Sean McDonagh – Sowing Seeds of Hope

Biodiversity and Climate Change January 2022.

Sean McDonagh, SSC

The spirituality I am going to share with you this evening is new, yet, in the context of what is happening to our planet and the response of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si; On Care for Our Common Home, it is our only way into the future for the Catholic Church and all the other Churches.  But it does not end there; it is also the focus of everyone – as people address climate change, the destruction of biodiversity, pollution of water and our oceans and cut down waste. If fact, everyone is being challenged to live in a sustainable way to protect planet earth and all creatures of the earth into the future.

I attended the seminary in Dalgan Park in the 1960s and was ordained in 1969. In some classes attention was given to working with poor people and promoting social justice, but we were taught nothing about the importance of the natural world and ecology. Even though Rachel Carson, a marine biologist wrote Silent Sprint in 1962 there was no discussion of the environmental crisis during the Second Vatican Council.  Many of the bishops who attended the council subscribed to ‘dominion theology’ which believed that the Earth was there primarily to meet human needs. I wonder if half of the bishops had been women would they have discussed the destruction of the natural world.

Things did not change much after Vatican 11. Even encyclicals such as Populorum Progessio 1967 (on the Progress of People 1967)) which was strong on social justice believed that the creation was there for humans  to use for their own advantage (PP 23). There was no reflection on the negative impact of industrialisation of the biosphere, and to the damage which humans were causing to the natural world. It stated boldly “that the introduction of industry was necessary for economic growth and human progress: it is also a sign of development and contributes to it. By persistent work and the use of our intelligence we gradually wrest nature’s application for her riches, (PP. 25).”

New Ethics

Destroying the natural world was not considered a sin in Catholicism.  At the beginning of the encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common House Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew the Orthodox Archbishop on Constantinople who has a challenging message:   “for humans to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing change in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands: for human beings to contaminate the earth’s water, its land, its air and its life- these are sins.” No 8. This is an extraordinary change in the Catholic Churches ethical teaching that is only gradually making its way gradually into our consciousness. I am a priest for 52 years and no one has ever confessed destroying creation as a sin either in Ireland or the Philippines. And I would say that there is not a single priest in Kerry who has every had someone confess that they sinned against nature.

Prayer Life

But it doesn’t end there; our prayer life had very little respect for the wonder and beauty of the Earth, which we find here in Kerry.  From 1570 am right up to the Second Vatican Council – the post-communion prayer for the Sundays of Advent read as follows: “Lord, teach us to despise the things of this world and loves the things of heaven.”  We also find the same attitude in the Salve Regina of the Rosary where we refer to condition of human life as “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”  Would any Kerry person declare that Kerry is a Valley of tears instead of a paradise!

And so Laudato Si; gives us a new focus for our prayers.  In No 246 Pope Francis leads us in prayer which I will read as it captures this new vision.

All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognise that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace,”


Commitment and response are central to our faith. So, we live out this new spirituality, not in Churches or monasteries – but in the world about us – as we abandon fossil fuel in our homes and cars, engage in retrofitting our houses, promote biodiversity at all levels, protecting our rivers and beaches and striving to live in a sustainable way.


In  Laudato Si’; On Care for Our Common Home  Pope Francis tells us that “other creatures have intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.” (No 139). “Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous (No. 84), and because each creature is connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on other another.” (No. 41).

I am told that a network of parish Care of Creation Contacts has been set up under the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) Committee and to date 18 of the 52 parishes have nominated a representative, initially to promote the Season of Creation in their parish and to ensure that the resources from liturgical to practical actions on biodiversity, climate change, waste, especially food waste are available in parishes. But working for Climate change and biodiversity cannot be confined to just the Season (1st Sept to 4th October) but needs to permeate all of parish, home school and daily life. Care for Our Common Home must become integrated into all aspects of parish life. The new Laudato Si Action Platform launched by Pope Francis last November will offer more guidance on this.

JPIC Committee will offer an online Laudato Si’ Book club online beginning Tue 15th Feb and run for 6 weeks. This will cover all 6 chapters of this ground-breaking document and will offer everyone including clergy, the opportunity to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor and show ways to respond. Details as always will be on the diocesan website. This course will be facilitated by Jane Mellett, Laudato Si’ Officer for Trócaire. You might buy a copy of Laudato Si’ An Irish Response where 12 eminent ecologists and theologians such as John Feehan, Lorna Gold, John Sweeney, Dermot Lane and myself discuss many aspects of the Pope Francis’s encyclical.

Various parishes have benefitted from this course or had existing projects in place in church grounds. Parishes include Killorglin, Lispole, Rathmore, Dingle, Kenmare, Tuosist, Ballymacelligott, St Johns Tralee, Fossa, Tarbert and others. Initiatives such as tree planting, setting aside of areas for biodiversity gardens, putting up of bird & bat boxes.  The initiatives range from small or baby steps to having overall plans drawn up with help from local advisors. It all takes volunteers, enthusiasm and commitment, vision and the belief that we are all part of the web of life and we have some role to play in caring for our common home.

  1. O. Wilson was one of the great biologists of the 20th century.   Contemplating the current destruction of the natural world, he said that “future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history.  They will forgive us all the earlier generations’ follies and the harm.  But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”[1]

Life began on earth 3.8 billion years ago.  We are now living through the sixth largest extinction of life. The last occurred 65 million years ago wiped out some 50 percent of plants and animals because pf the impact of a massive comet or asteroid 10 to 15 km (6 to 9 km) wide.

Wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent since 1970.  This is largely due to agricultural, deforestation, over population and pollution. The biennial Living Planet Report publicised in 2018, warn that 90 percent of all land on Earth will be impacted by humankind by 2050.  Population of mammals, birds, fish reptiles and amphibians have declined by 60 percent in just four decades. The Earth has losses of 50 percent of its shallow water corals in the past 30 years. This is a clear example where climate change and biodiversity are clearly related. Global warming is estimated to lead to the loss of half of the world’s shallow water corals in the past 30 years.[2]  This is a huge loss for human beings as the fish within them provides food for over one billion people.[3]

The unnoticed insect apocalypse should set alarm bells ringing. In a report written for Wildlife Trust, Prof David Coulson of the University of Sussex states that, in terms of numbers Britain, has lost 50 percent of its insect population since 1970. Much of this is due to agriculture and the heavy use of pesticides.[4] Insects and other invertebrates can recover quickly if we stop killing them and restore their habitats.  Butterfly numbers have dropped by a third in the past two decades in the United States repeating worrying declines in Europe. As temperatures increased during the past two decades Tyson Wepprich from Oregon State University and his team found that species from the south moved north into Ohio and were growing in numbers whereas northern species shrunk.  He believes that some species are responding to climate change.[5]

The executive director of WWF, Tanya Steele, “We are the first generation to know that we are destroying our planet and the last one can do anything about it.[6]

The National Academy of Science in the United States published a report in June 2020 which states that the extinction rate among terrestrial vertebrate species was significantly higher than prior estimates and that the critical window for preventing mass losses will close much sooner than expected in in 10 to 15 years. [7]

Destruction of biodiversity is not just about what is happening to other creatures, humanity relies on biodiversity for its health, food and well-being..

COP 15

Many of these issues will be discussed by the leaders of the world at the COP 15, the biodiversity summit that will take place in Kunming in China from April 25-May 9, 2022.  Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, a Tanzanian lawyer was appointed the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2020.  It will be interesting to see whether it gets the same media attention as COP26 got which took place in Glasgow in November 2021.


Transition Kerry organised a Community Leadership Programme on Biodiversity and Climate, and an 18 month programme offered in North, East and West Kerry with LEADER funding. Started before COVID it had to continue online or in small groups.  It included learning about and the planting of pollinator friendly patches and gardens, planting of native hedges and small tree plantations, putting up bird and bat boxes. In both urban and rural settings with some parishes getting involved too. The National Biodiversity Centre have developed Faith Communities:  Action to help pollinators which individuals and groups will find helpful.

But Bird Watch Ireland can also help us in protecting many of the birds of Ireland.

Climate Change

Over 200 different countries attended COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021. One month later the price of carbon in the European Union reached the record high of 66 euro a tonne.  At the same times Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon stated that Britain should not open a new oil field in North Sea, which has put pressure on the British government to reconsider its approval.  By the end of 2022, countries will be invited to align the greenhouse gas emissions with 2015 Paris Agreement which specifies that greenhouse gas emission should not go above 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, better still, if they can reduce them to 1.5 degree Celsius.

Poor countries are watching closely whether high-income countries will honour the $100 billion climate financing which was promised to help poor countries to abandon greenhouse gases for transport and heating.

Impact of a Rise in Sea Levels

Climate change will be a death sentence for island nations.  In 2021, huge cracks were reported by scientists in the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.  If this iceberg which is about the size of Florida melts, global sea levels could rise by almost 3 metres.  This would put the lives of millions of people at risk in many global cities and low-lying areas like Bangladesh and Pacific islands.  This is why the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley addressed COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. “if our existence is to mean anything then we must act in the interest of all our  people that are dependent on us.”[8] But the Antarctic is not the only place where ice is melting.  Enormous changes are also taking place in melting glaciers in Greenland. [9] Warmer oceans leads to hurricanes and typhoon and other forms of extreme weather right around the world.

Retrofitting Buildings

Many individuals have gone this route using grants from SEAI.

A small Energy Co-operative, Kerry Sustainable Energy Co-Operative (KSEC) has been active in this area too as has Kerry Co Council (KCC).

KCC set up a district heating system with the help of a local Electrical engineer and colleagues. Based now in Tobar Naofa, Moyderwell, Tralee in the old Moyderwell Convent and used wood chip, it provides electricity to the Tobar Naofa complex and heat to the surrounding houses and some local buildings including the library.

Kerry Sustainable Energy Co-Operative (KSEC) is presently offering a programme across 8 towns in Kerry to promote retrofitting in practical ways. KSEC is using grant money from LEADER programme to offer this programme.

Some churches have, of course, gone down this route too moving to replace oil fired heating systems to the use of heat pumps including both St Johns & the Dominican Churches in Tralee. Many churches have changed their lighting too, moving to LEDs.


In December 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that Irish Water’s failure to improve treatment plants has left many water supplies vulnerable and poses a risk to the “health of a large portion of the population.[10]

Water enhancement actions: Tralee Bay Wetlands partnered with the Community Group Transition Kerry to examine solutions for water issues in area on Wetlands using the grant, Area Community Water Officer is Breda Moriarty. This fund remains available to local groups until Feb 2022. The Wetlands will be continuing this work in the future.

Simple placement of Water harvesters to collect rainwater needed for gardens, washing cars, especially, in times of drought.

Creation of small ponds as habitats and for planting of native water plants, for example, in Ballyduff and in the grounds of St Johns Church,

Clean Coasts (under An Taisce) promotion of Think Before You Flush to reduce and avoid the degradation of water by the inappropriate use of toilets as bind..

Beach Clean Ups one example of many (Clean Coasts of An Taisce) ‘Banna Coast Care’ in collaboration with Tralee Tidy Towns, MTU and various volunteers from various sectors including the Kerry Islamic Outreach Society.  30 bags of litter collected in one hour by 67 volunteers at end of September…Big Beach Clean Up. This is of course ongoing issue and clean ups are happening in various beaches around the Kerry and Cork coastlines from Tarbert to Caherciveen.  Volunteers are needed to keep up this work.

 Water refill opportunities either with community water stations or faucets, hotels or cafes offering to refill a water bottle under the umbrella of ‘Refill Ireland’ thus reducing the endless production of plastic water bottles.

What are we using in our homes, churches and gardens   that end up contributing to poorer water quality, in addition to damaging biodiversity? Could we avoid or reduce their use? Are there replacements?


Just think of the plastic rubbish which has been produced by Covid 19 and what we are doing with it.

Avoiding Food Waste in the first place, planning ahead, being creative with leftovers. Knowing the difference between best before and use by. Kerry JPIC focussed on this vital theme for one Season of Creation.

Composting workshops have been held both physically and virtually with a local expert Donal O Leary from neighbouring Cork, who has given wonderful workshops in Tralee, Killarney (with JPIC), Millstreet and elsewhere.

Food Share– A food bank set up to reallocate surplus food to those in need

A not-for-profit group set up by NEWKD (Northeast and West ) and Vincent de Paul to help local charities combat food poverty. It rescues surplus quality food from local supermarkets and provide this to local charities who know best how to distribute it to those in need.…what creativity.

Food Miles

Where does your food come from? Do you know the sovereignty of your food? Can you support local food growers? Does your local shop support the local providers of milk, eggs, veg and other dairy food?

Can you or do you grow any of your own food or would you like to get started?

GIY or Grow it Yourself groups exist in various parts of Kerry and Cork, which again can offer support and guidance to beginners, a place where you can swap plants and seeds and expertise.

How are you looking after your soil? Is it degraded? Why?

Transition Kerry also offered a ‘Transition Farming and Biodiversity Education Programme’ aimed at the farming community. This looks at permaculture, ensuring resilience, getting nitrogen for free by using soil biology and chemistry to use nature-based solutions, agroforestry and the importance of seed saving.

T/MTU Tralee Campus offers the 4 year BSc in Wildlife Biology Course

‘Wildlife Biology is the study of the natural environment and all of the living things in it, from microscopic bacteria and algae to plants, invertebrates, fish, mammals and birds. This unique course is designed to prepare you for work in the areas of ecological consultancy, environmental education, and biodiversity conservation. It includes a basic grounding in the chemical and life sciences, with an emphasis on all aspects of the natural environment’.

[1] E.O. Wilson, A Pioneer of Evolutionary Biology Dies at 92,

[2] Stephen Rogers and Emily Beament, “90 percent of all land on Earth to be impacted by mankind by 2050.” Irish Examiner, 31st of October 2018, page 3.

[3] Catrin Einhorn, “Climate Change is Devastating Coral Reefs Worldwide, Major Report Says,” New York Times, April 10th 2021. change. Html.

[4] Damian Carrington, “Insect apocalypse poses risk to all life of Earth, conservationists warm,” The Guardian, November 13th 2019, page 3.

[5] “Insect apocalypse may be unfolding in US too.” June 20, 2019, page 18.

[6]  Stephen Rogers and Emily Beament, “90 percent of all land on Earth to be impacted by mankind by 2050.” Irish Examiner, 31st of October 2018, page 3.

[7] Rachel Nuwer, “Mass Extinction are Accelerating Scientists Report, New York Times, June 1, 2020. /06/01/science/mass-extinction-are-accelerating-scientistsreport.html.

[8] Padraig Hoare, “Doomsday glacier could collapse with five years,” Irish Examiner, December 16th 2021, page 1.

[9] Dan McDougall, “Greenland’s melting glaciers! That noise you hear – that is the end of the world,” The Guardian, September 19th, 2021, page 38.

[10] Kevin O’Sullivan, “Irish Water ‘needs to fix supplies on EPA action list’” The Irish Times, December 15, 2021. Page 3.