The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has once again put the spotlight on this question. The pandemic has literally brought the world to a halt. This virus has caused a global health crisis, which in turn has unleashed widespread social problems, and has had a massive impact on the world economy. Is this not going to totally disturb and disrupt the lives and the future especially of young people? Schools and universities in many parts of the world have been forced to shut down, impacting the education of children and youth. Industry has been badly hit, job losses are escalating, careers are coming crashing down, and young adults just entering the job market are left staring at a bleak future. This pandemic will pass, but its multifarious negative fallout will continue to linger on. But this is just one pandemic! What if there are others to follow?
Is the coronavirus pandemic related to environmental issues such as the destruction of forests and wild spaces? Well, we cannot arbitrarily arrive at any such conclusion, but interference with wildlife and the destruction of wildlife habitats is known to be a major cause of infectious diseases.
UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, in a recent interview to ‘The Guardian’ pointed out that 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” said Anderson. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans,” she added.
In an article published recently by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a team of the world’s leading biodiversity experts points out that “rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.” These scientists then add a stark warning: “Yet this may be only the beginning. Although animal-to-human diseases already cause an estimated 700,000 deaths each year, the potential for future pandemics is vast. As many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and water birds. Any one of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19. Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have a greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.”
Deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitats, resulting in the spread of diseases, is but one of the many issues. Climate change and pollution are equally grave concerns that are impacting lives and futures. And like I have already said, these are not just ‘environmental concerns’, they are deeply human concerns, they are youth ministry concerns.
So, what then is our response as Salesians? The Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, in an interview in the Catholic weekly Alfa y Omega, talking about the coronavirus pandemic says. “I hope we'll learn something from all this. For example, will we go back to a hectic lifestyle or will we be able to have a more humane pace and spaces? Do we want to make up for lost time in consumerism or will we learn that it is possible to live happily with the essentials? Will we continue unbridled in the race to contaminate the world or will we give the planet a respite? After this pandemic, an ecological indifference like the one we continue to see in the climatic summits is not possible.”
As the Rector Major rightly points out, the world cannot afford to go back to a lifestyle that is driven by unbridled consumerism. The industry that drives this consumerism simply views the natural world as a resource to be exploited, and it cares little about contaminating the world as it converts ‘resources’ into ‘products’. Destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems, pollution, emission of greenhouse gasses and the consequent global warming, can all directly trace their roots back to our consumeristic mentality and lifestyle. But the great irony is that in chasing the ‘good life’ promised by consumerism, we have actually caused immense problems for our life. The present pandemic is proof enough!
Returning to the question of our Salesian response and its actualization through our Youth Ministry, allow me to offer a few practical suggestions.
Cultivating Stewardship through Salesian Youth Spirituality
We need to move from being ‘consumers of the earth’ to being ‘custodians of the earth’. This is not merely a theoretical concept; it needs to essentially be a spiritual conviction. I believe that this spiritual conviction can best be cultivated by adopting the Biblical value of stewardship. Stewardship, as understood in the Christian tradition, means recognizing that all we have and all that exists in the natural world is a gift of God, that we have to take care of it lovingly and use it responsibly.
In his encyclical Laudato Sì, Pope Francis calls on us several times to rediscover this notion of stewardship. Referring to the Genesis account of God giving people “dominion” over all of creation (cf. Gen 1:28), the Pope points out that “our dominion over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.” (LS 116)
Expounding on the Genesis command to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15), the Pope says: “Tilling refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while keeping means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” (LS 67)
Cultivating stewardship – caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving the earth – needs to be one of the core elements of our Salesian Youth Spirituality. Through our faith formation programmes, spiritual retreats, prayer moments and apostolic activities, we should assist young people to appreciate this concept and build this conviction. Having a strong spiritual dimension of stewardship would definitely influence the thinking, attitudes, lifestyle and actions of young people.
Since we are talking about Salesian Spirituality, some may sceptically ask: was caring for nature really a value for Don Bosco? Did he promote it among his youngsters at the Oratory? How can this be an element of our youth spirituality? Well, we must remember the Don Bosco grew up as a village lad, surrounded by nature. We know that Mamma Margaret gave him practical catechism lessons on the love and providence of God, by pointing out to the crops in the fields and the stars in the sky. We also know that Don Bosco promoted outings in the hills and the countryside for his boys, which would have been moments for him to instil in them an appreciation for and a responsibility towards God’s creation.
The ‘Salesian Youth Ministry Frame of Reference’ describes Salesian Youth Spirituality (SYS) as “a spirituality suited to young people, lived with young people and for them, designed and built upon the experience of the young”. Further, it declares that the aim of SYS is “to generate a Christian way of living that is feasible for people of our time, living in today’s situation” (p 101). Clearly then, discerning today’s situation and the experience of today’s young people, stewardship of God’s Creation – caring for our common home – needs to be a compelling element of our youth spirituality.
Educating to Ecological Citizenship
Don Bosco often repeated that the aim of his educational works was to create “Good Christians and Upright Citizens”. An “upright or honest citizen” could be defined as a person who is honest or sincere about fulfilling his role and responsibilities as a responsible citizen. Caring for the planet, our common home, is definitely one of these responsibilities today, possibly one of the most critical responsibilities.
A new concept of citizenship that has gained significant currency today is the notion of ecological citizenship. This thinking highlights the fact that we are all citizens of the planet, members of closely interconnected global ecosystems, and not just of a specific political territory as in traditional citizenship. The philosophy of ecological citizenship further stresses that as responsible citizens of this planet, we have the duty to reduce our ecological footprint and live less environmentally damaging lives.
Ecological citizenship is fostered and promoted through ecological or environmental education. Discussing this concept of ecological citizenship and the role of environmental education in nurturing the same, Pope Francis points out that the goal of environmental education should be “to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.” (LS 210)
Environmental education, with the aim of promoting ecological citizenship, needs to be a fundamental aspect of all our educational ministry. Whether through our academic curriculum or our professional training programmes, ensuring environmental education should be mandatory. This education, should not be limited only to ‘educating the mind’, but should also focus on ‘educating the heart’, for as the Pope reminds us, “only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment”. Similarly, it needs “to instil good habits” and develop “the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment”. (cf. LS 211)
It is important to remember that our environmental education will only be efficacious if we offer young people our credible testimony by ensuring that our Salesian campuses and institutions become educative models with regard to care for the environment. Promoting renewable energy, water conservation, waste reduction, no single-use plastic, sustainable means of transport, and increasing the green cover, should all be hallmarks of our own institutions. As the SYM Frame of Reference reminds us “Salesian educators ultimately bring into play the educator’s own identity and the gift of his or her testimony. The educator is a model with whom the young identify by imitating the path of his or her personal growth” (p 133). Our personal testimony will be a powerful means to educate young people towards growing into genuine ecological citizens.
Leading Change through Green Youth Movements
Accompanying youth groups and movements is a well-known characteristic of our Salesian pedagogy. Groups and movements are effective platforms where young people can share their ideas, find mutual support, and work in synergy for a common agenda. Today, in our digital age, online groups and movements have also become very popular.
Looking around at the world at large, it is inspiring to note that today many young people, even children, are leaders in the environmental field, leading global green groups and movements. As Salesians, this should serve as an impetus to us, since, besides promoting groups and movements, promoting youth leadership is yet another characteristic of our pedagogy. In fact, talking about the Salesian Youth Movement, the SYM Frame of Reference reminds us that “the ‘heart’ of the movement is undoubtedly the young leaders, the youth leaders who have clearly and decisively accepted the Salesian educational and evangelising invitation and whose life is a witness to other young people.” (p 175).
While environmental care and action should be one of the objectives of all the groups we have in our institutions, we specifically should focus on creating and promoting environmental groups or clubs in all our schools, professional training institutes, institutions of higher learning, youth centres and parishes. These groups would function as catalysts in the institutions, inspiring their peers to be good stewards like them, promoting environmental citizenship, and working towards the creation of green campuses.
The next stage would be these groups coming together at provincial, national and global levels, and creating a strong Green Salesian Youth Movement. We are already witnessing in different parts of the world, the ability of youth movements to effectively advocate for a cause, especially the environmental cause. The Salesian Youth Movement, both, at local and global levels, can be a powerful platform for young people to demand, as well as to work for, a safe and sustainable world.
In this context, the Don Bosco Green Alliance can play a major role in creating and accompanying a global green movement of young people. This alliance is an international network of Salesian Family institutions, that contributes to global environmental action, thought and policy. Launched in April 2018, the alliance has grown into an active platform where young people from Salesian Family institutions and organizations exchange ideas and work together on global environmental campaigns. As of April 2020, the alliance has 269 member institutions from 56 countries.
An often-repeated statement today is: “We should not go back to normal, because normal was the problem!” The present pandemic is a powerful call to change. And I believe that this change is going to be led by young people – youth leaders and youth movements. For us Salesians this is a great opportunity and a profound responsibility! As Salesians, it is our mission to accompany these young people in their determination to bring about the much-needed change in the world, and with them to believe that beyond the darkness of the present moment, awaits the beginning to a new dawn!
Fr Savio Silveira SDB
Convener of Don Bosco Green Alliance