Bishops of the Pacific Northwest
The Columbia River rolls on for 1,200 miles from southeastern British Columbia, along the border of Washington and Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean. Taken together with the thousands of miles of tributaries that feed it, the river defines a watershed encompassing 259,000 square miles.
The river and its watershed is many things to many people: water for drinking, irrigation, and industry; a course for salmon runs and barge traffic; a source of hydroelectric power; the ancestral home of Native Americans; and a place of scenic beauty and ecological richness. Because of these multiple values and uses, the Columbia River watershed is the subject of much conflict and controversy among farmers, fishers, conservationists, indigenous peoples and many others who love and depend on it for their livelihood.
But for twelve Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest, as for many other people of faith in the region, the Columbia River watershed is something more. It is a part of God’s creation, entrusted to our care; a revelation of God’s presence to the eyes of faith; and a commons intended by God for the well-being of all its inhabitants, present and future.
The bishops’ reflections on the moral and spiritual meaning of the watershed formed the substance of their pastoral letter, "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good", which was released in February 2001. The eighteen-page document includes appendices and a concluding poetic reflection, “Riversong.”
In the letter, the bishops state that, "We, the Catholic bishops in the international watershed region of the United States and Canada, write this pastoral letter because we have become concerned about regional economic and ecological conditions and the conflicts over them in the watershed. We address this letter to our Catholic community and to all people of good will. We hope that we might work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home, a vision that promotes justice for people and stewardship of creation."
But perhaps as important as the final product was the process leading up to it, in which hundreds of persons from all walks of life have participated. In order to understand a complex, multi-layered and multidimensional reality like the Columbia River watershed, a multidisciplinary approach was needed. Through a series of “Readings of the Signs of the Times” and other listening sessions, the bishops gathered contributions from theologians, historians, scientists, economists and sociologists as well as leaders of business and industry, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, fishers, members of the Hispanic and Native American communities, and many others.
But the process of listening and learning together is not supposed to end with the issuing of the letter. A press release from the project expressed the hope that the letter will provide an opportunity for “an international, watershed-wide, ongoing conversation process: to care for creation, to resolve regional conflicts with respect, compassion and good will, and to promote sustainable ecological relationships linked with community economic benefits.”
The Columbia River Pastoral Project provides a powerful example of how faith communities, by lifting up shared values of justice and care for creation, can help the wider community search for the wisdom to live together on and with God’s fruitful and blessed earth.
For more information:
- Visit the Columbia River Pastoral Project online.
- Read “Waters of Life,” by Bishop William Skylstad from America magazine.
Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project
6211 Vassar Ave. NE
Seattle, WA 98115
(206) 729-3737; FAX: (206) 729-3747