Corrie Young joined 26 supporters of Jesuits Missions as they began a pilgrimage from Edinburgh to Glasgow to attend the United Nation’s COP26 climate change conference.
COP26 means many different things to many different people.
‘We fund projects around the world. Places where before we didn’t send aid now need it,’ Colm Fahy, from Jesuit Missions told me. “We’re taking 26 pilgrims from Edinburgh to Glasgow to be a witness to the conference. Pilgrimage is a remarkable thing where you go to see miraculous things. We want COP26 to be that in solving the world’s problems.”
Shannon Shorman, a student at the University of Birmingham, and one of the 26, agreed, saying ‘what I think is most important about COP26 is that people who are most affected by climate change are listened to.”
Fr Kensy Joseph, SJ, the chaplain at the University of Birmingham, had responsibility for organising Masses and prayers for the pilgrims. “Are you passionate about the climate?” I asked him.
“I didn’t used to be,” he laughed. “It’s more that, whilst I knew it was important, it feels like this pilgrimage is a big moment. It’s a walk of witness: why we as Catholics should care about climate change. But it is also a pilgrimage: a time of praying and seeing what each of us can individually do.”
He mentioned that, in a worldwide discernment exercise conducted a few years ago, the Jesuits identified four priorities: ‘spirituality; working with the poor and marginalised; working with young people; and caring for creation.’
“This pilgrimage addresses all four of them.”
The pilgrimage began with a Mass at Sacred Heart, Edinburgh. In the homily, the priest stressed that the pilgrims were embarking on both an inward and an outward journey; the former as great, or greater, than the latter.
During each day, pilgrims were encouraged to open up with one another about what they were doing and why, specifically concerning faith and justice. In the evenings, they would gather together to pray about the same thing followed by the celebration of Mass.
I asked Eamon Walls, SJN, a Jesuit novice on the pilgrimage, if he was an environmentalist.
“No,” he replied. “I’m not. But I need to be. It’s something I feel that I have to care about. I’m hoping that part of this journey will be for this to become much more of a priority.
I feel that for me, ecological conversion is something that needs to really happen. As a Jesuit we have four universal apostolic preferences. The first is to show the way to God, the second is to walk with the excluded, the third is to journey with the youth, and the fourth is to care for God’s creation. I would say the last one is the one I feel least passionate about. Already, talking to people, I can feel that that’s changing.”
Walking beside him was Ciara Murphy, the Environmental Policy Co-Ordinator at the Jesuit
Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin.
“It’s funny, of the Apostolic Preferences, caring for our common home would be the one I’m most passionate about,” she said.
“I studied environmental biology; I’ve always been interested. I love the idea of walking for something as well, it’s very meditative. It’s lovely. You force yourself to slow down and think about what you’re doing.”
The destination for the group was Glasgow, specifically the march for ecological action happening on the Saturday.
“We’ll walk with the faith block,” she said.
Eamonn added: “It’s important for Christian groups to be there because there’s a theological underpinning that would make us want to look after the planet.
“In Catholic theology, we have this sense of ‘sacramental imagination’, which means that the physical world can reflect something of the glory of God.
“For example, while in the sacraments ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. And yet also in a beautiful sunset we might see something of the glory and radiance of God’s majesty.
“The Catholic tradition adds a mystical dimension to what is also a very practical environmental, political, and economic problem.”
As they walked ahead and I stood behind, I saw these strangers from many different places journeying together along a thin canal path.
Susan Westmacott, one of the pilgrims, put it frankly when I asked if her faith and environmental activity were linked: “Absolutely. It’s God’s world and we’ve been destroying it. We want the world to be a fit place to grow up in. And I just hate seeing things be spoiled.”