The Bushfire Crisis
Twenty-four people have been confirmed dead and at least 1,500 homes have been destroyed in the bushfire crisis. Countless thousands of creatures have perished, including precious livestock, and their habitats lay decimated. Despite the best efforts of volunteer fire fighters, fire brigades, emergency services, and the military, the destruction is likely to continue for some time yet. We are seeing what climate scientists have predicted would come to pass. The fires have been made much worse by human-induced climate change.
Bishop Tim Harris of Townsville summed the situation up in a tweet on 2 January, ‘Australia is burning. Lives being lost. Properties destroyed. Heartbreak for so many in NSW and elsewhere. No doubt that a climate change emergency exists. Immediate responses required now but longer-term questions remain.’
In a 7 January statement, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge explains that, ‘while the bishops typically respond to [such] challenges at a parish or diocesan level, the scale of this crisis requires a national response from the whole Church to complement and coordinate what is happening locally.’ This national response of the Bishops Conference includes:
- The facilitation of a national network connecting people affected by the bushfires with people who can help with tasks such as preparing meals, clearing properties, rebuilding communities, as well as pastoral and counselling support.
- The distribution of special prayers and other resources for use in parishes, families and other Catholic communities.
- Collaboration with key national agencies like Catholic Health Australia, Catholic Social Services Australia, the National Catholic Education Commission and the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) to ensure as effective a response as possible from the wider Catholic community.
- Cooperating with Catholic Religious Australia and religious institutes and their ministries.
- Parishes across the country taking up a special collection at Masses on the Australia Day weekend, with all funds to be donated to Vinnies’ bushfire appeal
We can also assist in the effort to control the fires by donating to the fire services in our States.
A Faith Response
Archbishop Coleridge says that ‘a genuinely Catholic response to a crisis of this magnitude must draw strength from prayer which inspires concrete and compassionate action’ and he renews the Bishops’ call for ‘prayer for those stricken by drought and fire, for those who have lost their lives in the fires and their families, for rain to quench the parched land and extinguish the fires, and for urgent action to care for our common home in order to prevent such calamities in the future’.
Non-believers may dismiss our prayers as asking our ‘invisible friend’ for magical favours. However, as we pray for all those who are affected by the fires and the drought, and ask God for rain, our hearts and minds naturally turn to the deeper meaning of things. As we pray, we ask where God is in these dramatic events. We seek awareness of God’s call to us through the people, places and events of these times. Authentic prayer leads us to give God’s love flesh and blood in our responses. Prayer is not an alternative to action, it is part of our action.
Immediate responses are required now, but we cannot ignore or put off any longer the many other things that are needed too.
As a nation, we cannot claim to be a responsible global citizen in addressing the moral challenge of our age while we lag behind other nations on climate action and continue to subsidise old polluting industries.
This is a time for lament; to grieve with the bereaved, displaced and traumatised, and with creation itself. But we do not simply remain in lament. This is also a time to acknowledge the signs of the times, which are now so stark, and to repent. If we have doubted the reality or the seriousness of climate change, may we have the grace to change our minds as many have done. If we have been slow to accept personal and communal responsibility to change, may our hearts be moved by the scale of suffering already caused. This is a time to repair damage done to people, places, creatures, our communities and the earth. It will require both personal and political will in the immediate and longer terms. This is a time to transform our way of understanding the world, our place in it, and our way of living – our very cosmology.
The bushfire crisis is a wake-up call to Australia and all Australians. Lament, repentance, the effort to repair damage done, and the transformation of behaviour – these are elements of a process of conversion. Pope Francis sees this moment in human history as calling for an ecological conversion which ‘must be understood in an integral way, as a transformation of how we relate to our sisters and brothers, to other living beings, to creation in all its rich variety and to the Creator who is the origin and source of all life’ (World Day of Peace Message, 2020).
Now is exactly the time for this conversion.
Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv STL DD
Bishop of Parramatta
Chairman, Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference