Father John McCarthy on Forests and Faith

Father John McCarthy surveying lichen in Newfoundland, Canada

The air was crisp under the balsam fir canopy. The needles were wet with dew and the mosses and sphagnum squished under his boots. Carrying a nice catch from the Salmonier River in eastern Newfoundland, fifteen year-old John McCarthy made his way quickly through the woods. He had spent the entire day along the river and had to get back home before dark. The sun was already setting.

Entering a glade, John hurried his gait to match the setting sun and then stopped. The forest was quiet. He paused, as though awaiting something. All was still. Through the trees, sunbeams streamed and glistened.

“I felt a deep sense of joy,” he recalls. “I felt…”—he pauses —“Uplifted. I use this word now, but not at the time. It was an indescribable experience.” Miles from any other human being, he suddenly knew the immeasurable nearness of God. “I was acutely aware of God expressing himself to me in the beauty of the forest. I felt so at home, so at peace. At that moment, I knew somehow then that I had to spend my life in nature. That I had to pursue a career focused on forests and wild lands.”

Foggy and wet, it is a typical day in the eastern boreal forest. Father John McCarthy leads his crew through the remotest parts of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. They are looking for old-growth boreal forest. This particular area has been managed for over a century to produce pulp and timber, yet Father John believes old-growth forest still exists here, somewhere.

The fog was heavy, settling through the forest canopy like a ceiling. After hours of hiking through cut-over timberlands and insect-ravaged forest, somehow keeping a straight path through the thick fog, Father John came upon an area of forest unlike the rest: thick trees of various sizes overlapping each other tightly, fragile saplings intermingled with trees a full meter thick. The field crew, a handful of University of British Columbia students and Newfoundland Forest Service members, had difficulty making accurate measurements of the tallest trees, such was their height.

After a lifetime of study and searching, Father John had made a great discovery – the last remnants of one of the oldest boreal forests in the world. He discovered that not only the Main River watershed but the entire east side of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula was covered with true old-growth boreal forest, stocked with mature fir, spruce, and birch.

I always seek out areas that are distant,” Father John reflects on his great discovery. As word of his discovery spread, Fr. John was sought by the media, featured on national television and radio shows, and interviewed for countless magazines. In 2002, he revealed the once-hidden old-growth forest to a national audience on the Discovery Channel documentary “Great Canadian Rivers: The Main”, and soon after was given chairmanship of the Newfoundland Wilderness and Ecological advisory council.

Popular culture often seems to pit faith against science and science against faith, but for Father John, faith and science are not just compatible, but complementary. For him the practice of science (and the enjoyment of nature for that matter) can be a way to perceive the presence of God and to give God glory.

“All creation is of God and has its own integrity and intrinsic value,” he says, expressing the Christian theological perspective on nature. As a researcher and explorer, Father John contributes science that he hopes will be used for the common good. “[But] we need more than biophysical research,” he says. “We need to pay attention to human data. Science is essential but never sufficient to address ecological issues in the long run.” Fr. John, a priest of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Catholic Jesuits) tries to express this “holistic” view through his many works, and use it to celebrate his Jesuit spirituality.

The Jesuit spirituality is based on that of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who entreated his followers to, “see God in all things.” This notion of spirituality is what has allowed the Jesuits to joyously partake in the sciences since St. Ignatius founded the order in 1534. At least 35 moon craters have been named after the Jesuit priests who noted them, by the late 1700s 30 of the world’s 130 astronomical observatories were operated by Jesuits, and the standard calendar used by much of the world today was developed by a Jesuit. The Jesuit spirituality has also greatly influenced the priests’ outreach to the poor and hungry around the globe: they believe that offering peace and justice for all people requires offering a healthy, sustainable environment.

Fr. John’s discoveries of old-growth forests are important for furthering forest conservation (and protecting the global environment), but Fr. John isn’t the first priest to make great scientific discoveries. In addition to the Jesuits already mentioned, some of history’s most remarkable scientific adventurers were priests. In 1669 Nicolas Steno developed the defining principles of stratigraphy (a branch of geology), in the mid-1800s Gregor Mendel discovered what we now know of as the laws of genetics, and in 1927 Georges-Henri Lemaître began developing the “Big Bang” theory.

After Father John was ordained as a priest in 1994, his religious superiors offered him the opportunity to continue his scientific studies in the hope that he would help the Church and all people understand the role of faith in ecological concerns. Continuing the tradition set by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI explains in his 2009 encyclical Charity in Truth that: “In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation.” More than ten years ago Father John arrived at the forest ecology doctoral program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to do just that.

The Newfoundland government is working again with Father John, this time on protecting a unique species of lichen. Father John and his colleagues have recently discovered new lichen species in North America, some of which have their origins in southern Norway. The research team is now busy cataloging the geographical extent and abundance of lichens in Newfoundland using records that date back to the eighteenth century. This information has been crucial for establishing Newfoundland parks and preserved wilderness areas. By knowing the locations of species, the national park service can create park boundaries and appropriately maintain habitat for lichens and other important flora and fauna.

But recently Father John took a break from his academic engagements to focus on the spiritual development of students. He has accepted a position as chaplain at the University of British Columbia, where he defended his dissertation so many years ago.

Tt was a sunny, crisp fall day. As Fr. John and his group of students were hiking through the valley, the students paused to enjoy the view of the snow-capped peaks surrounding them. After a two-hour hike they reached the top of Goat Mountain overlooking the Fraser Delta, just north of Vancouver. Fr. John found a flat surface to set up the Mass altar, and slowly the students gathered in prayer, huddled against the sharp autumn air but feeling a warmth in their souls. Fr. John prayed over the chalice of wine and the paten of soft Eucharistic bread. He lifted the bread while saying the words, which Jesus had spoken to his disciples: “Take this and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.” Then he lifted the wine: “…Do this in memory of me.” Fr. John elevated the Eucharistic gifts towards the heavens as the sun glistened through the surrounding trees. The golden chalice and wheat paten sparkled. “The earth becomes your altar,” Fr. John explained, “It’s the ‘Mass of the world’.” All those gathered on that mountaintop felt Christ’s presence in the beauty of nature around them, and it was through the Eucharist that they each encountered Christ in their bodies, blood, and souls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *