On Monday, the second day of the Synod Continental Assembly in Suva, participants begin to engage Oceania’s response to the Document for the Continental Stage, and engage those on the peripheries, visiting two vulnerable communities.
By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp – Suva, Fiji
Each of the four Episcopal Conferences making up the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania provided a video focusing on the synodal journey undertaken in their territories. An additional video expressed another very important voice in the existence of Oceania – the ocean itself. Imbalances are being introduced, causing devastating consequences, not only for nature, but for the people whose lives are rooted in nature and its cycles. Many of the people of Oceania continue to live in harmony with nature, waiting patiently for and responding to nature’s movements, rather than trying to control, harness, or exploit it.
In order to begin to put all these voices together, participants were introduced to the art of spiritual conversation that enables true dialogue: speaking and listening in order to seek understanding and discernment. Participants were then introduced to Oceania’s draft Response to the Synod Working Document for the Continental Stage by Susan Pascoe, created in January by the 20-member Discernment and Writing Group.
Speaking, listening, discerning
Susan Pascoe first reminded assembly delegates that the current Synod process is further developing the call from the Second Vatican Council to become a Church that walks together with her Lord alongside all peoples throughout the world. She then explained the process by which both the Working Document for the Continental Stage, written by a group that met in Frascati, outside of Rome from 23 September to 2 October 2022, and the Oceania draft response to that document were formulated in a climate of prayer and discernment. With this introduction to go on, the Bishops present reflected on the draft and entered into the first spiritual conversation on it, accompanied by facilitators.
Listening to creation
In the afternoon, the group directed their attention to listening to the voice of creation and how it is crying out for help. The first stop was Mau Village where a river is located from which gravel has been extracted since 1997. Caritas Fiji representative Kositino Tikomaibolatagane explained that the extracted gravel is used to develop roads in Suva. But due to constant extraction, the level of the river has dropped considerably and has also changed how it flows. Some of the effects include shallower water that makes it more difficult to navigate for those who depend on the water for transportation; erosion; fewer fish; the loss of some types of fish due to the change in the ecosystem; and an accumulation of silt at the mouth of the river. In addition, there is really no economic benefit, since the extracting company sells a cubic unit of gravel for $70.00 and gives only about $6.95 to the village.
Damaging nature damages relationships
Peter Loy Chong, the Archbishop of Fiji, reminded everyone that Pope Francis often reminds us that what we do to nature we do to ourselves in the long run. He also recounted that there are a lot of “totems” in Fiji, something sacred and particular to each family that expresses their connection to nature. “But when you put a few thousand dollars in an envelope and give it to the chief, he forgets the totem”. He described this as “the new form of colonialism”. Other sources of gravel in the mountains are available, he went on to explain. But it is easier to extract it from the river. “The bigger danger for us is damage to the river, the loss of biodiversity, and the loss of sustainability. It’s like cutting off the umbilical cord of a child from its mother”, he said. Although consultation is supposed to take place, some chiefs make decisions without consulting their villagers. So, in addition to damaging the environment, Archbishop Chong concluded, “it damages the relationships in the village”.
Rising sea levels force relocation
Toguru was the next place the group visited. Here the group heard from Frances, who represents the Pacific Conference of Churches, which intervenes when coastal communities are forced to relocate. Frances explained how difficult it is when the only resort to save a community is relocation because their land and the ocean shape their identity.
Barney Dunn, a direct descendant of James Dunn, an Irishman who settled in Suva, says he sees the consequences of climate change around him. Barney showed us how the rising sea waters are diminishing the size of his property. He estimates that five kilometres of his land, the land on which he walked into town as a child, are now under water, including the cemetery where his ancestors are buried. Instead of having the usual two springs every year, Barney said that he has witnessed two springs happen in the same month. Barney also related that several efforts have been made to provide money so a sea wall can be built. That money, he says, always gets diverted.