SAN DIEGO — In his encyclical Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis challenged the world to take action on climate change.
May 24 marked the papal document’s fifth anniversary (it was signed on that date and officially published on June 18, 2015) as well as the start of a “Special Laudato Si Anniversary Year” announced by the Vatican, making this an appropriate time to reflect on how well the world has heeded the pope’s words and what further steps must be taken to achieve his vision for a sustainable future.
“I think the conversation internationally has changed as a result of Laudato Si,” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy.
The bishop said that the encyclical’s “recasting” of environmental issues “to bring out their religious and ethical nature” was “a huge achievement,” and the discussion it has sparked among scientists, religious communities and energized young people is perhaps “the most important product of the encyclical.”
In the Diocese of San Diego, Father Emmet Farrell is one of the leading Catholic voices on climate change. A retired parish pastor, he now serves as director of Creation Care Ministry, a volunteer position within the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice.
Father Farrell, who said that Laudato Si has been hailed by some scientists as “the best thing ever written on climate change,” has devoted much of the past three years to educating and forming consciences about environmental stewardship. At about one-third of the diocese’s 97 parishes, he has either held a workshop on how to start a parish-based “Creation Care Team” or has preached a homily about Laudato Si. He also developed a study guide in 2018 that is already being used at about a half-dozen parishes.
“We’re trying to emphasize two things: study and action,” said Father Farrell. “We’ve been strong perhaps on the study, not so strong on the action.”
But the educational component was a necessary first step. Paraphrasing a passage from the encyclical, he said, “If we do not change our way of thinking, we will not change our way of acting.”
In this, the priest has had his work cut out for him.
“Forming conscience is slow,” he said. “Changing people’s habits or lifestyle, that’s a tough one.”
He quipped, “The prophets tried it. You know what happened to them.”
Throughout the diocese, there are already tangible results of a Catholic response to Laudato Si. For instance, solar power systems have been installed at the diocesan Pastoral Center and almost half of the parishes, and Creation Care Teams are active at eight parishes. Some parishes have made environmentally friendly changes to their landscaping, while others have traded plastic and Styrofoam cups for biodegradable alternatives.
But even with those accomplishments, Father Farrell still feels that the message of Laudato Si has not entirely “reached the pews.” At churches, he sometimes encounters critics who argue that the climate change issue is “all politics.” To that, he says: “It’s very spiritual. It’s your stewardship of what God has given you, and we’re contaminating it and wasting it, and that’s a sin.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home order enacted to slow its spread have not sidetracked Father Farrell’s ministry.
A four-part series of online training sessions on how to start or re-establish a Creation Care Team began on May 14 and will conclude June 4. On May 16, the Office for Life, Peace and Justice held an online celebration of the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, featuring a presentation by Dr. Maureen Day, assistant professor of religion and society at the Franciscan School of Theology.
In terms of what individual Catholics can do to better respond to Laudato Si, Bishop McElroy urges people to take a look at what the scientific data tells us about the threat to the environment and, with “the eyes of faith,” to reflect on “the spiritual nature” and the beauty of God’s creation. He also encourages looking within and asking what changes one can make in one’s own life.
“That’s hard,” he said of the latter. “That’s very hard because it involves sacrifices, and we don’t like sacrifices.”
Echoing those sentiments, Father Farrell said the first step is “to decide that this [climate change] is a problem, it’s real,” and then to “find ways to ‘green’ up your diet and your energy use.” These might include such simple changes around the house as not wasting food, limiting red meat consumption to once or twice a week, planting a vegetable garden, walking or bicycling to nearby places, changing light bulbs to more energy-efficient LEDs, and taking shorter showers.
Robert Gilleskie, a retiree with a professional background in electrical engineering, is currently working to establish a Creation Care Team at St. James Parish in Solana Beach. He said it is important for such teams to be formed at every parish in the diocese that does not yet have one. He said team members would meet — “ideally, once a month” — to study the encyclical and then to come up with ways to live it out in their parish and surrounding community.
“Perhaps a silver lining of this [COVID-19] pandemic could be an increased awareness of the fact that we are all connected, and are called upon to make changes for the good of our fellow human beings,” Gilleskie said.
Anne Marie Oldham is a teacher at St. James Academy, the first Catholic school in Southern California to receive a Green Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education for its sustainability efforts. Among other things, the school has stations for water bottle filling and electric vehicle charging, LED lights throughout the campus, and a vegetable garden where Oldham provides students with hands-on experience with organic gardening.
“There are so many options that it can be overwhelming and hard to know where to start,” Oldham said of responding to the call of Laudato Si. “I recommend that individual Catholics reach out to others in their parish and school community and assess talents and interests. Decide on a feasible first project and start with that, taking one step at a time.
“One success will lead to another, and interest and support will grow,” she continued. “As Mother Teresa said, we can all do small things with great love.”
For more information, contact Father Emmet Farrell at (619) 419-8345 or visit www.sdcatholic.org/office-for/life-peace-and-justice.