Dear Pope Francis,
I hope that you receive a very warm welcome when you visit Ireland at the end of the month. I understand that it will be a very short visit with a very tight schedule but I’m wondering if you have a few minutes to spare to meet with me for a quick chat?
I suspect I’ll be at the back of a very long line of people hoping to speak with you on subjects from clerical child abuse to the church’s attitudes towards women (and everything else in between). I’m guessing that, realistically, it will be quite difficult for you to fit me into your schedule so, instead, I thought I’d write this personal letter.
At the tender age of three weeks I was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church. Myself and my siblings were raised as Catholics up to the point when we started to ask questions about our faith. We were encouraged by our very enlightened parents to not only ask those questions but to explore other ideas until we found what form of spirituality suited us best. I found my spiritual home in the world of nature. I use the word spiritual in the broadest sense…nature is where I find my peace.
As a child I did have a saintly hero in the church. He was St Francis of Assisi…your namesake. I was impressed by you taking his name and, from what I’ve read about you, you seem a humble and kind man. I love that St Francis stood up to the wealth of the church when he saw nothing but poverty around him. He had a deep faith and had disdain for the hypocrisy of the church back then. We could do with a few more of his ilk these days, particularly in Ireland.
Of course, it wasn’t that aspect of St Francis that made him a hero to me. No, it was his love of the natural world that really struck a chord with me. I have been fascinated by the natural world from the time that I can remember. I recall being no more than seven-years-old when I saw a picture of St Francis. He was standing there preaching to the birds, foxes, wolves, deer and squirrels. Other images had him standing with open arms with wild birds perched on his hands. As a kid I would stand in the garden with food in my hands in the hope that the sparrows might just mistake me for St Francis. They never did.
I am now 57 years old and, to this day, I still have a fondness for St Francis. He is the patron saint of the environment. I know that you have expressed your concerns on climate change and global pollution which is great…keep it up. However, we have some issues that need to be tackled very quickly here in Ireland and this is the subject on which I hoped we might speak.
I have no doubt that some of our more ‘devout’ Catholic politicians will be keen to attend your events and will jump at any opportunity to be introduced to you. If that happens, can you please keep an eye out for our Minister for Heritage, Josepha Madigan. You might have heard of her? If not, do ask Archbishop Diarmuid Martin…he’ll fill you in. It seems that she leads prayers in her local parish church and has a deep sense of Catholic faith. So, she might listen to you if you have a quiet word in her ear because she won’t even engage with us, never mind listen to us.
Like St Francis, I care deeply for our environment and our biodiversity. I believe that we are mere custodians of the environment for future generations including those families you will be addressing. In my lifetime, I have seen birds become extinct as breeding species in Ireland. I have witnessed the massive decline in the population of insects. Our biodiversity is seriously depleted and will continue on it’s downward trend unless something changes soon. We only have about 120 breeding pairs of Curlews left in Ireland. Yellowhammers, Skylarks, Lapwings are in decline. Our native Irish Hare population has crashed.
You might think that our politicians would be concerned by this; they are not. In fact, Minister Madigan has just passed a new Heritage Bill which, believe it or not, will allow the uplands be burned up to the end of March when species like Curlews and Skylarks are arriving onto their breeding grounds. Such burning will also destroy vital plants for our early pollinators as well as destroying emerging lizards, frogs etc.
It really is insanity Your Holiness!
This same bill will also allow the hedgerows be cut from 1st August when many bird species (including the endangered Yellowhammer) are nesting. Such uncontrolled hedge cutting also destroys autumn berries and flowers, essential food for our birds and pollinators.
And, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, this same minister continues to grants licences to hare coursing clubs to catch Irish Hares so that they can be coursed (as in chased by greyhounds, which are themselves treated very badly). The only reason why hares are coursed is purely for entertainment and gambling. It is such a horrendous abuse of our natural heritage! Then of course there is fox hunting. While many of those engaged in this barbaric pastime may not be ‘of your flock’, many are. Regardless of what flock they may be faithful to, they are still granted licences by this government to continue this sickening practice which really should be confined to the annals of history.
What would your namesake, St Francis of Assisi, make of all this?
I can almost hear my late father jokingly quip…‘if St Francis was alive now, he’d turn in his grave’.
So, while those who are attending your events are being granted indulgences, I simply ask for just one. Could you possibly take a few minutes to seek out and speak with Minister Josepha Madigan. On behalf of St Francis, the patron saint of the environment, could you please tell her that her beloved church does not approve of what she and her colleagues in government are doing to Ireland’s natural heritage. I really think that might make a difference.
While you’re at it, I don’t suppose that when you have that audience of 500,000 people in front of you in the Phoenix Park, that you might ask them to start a new petition to protect our precious biodiversity. Wow! Imagine getting 500,000 signatures against the Heritage Bill? Now that might make me believe in miracles.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this letter. I’m sorry I won’t get to meet you personally.
When you’re saying your mass, the chances are I’ll be out birding or photographing butterflies. Perhaps, like my seven-year-old self, I’ll close my eyes and once again pretend to be St Francis. Perhaps this time when I open my eyes, I will be surrounded by birds just like I imagined.
Enjoy your trip. I hope the weather stays good for you.