People must come before profits: Pope Francis reiterates that the Church is committed to the preservation of land and people

by | Aug 28, 2019 | Uncategorized

Let us recognize that when we went to meet the peoples of the Amazon in the course of history, it was not first of all to learn their wisdom, but to seize their territory and its resources. Even today, there is still the temptation to over-exploit this nature, for the benefit of some multinationals and at the expense of the common good.

Mélinée Le Priol, Brazil, La Croix, 28 Aug 2019

The Church considers the Amazonian forest to be a universal heritage. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP)

The fires raging in the Amazon rainforest have captivated headlines worldwide and rekindled the debate between the need for commercial developments and the preservation of the environment and its inhabitants. One prelate, Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, French Guiana, says the latter must take precedence. Following is his comments on the issue.

What the Catholic Church looks at first of all are the people who live in the Amazon. For, as Pope Francis says in Laudato si’, ‘everything is linked.’ Human life cannot be separated from the environment on which it depends and which it must protect to protect itself. We must take a holistic view, one that takes everything into account: the territories, but first and foremost the people who live there and who, in a pure and beautiful way, are its guardians.

Let us recognize that when we went to meet the peoples of the Amazon in the course of history, it was not first of all to learn their wisdom, but to seize their territory and its resources. Even today, there is still the temptation to over-exploit this nature, for the benefit of some multinationals and at the expense of the common good.

As we approach the Synod on the Amazon next October in Rome, the Church is calling for a radical change in our relationship with these peoples whose rights we do not respect. We must listen to their experience, and to the quality of the relationship they have always had – and continue to have – with their land. The Church can and must take on an ‘Amazonian face’ today!

The Catholic Church is also calling for a radical change in our relationship with nature. Pope Francis, visiting Peru in January 2018, said that this land is a sacred land! So yes, of course, the Church considers the Amazonian forest to be part of the universal heritage. In the same way, moreover, as the Congo Basin or the jungles of Southeast Asia.

A challenge for the whole Church

On all these subjects, one of the great moments of awareness of the Church was the Second Vatican Council, which led to a multitude of meetings of the bishops of the Latin American Episcopal Council. Since 2013, thanks to the South American experience of Pope Francis, the whole Church has benefited from this surge.

This pope represents something extremely strong, which is not without provoking a certain amount of resistance. But the Gospel has always provoked resistance: Jesus’ message is a real challenge for this world where the love of money and consumption often prevails.

“Whether we are in the Amazon or in Paris, it is urgent that all of us Christians take a spiritual look at Creation, and that this leads us to a greater frugality of life.

For Earth Day, Sunday, Sept. 1 [Pope Francis instituted in 2015, an annual World Day of Prayer for the Safeguarding of Creation], I have launched a call for prayer and the implementation of this intention, made urgent in the face of the disastrous fires, and for the preparation of the synod to awaken even more the awareness that we have of living to preserve the present and the future.

**

I am still amazed to see to what extent the desired, the sought-after, the fought for, the connected, the deepened encounters take place in the depths of our hearts.

It is played out in the encounter of things much deeper than you realize. And Marcel’s family has remained mine to this day, including in our prayer to the ancestors.

The real surprise is that you are changed by the other. The amazing thing is that an identity is something that develops. I am French, but I have become Malagasy too. 

‘The real surprise is to be changed by the other’: Jesuit missionary in Madagascar speaks about cultural differences

Élodie Maurot, Madagascar, August 28, 2019, La Croix
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François Noiret SJ, missionary and anthropologist. (Photo by Serge Picard)

La Croix interviews Father François Noiret SJ, a missionary in Madagascar, who experienced cultural differences in the East African nation … and its surprises.

La Croix: To be a missionary is to encounter the difference of a culture, a language. Can you recall some of the surprises that marked your 50 years in Madagascar?

Father François Noiret: When you live in a culture as different as Madagascar’s, everything is an opportunity for surprises. These emotions can be very strong, even violent, but I would like to point out right away that these surprises remain superficial. These are not the real surprises.

When I arrived on the island in 1971, I was a Jesuit novice and was teaching French as part of our mutual cooperation. When you arrive, you’re brand new.

Everything is beautiful, everything is pretty and everything is interesting. The surprises are daily: eating meat with your fingers, shaving with a glass of water, sitting on the mat and learning to take the food up to the oldest in the family, as a sign of respect.

There are also surprises related to the difference in language. When you are alone in a country whose language you do not understand, you quickly get the impression that everyone is laughing at you. That’s enough to drive you a little crazy (laughs).

I could mention the example of a memorable dispute with one of my Malagasy friends, Marcel. It is 1972, the end of the cooperation agreements and the colonial regime. Marcel is one of my students. We are almost the same age and I live with him and his mother, because the school is closed due to the political situation.

Together, we talk a lot about the Malagasy identity. One day, I ask him a question that seems trivial to me and all of a sudden he explodes with anger. And for three days, he didn’t talk to me at all.

Later, I asked him why he got angry. He replied: “You ask questions that are pungent.” I still don’t know what caused his anger. Finally, we agreed that I could ask him all my questions and that he could answer me … or not!

Sometimes the differences are so dizzy that you wonder if you are of the same humanity. Is there a human nature? Are we the same men? It takes a long time to get to know each other.

You have to learn through studying, as with languages. All languages can be translated into each other, although they have nothing to do with each other. It’s the same for men.

Why do you say they are only ‘superficial surprises?’

For me, surprise is now something else. The real surprise is the one that emerges in the length of time, that rises from the depths at a time that we do not control.

I can give you an example. In 1983, I returned to France when I learned that my friend Marcel had died in a car accident. At that moment, I didn’t cry.

But two years later, I am in my room, listening to a Malagasy song that I don’t know, which says: “I chose you as my friend, to offer you my friendship.” It reminded me of that relationship that was deep, but not sentimental and that had been difficult, too.

And then, it’s the surprise, the tears flowed for three quarters of an hour, two days in a row.

I am still amazed to see to what extent the desired, the sought-after, the fought for, the connected, the deepened encounters take place in the depths of our hearts.

It is played out in the encounter of things much deeper than you realize. And Marcel’s family has remained mine to this day, including in our prayer to the ancestors.

The real surprise is that you are changed by the other. The amazing thing is that an identity is something that develops. I am French, but I have become Malagasy too.

The real surprise is what comes out of the meeting?

Yes, and God, he’s in there. In the encounter, in the life that passes by, that grows, that seeks not to die in the midst of human disasters. Because the 50 years I spent in Madagascar were also 50 years of political, economic and moral disasters.

I have seen the ravages of alcohol, corruption and poverty. I am now 71 years old and at least half of my Malagasy friends have already died. But the surprise is that life goes on.

Moreover, in Malagasy culture, there is a kind of praise of life as a flow, as a power of existence and fertility, as an exuberance of life. That’s what makes her so endearing.

Everything is at stake in the encounter, as in the Malagasy song. It’s a song you can’t sing alone. There must be at least three of you to create the voices. These voices are links that pass between people and then can no longer be undone. They build you. This music is both a fusion and a distinction.

How does the emotion of surprise change over time?

Emotions decant with time and intelligent work. I can say that the training the Company gave me has been very helpful. It is important for a Jesuit to reflect on what he lives, to make it an object of contemplation, but also to exercise his intelligence, his memory, his will, his affectivity together.

My life as a missionary is inseparable from the academic work I have done to understand Malagasy culture. If we don’t do this work, if we stick to the feelings, we can’t transmit anything.

How can we not get used to the difference, to remain in a state of surprise?

This starts with the quality of attention. Attention to others maintains an essential openness.

If there’s no more of that, it’s over! Communication is no longer possible.

Then, despite this attention, there is still wear and tear, the fact that you are hurt by different or unworthy behaviors: corruption, mismanagement, insecurity, negligence, lack of rigor, lack of seriousness. The Malagasy culture is magnificent but it also has its weaknesses.

The signal of wear and tear is the moment when you start not to tolerate people anymore, to speak ill of the culture where you are. Now you have to go breathe somewhere else, retreat. To regain a capacity for confidence in life, an ability to open up, to pay attention.

I have had to leave Madagascar on occasion. Today, I live in Reunion Island (600 miles to the east of Madagascar) six months of the year.

This is necessary not only physically because of the pollution of Tana [Name given by the Malagasy people to Tananarive, the capital of Madagascar] which eats the lungs, but also because of poverty. I see the families I lived with dying of alcohol; girls and kids left behind by life must be carried on their arms.

It has become unbearable for me to go through the city’s tunnels and step on the sidewalks of 3, 4, 5, 6-year-olds who beg and sleep there, one on top of the other.

How can I not be upset? It’s too hard. You can’t go through this every day.

But you have to fight to make what you can live, take the distance and, when it’s too much, go breathe a little elsewhere, but don’t let go.

Do you make spiritual reviews of the surprises of your life?

This question reminds me of negative theology (the current of theology that tries to say what God is not, rather than what he is, considering that his mystery is unbeatable) and the way people pray on Madagascar’s east coast.

In this part of the island, when we talk to the ancestors, we open the eastern door, the one through which we never pass except to let the dead pass and for prayer.

There are no images, there are no sculptures. We just sit with our hands open, facing the light, and talk to God and the ancestors. It says a lot about the mystery of God.

***

A life in Madagascar

Father François Noiret, 71, arrived in Madagascar in 1971 after studying literature and his novitiate.

He was ordained a priest for Society of Jesus in 1979.

A missionary, he spent nearly 50 years on the island, working in particular at the school of catechists, the major seminary and the University of Fianarantsoa.

A doctor of African Studies, he has worked hard to improve his knowledge of Malagasy culture.

He has written about his songs (Songs of Wrestling, Songs of Life in Madagascar, L’Harmattan, 1995), about the myth of Ibona and several Christian figures on the island, such as Pierre Ratsimba (1846-1919) and Lucien Botovasoa (1908-1947).

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