Four years ago, the Roman Catholic bishops of the Northwest saw in the Columbia River an opportunity to develop an international call to environmental justice among people of good will.
In listening sessions, with correspondence and in their own deliberations, the bishops considered the opinions of 2,000 people who had something to say about the 1,200-mile-long river that connects everyone in this region.
Today, 12 bishops from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia will release their pastoral letter, a teaching document, called: “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.”
“The river is the treasure of the Northwest and across its 1,200 miles, and all its tributaries, it incorporates a whole range of issues--social, political, economic, cultural and environmental,” said John Reid, a spokesman for the Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project.
The 18-page letter, including a poetic reflection called “Riversong,” urges people to work together for spiritual, social and ecological transformation in the 259,000-square-mile watershed.
“God entrusts the Earth to human care. People are the stewards of God’s world,” the bishops write.
From eight sessions with farmers, fishermen, Indians, environmentalists, businesspeople and community leaders over the course of a year, the bishops first developed an exploratory paper to spur discussion about everything from salmon survival to radioactive waste cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation to the beauty and recreational value of the river.
Comments were invited via the Internet, or letters, or at subsequent meetings.
“They started with listening, moved toward a response and went back to listening. What is released is the fruit of all that,” Reid said. “It is not intended to be the final word. It is intended to be the next word.”
A study guide will be available to accompany the pastoral letter. Workshops, teaching sessions and a video are planned. The bishops want to see the project continue, Reid said.
“We seek to promote a watershed-wide conversation: How can we all care for the common good in a more effective way?”
The pastoral letter examines in four sections the condition of the watershed; its social and religious history; an alternative future for the watershed, and a call to action.
“Protection of the land is a common cause promoted more effectively through active cooperation than contentious wrangling,” the bishops write.
Pastoral letters on the environment are not without precedent.
Bishops in Appalachia and in Canada have issued similar documents, and in 1990, Pope John Paul II focused his World Peace Day message on caring for God’s creation.