40 “earth-saving ways” to fast.  Carbon Fast was engaged by Indian Catholics again this past Lent.

Since Thursday, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has been quite clear in its support of the encyclical. Fr. Charles Irudayam, the Secretary for the Office for Justice, Peace and Development, provided a brief summary of the encyclical and a reminder that all eyes would be on the Paris COP21 meeting in December. 

Fr. Joseph Chinnayan, the spokesman for the CBCI, announced that the CBCI would sponsor a comprehensive 3-tier program at the diocesan, regional and the national levels. At the diocesan level, CBCI would see how the content of the encyclical could reach every member of the family so that they can help in their own way in protecting mother nature.

At the regional level, the programs would be organized according to the ecological situation of the areas. Chinnayan said, “The north east region has a different ecological problem than the South region.  So it would be up to them to determine what kind of programs they would come up with.”

At the national level, the CBCI is planning to have a symposium on the issue of climate change.

Clearly the CBCI has been ready to roll out its support of the encyclical.

Cardinal Gracias is also the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) whose office announced plans to vet Laudato Si’ through its own newly established Climate Change Desk. 

As part of these plans, the FABC is organizing Climate Change Regional Seminars for each of its regions—South Asia, South-east Asia, East Asia, and Central Asia—for the purpose of raising awareness of both the scientific and moral reasons for protecting God's Creation. In the future, the FABC also plans to set up an office dedicated to climate change in each National Bishops’ Conference.

In India it is important to realize that Christians make up just around 3 percent of India’s total population but those Catholics and Protestants are responsible for more than 20 percent of the health care facilities and educational institutions in India. Christians in India have long developed the institutional human resources of their country. 

Similarly they establish scientific-ethically oriented research institutes to deal with Indian needs.  Yesterday, Fr S. Ignacimuthu, SJ, Director of the Entomology Research Institute, at Loyola College, Chennai in Chennai, India posted on EcoJesuit. The institute undertakes research in biopesticides, biocontrol, genetic engineering, and molecular biology.

After providing a fairly dense summary of each of the six chapters, Ignacimuthu wrote: “This encyclical helps us to rediscover our roots, our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We are called to reawaken our conscience in relation to our duties and responsibilities.”

He concluded, “In short this encyclical challenges our faith, enkindles our spirituality, excites our conscience, elicits our thinking, encourages our response and enhances our commitment. Truly this encyclical will help us to become ambassadors of the environment.”

This embrace of a call to awaken consciences is already having tangible results. As Fr. Keith D’Souza, S.J., who teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Mumbai archdiocesan seminary noted, “carbon fasting is becoming accepted in India. You hear even children confessing ecological sins as when they acknowledge wasting precious water.”

D’Souza summed up how many Catholics in India saw the encyclical: “Among the many beautiful elements in this document, what I like especially is a call to recognize the earthiness of spirituality, the humility to learn from many sources of wisdom both within and outside the community, an acknowledgement that all of us in different ways have created a wounded situation that we now need to heal together, and a reminder about our obligation towards those most powerless, who are also those most affected.”

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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