THE Christian Church is on a journey of discovery, and has been since its foundation by Jesus Christ.
It is constantly pushing back the boundaries of its vision as it seeks to penetrate even more deeply the mystery entrusted to it.
Nevertheless 2000 years later we still merely live on its edges, as under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit we seek a more comprehensive understanding.
Occasionally, that same Spirit breaks the even tenor of our exploration with an explosive breakthrough, as happened within the Roman Catholic tradition 40 years ago in the Second Vatican Council.
Although in no way neglecting the riches of the past, the council could be understood as a new beginning in the life of our Church.
Only now are we starting to grasp its implications as we shape a new vision for a new millennium.
The previous vision, although not lacking in merit, was somewhat individualistic, other worldly, introverted, to a certain extent pessimistic, and generally inadequate for the world that, at that time, was literally exploding with new discoveries.
The Spirit might well have said about our pre-Vatican II Church, ‘your vision is too narrow and mean for the God you worship, too earth bound to reflect the grandeur of the Creator of this enormous universe with its incredible variety and beauty, literally overflowing with God’s love’.
Particularly in the constitution on the Church ‘Gaudium et Spes’ – the ‘Church in the modern world’, the council recognised something of this grandeur with a God whose spirit was not confined to the limits of the Catholic Church but existed as well in ecclesial communities apart from our own, and indeed was present at the very heart of the universe itself, embracing not merely its human dwellers but its each and every atom.
There was a realisation also that the renewed creation that Christ brought to the world included not only the apex of all creation – the human person, but indeed all living creatures, and every single particle of creation itself.
All of this in the early 60s was undoubtedly helped by the explosion of science and technology outside the Church, and the important but minuscule efforts of humanity to explore the universe, even if that exploration achieved no more than briefly placing humans on our closest neighbour, the Moon.
Nevertheless from space, and more so from the Moon, planet Earth appeared as the fragile but beautiful jewel in God’s world that it truly is.
Out of this expanded understanding of the Christian vision, Vatican II’s reaching out to the world and beyond created a new understanding and respect for all creation, to a certain extent led by a mere Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, later to become its archbishop, and later still upon the death of Paul VI, our present Pope John Paul II.
In his pontificate since, John Paul II has reached out to the world as no other Pope has before him, and for the last 10 years has been constantly preaching the need for what he calls ‘ecological conversion’ for all Catholics.
Suddenly there was a dawning realisation in the Catholic Church, as well as in other Christian Churches, that Christian justice demanded that the world was not to be ruthlessly exploited for the needs of the moment, but rather to be preserved in all its beauty and richness for future generations.
As a result, Catholic Earthcare Australia, launched by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in May 2002, was enthusiastically embraced by the wider Catholic community, and under the direction of its executive secretary, Mr Colin Brown, has since continued to flourish throughout Australia, indeed even outside Australia.
Within that overall context of ecological conversion, the Bishops of Queensland became very much aware of their need to promote such conversion, as well as Queensland’s great privilege in being able to enjoy and care for one of the wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.
The bishops felt that in justice to past, present, and future generations of Queenslanders and Australians, indeed of all our brothers and sisters worldwide, that we had a duty to bring to the attention of Catholics in Queensland, and other people of good will, the implication of being guardians of this unique cosmic treasure.
Nor was the religious dimension of the task lost on us, because the sheer beauty of the reef points to the author of all beauty our creator God, while Christ’s call for the renewal of all creation, certainly demands in justice the protection of its fragile beauty for all generations.
Therefore the bishops of Queensland, from Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, and Brisbane, today wish to launch a small booklet for Catholics and others, ‘Let the Many Coastlands be Glad’, that highlights our privileges as well as our obligations regarding this unique feature of our beautiful state of Queensland.
The relationship between God and creation, described in the very first book of the Bible and mentioned frequently in later Scripture, is again brought to our attention in the readings today from Colossians and Sirach.
The authors of these readings do not exaggerate at all when they paint the picture of ‘God rejoicing in creation, and creation in turn rejoicing in God’.
Christ himself indicates in the gospel that if people are silenced the very stones, and I imagine ‘all creation’, will cry out in praise of himself and his father, so that our letter today, in trying to capture this truth, has appropriately named the statement ‘Let the Many Coastlands be Glad’.
As we launch this pastoral letter, let me point out that there is something marvellously Christian and altruistic about care for the environment, because it is driven by a concern, directed not so much at ourselves and this present generation, but at generations yet to come, who will suffer if we do not act now.
Some of the statements of Pope John Paul II are couched in language of urgency that he rarely uses, but that he no doubt regards as necessary if we are to recognise the present seriousness of our situation.
For 30 years the Pope has been calling all Catholics to conversion. Although Catholics are now much more conscious of the seriousness of the present situation there is still so much further to go, if they are to realise that this conversion is a normal part of being Christian.
In his declaration on the environment in 2002, together with the Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople they wrote:
‘We are still betraying the mandate God has given us … What is required is an act of repentance on our part and a renewed attempt to view ourselves, one another, and the world around us within the perspective of the divine design for creation … We need to undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart’ (Declaration on the Environment, June 10, 2002).
What the Queensland bishops wish to indicate today in the booklet, ‘Let the Many Coastlands be Glad’, is not merely a pious vision, important as that is, but the practical implications as well of ‘ecological conversion’.
On page 22 of the booklet we state: ‘We are living beyond our environmental capacity, and we have to face the hard issues of radically changing our habits, reducing our consumption of everything that is not renewable, and reusing and recycling what we have.’
Like all conversions, this one too comes at a cost. It is very important that such cost should be shared as widely as possible and should not fall unfairly on the shoulders of a few. We acknowledge the fact that across the board, farmers, graziers, fishermen, and the tourism operators are co-operating in their desire to protect the reef, and we are grateful for that.
As governments in turn make their necessary decisions about the environment it is imperative that they seek to spread the cost, so that as far as possible we share it together.
Care for the environment demands a passion for the common good that will safeguard not only our own existence but the existence of people yet to come. Such passion is never easy.
As it often does, the Church has arrived a little late and a little breathless on the stage of this most important concern about environment, a concern that no matter where it comes from is driven by God’s Holy Spirit.
May our hearts and the hearts of all Catholics and people of good will, be open to the voice of the spirit regarding this important issue, and may St Francis, the patron of environmental care, be our inspiration and guide as we seek to live with respect, not only for our brothers and sisters in the one family of God, the summit of all creation, but for all creation itself which as God’s great gift to us, is loved by God with an eternal love.
Archbishop John Bathersby is Archbishop of Brisbane and chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace. This is the text of his speech on August 6 at the Townsville launch of a pastoral letter on behalf of the bishops of Queensland seeking the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.