December 13, 2019 – “The preservation over time of the conditions of life on our planet is a human responsibility of immense ethical and spiritual importance. Our collaboration should include both participating in efforts to analyze problems in depth and promoting reflection and discernment that will guide us in making decisions that help to heal the wounds already inflicted on the delicate ecological balance,” wrote the Father General in his letter on the Universal Apostolic Preferences. Taking care of our common home is one these new preferences, but how exactly do we go about doing this?
In order to encourage all Jesuits and their colleagues in the province to imagine different ways of working towards this preference, the Jesuit Province of Canada decided to name John McCarthy, S.J. as an ecological facilitator. His role is to promote discernment, reflection and action, as Father General requested, in order to bring about ecological conversion on a personal, communal and societal level. This man of both science and faith sat down with us to talk about the links between the two, discuss conversion of the heart, and explain his role as an facilitator and the broader Jesuit effort to protect the planet. This interview is the first article in a series that will highlight the fourth universal apostolic preference in the context of our province.
How did you become a Jesuit, scientist and ecologist?
I entered the Jesuits in 1983, a good while ago now! Originally, I’m from St. John’s Newfoundland, and I was always out in the woods and in nature. I have always been fascinated by nature and spent much of my time outdoors, so, naturally, I got my first degree in Forest Tree Biology and then did my masters in Soil Science. I was going to pursue a doctorate at the time but decided rather to enter the Society of Jesus at the age of 25. After ordination, the Provincial, in his wisdom, sent me to do a doctorate in boreal forest ecology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, with research in Newfoundland. I kind of went from coast to coast!
I’m interested in everything to do with faith, ecology, and science, but also scientific research, which is one of my passions. Fortunately, I’m currently in Sudbury as a visiting scholar in the biology department at Laurentian University. I work on the taxonomy and biodiversity of lichens in Newfoundland and Labrador [a species of lichen has even been named after him: Acarospora maccarthyi. K. Knudsen & Kocourk.]. It’s fascinating for me to discover a new species of lichen and to be able to give it a name.
All my interests are intimately linked. Growing up in Newfoundland, I spent a lot of time fishing and wandering in the forest. I can honestly say that these times were the source of my first religious experiences. In the outdoors, I experience a deep sense of peace, rootedness, contentment, and I would say love. I am completely at home in nature. It was these kinds of experiences that led me to the study of forests. I never really thought of doing anything else. It was natural for me to study that which I loved and that which gave me so much life. Entering the Jesuits offered me the gift of engaging nature from a theological and philosophical perspective, to put words and meaning to my early spiritual experience of nature. During my formation studies, I examined the relationship between the Catholic tradition and matter. “Does matter really matter to Christianity?” became my constant question. With every academic course I kept asking, “Where does Creation fit in?” In the end I believe that Creation, and matter, have an essential, indeed central place in the Catholic tradition. I am forever grateful to the Society of Jesus for offering me the gift of examining my early felt intimacy with creation.
I had this early, deep and abiding experience with nature that has marked me profoundly. I have tried to make sense of it through scientific, philosophical and theological study. As I get older, these interests blend together more and more. I am really interested in bringing together these different experiences into one world.
How did the Province come to create the role of an ecological coordinator? What will your role be?
In 2016, the former Provincial, Peter Bisson, S.J., created a commission on mission and ecology. I, along with several others, were asked to examine at the question of ecology and how it related to our Jesuit mission. We worked together for 3 years and produced a report in Peter’s final year as Provincial. One of the main recommendations in the report was that if anything was going to happen in the Province in terms of ecology, we would need a coordinator to move things ahead. The new Provincial, Erik Oland, S.J, picked up the report and decided to put it into action. Long story short, he then asked me if I would be that coordinator. I had hoped it would be someone else, as I desired to continue my research full-time, but now I am part of the province’s Justice Reconciliation and Ecology Commission.
As for my role, that is still being discerned and developed. One could say that I am a consultant and resource person for the Provincial. My job is not to do everything, but to help encourage the Province, at the both the community and apostolic level, to integrate ecology into our way of proceeding. Along with an ecology sub-committee, with whom I work closely, we are trying to articulate what this integration means in the concrete. Mostly, I would hope to be of help in facilitating our on-going spiritual conversation and communal discernment as we attempt to welcome the call of Laudato Si’ and the Universal Apostolic Preferences.
I foresee many avenues for bringing this about. Maybe some communities and works could initiate an ecological audit of their buildings, lands and community lifestyle. Groups like Réseau des Églises Vertes and Faith and the Common Good provide many helpful resources in this area. Maybe we need to work more on the question of advocacy. For example, a few years ago we had a bi-provincial meeting on ecology, faith and justice where a major theme emerged that centred on the issue of indigenous people, resource extraction and ecology. Where I live in the Sudbury region of northern Ontario, this will emerge as a major issue given the rich “Ring of Fire” mineral deposits in Ontario’s boreal region. I find myself having a lot of energy for this particular issue. The global Society of Jesus’ Justice in Mining Network could also play a helpful role in this issue as well.
We are currently in a process of reflection and learning, more like a pilot project. I suspect that this period of discernment will invite us to a deepening and enriching of an ecological conversion for us. It’s not just about the work that we do, but also how we live our communal lives, how we pray, what we celebrate and, to be sure, what animates our apostolic lives. It’s more fundamental than simply saying: “OK, fine, we’ll recycle now and tick that off the list.” Instead its about the intimate presence and action of the Trinity expressed as creation, how we experience, understand, celebrate and care for this graced world and each other. That is the vision as I see for the moment.
How do the initiatives of the Jesuit Province of Canada fit into a larger context?
I’m not familiar with the work of all the other Jesuit provinces. However, many initiatives are already well under way, and some provinces and conferences are much further ahead than we are, especially in parts of Africa and Asia where they are dealing with many grave issues We have, for example, the Global Ecology Network EcoJesuit and the Jesuits in the Amazon are part of REPAM, the Amazonian ecclesial network focusing on the people and ecology of the Amazon Region of South America. The Justice in Mining Network, of which we are a member, deals with issues of equity and sustainability in the governance of natural resources. Each province has responded to Laudato Si according to local needs and efforts. Our own province made a significant early contribution to the promotion of ecology in the thinking of the global Society. Currently, Cecelia Calvo (Jesuit Commission on Social and International Ministries) is examining the possibility of developing an ecological network for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
Of course, my role and my hopes and objectives fit into the context of the Universal Apostolic Preferences. This is perhaps obvious considering the Church’s invitation to take care of our common home, but they also fit with the other three preferences. In terms of the marginalized, I’m thinking mostly about indigenous people with whom we have had a long relationship and who can help us to deepen our spirituality of creation. And of course, the future lies with young people who in many ways are leading us forward. Finally, it will only be through our personal and communal prayer and discernment, rooted in the tradition of our Spiritual Exercises, that we can hope to have the courage and grace to walk the path of ecological conversion. Our care for our common home is not done in isolation, but in dialogue and relationship with the three other universal apostolic preferences.