Church teachings guide efforts for the environment

Read Catholic News Service's story on the encyclical, plus view a pdf copy of 'Laudato Si' here.

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Maurice Lange reached down to check the soil in the garden at the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Help 40-acre property in DeSoto.

Clearly all is well, as the soil held healthy rows of green plants soon to bring a bountiful harvest of potatoes, peas, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, garlic, beans and okra. The plants, along with flowers that attract bees and butterflies, are grown in earth-friendly ways, without chemically-based insecticides and fertilizers.

For example, the flowering nasturtium plants lure aphids away from other plants in the garden. A fabric cover over the eggplants keeps flea beetles away and the potato plants are scanned by hand for potato bugs.

Recognizing the need to practice what they were preaching when they formed Franciscans for Earth, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Help planted the vegetable garden using sustainable practices and built a greenhouse -- designed as an educational tool for groups visiting the property. It is overseen by Lange, director of eco-justice for the sisters.

The garden and other efforts by Franciscans for Earth are a response to Church teachings on the environment. That teaching will be highlighted in Pope Francis' encyclical on ecology and climate, which is expected to send a strong moral message.

"The encyclical will address the issue of inequality in the distribution of resources and topics such as the wasting of food and the irresponsible exploitation of nature and the consequences for people's life and health," Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, told Catholic News Service.

The encyclical, to be published June 18, is titled "Laudato Si" ("Praised Be"), the first words of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Creatures." The encyclical isn't expected to be a technical document about environmental issues, but a pastoral call to change how people use the planet's resources so they're sufficient for future generations.

According to Lange, the Franciscan Sisters' efforts harken to St. John Paul II's World Day of Peace message in 1990, when the pope referred to the ecological crisis as a moral issue and called for an education in ecological responsibility.

The sisters are inspired by examples of St. Francis of Assisi and by Father Thomas Berry, author of "The Dream of the Earth." The Franciscan Sisters have been showing documentaries in Kirkwood and in DeSoto for several years, and they have sponsored other events on topics such as recycling.

The films and events help "people live more simply, closer to the earth, to show that we are all part of God's creation," said Sister Cheryl Kemner, assistant minister general. "We should care for everything in creation."

Vegetables and plants from the garden are sold at a farmers' market, and vegetables are given to needy people. Several parishes and organizations in the archdiocese also have planted organic vegetable gardens in recent years, often supplying healthy food to needy families.

The sisters belong to the Inter-community Ecological Council of women religious communities in St. Louis focused on responsible stewardship of the earth's resources. The communities are active in various efforts, such as the Franciscan Sisters of Mary's concerns about the cleanup of radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton and their decision to invest in clean-energy firms.

An extraordinary world

Benjamin de Foy, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at St. Louis University, brings his faith to his work by reminding people of how extraordinary the world is.

"Sometimes that gets lost," he said. "We're all shouting at everybody, and we forget how it works."

He describes himself as "a St. John Paul II Catholic," soaking in what that pope said about the environment. Discussions about climate change should involve how we live and organize society, connecting to the Gospel, said De Foy, who gives talks on the Beatitudes and climate change.

On any issue, he said the question to ask is: "How do we follow Jesus' lead?"

De Foy does research on atmospheric pollution on the local and global level, using satellite data.

"We've been working on air pollution a lot longer than climate change. The good news is it's gotten a lot cleaner," he said. "So we know if we want to solve problems, we can do it. You see pictures of St. Louis from nearly 100 years ago, and it's just this black smoke. Nobody would want to breathe that air today. The reason the air is cleaner today is because people came together, made policies, encouraged change and looked for solutions."

Ecology and spirituality

A documentary in the Franciscan Sisters EcoJustice film series earlier this year was "From the Pipeline," directed by Caitlin Zera. The documentary follows the route of Missouri's arm of the Flanagan South tar sands pipeline, telling the stories of farmers and citizens and the pipeline's impact on them. The pipeline became operational in mid-2014.

The pipeline stretches across Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, traveling under rivers and cutting through farmland, wetlands and wildlife areas. It carries nearly 600,000 barrels a day of tar sands, an oil product, rivaling the capacity of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline crosses streams, creeks and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It also goes under the Grand River just south of Kansas City, Mo., a source of drinking water for towns nearby. The pipeline is buried underground and pulled through underneath water bodies using the boring method.

A graduate of Ursuline Academy, Zera credits the sisters she met while working with the Inter-School Ecological Council with helping her connect ecology and spirituality.

"I feel it was a special gift to be able to learn from the sisters, outside of the classroom in meaningful conversations and activities through ISEC, about the importance of unity with the natural world and the great need for humility in our human interactions with the environment," she said.

She sees a need to respect "the world's beautiful, intricate ecosystems -- its plants, animals, natural processes, systems, and forces of life -- on their own terms."

According to Zera, many social justice issues are in some way rooted in ecological crises, including food insecurity and migration due to climate change. She views the earth not as a place of endless resources for human use but as a life-giving and sustaining home, full of rich biodiversity and opportunities to live prosperously in tandem with other living beings.

Her next project is about food deserts -- communities that are more than a mile away from grocery stores with fresh food.

Sister Joann Nowak of the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help cited the need to teach people about sustainability -- ways to be frugal as well as healthy. Working with the dirt brings a psychological boost, she noted, something St. Francis of Assisi knew about.

The pope's encyclical "is like putting a flag in our backyard," she said. "The whole world will benefit from his focus on it."

BiodiverseCity St. Louis

"I would therefore like us all to make the serious commitment to respect and care for creation, to pay attention to every person, to combat the culture of waste and of throwing out so as to foster a culture of solidarity and encounter" (Pope Francis, general audience, June 5, 2013).

The Missouri Botanical Garden launched an initiative in 2012 that brings together a variety of organizations for BiodiverseCity St. Louis, which promotes biodiversity in the region.

"People are increasingly disconnected from nature while we are increasingly consuming and imperiling the natural systems ... the ecosystem services that life depends on, the food, medicine, materials that become shelter and clothing, water and air, the biological capabilities of natural systems to clean and purify water and air — all of that is connected," said Jean Ponzi, green resources manager at the Botanical Garden.

Plant-based solutions can be used for modern urban and suburban infrastructure needs, Ponzi said, and can lead to job creation. Mimicking nature, she added, helps us "to connect with and appreciate the wealth of different kinds of living things that share our backyards with us and to prioritize efforts to conserve and help restore that biodiversity."

Programs it supports include "Milkweeds for Monarchs," which supports butterfly populations. Ponzi cited the many faith-based initiatives that address biodiversity, such as Interfaith Power and Light, which supports energy-efficiency efforts by faith-based communities.

For more information, visit www.stlouisreview.com/2kr.

—Joseph Kenny 

More info

Many local Catholics add a faith perspective to the environment.

• Parishes or other groups interested in bringing in a speaker on the topic of climate change, can contact Benjamin de Foy at bdefoy@slu.edu or (314) 977 3122.

• To host a screening of Caitlin Zera's "From the Pipeline" documentary, visit the Host a Screening section of http://fromthepipelineproject.com.

• To inquire about the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help's Franciscans for Earth and its demonstration garden, visit www.franciscansisters-olph.org.

• "Caring for God's Creation" is a resource from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.stlouisreview.com/2kf. 

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