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Diocese will join pope’s new 7-year plan to act on teachings of Laudato Si’

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It’s been six years since Pope Francis released his groundbreaking environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” — and most Catholics are just beginning to unpack what it means to truly care for God’s creation.

In May, the pope asked the global church to join him in a seven-year “action platform” to embrace the spiritual and environmental principles he addressed in the encyclical, and become better stewards of our planet. "What world do we want to leave to our children and our young? Our selfishness, our indifference and our irresponsible ways are threatening the future of our children," he said.

This is our little patch of earth that God gave us, we should be better stewards of it.” Faith Roberts, St. Mark Church, Vienna

The Arlington diocese announced on Sept. 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, that it will join this global effort.

“It’s not too late for us to pray and act to protect the earth from further harm,” said Father Robert C. Cilinski, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Burke and chairman of the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, which announced the initiative on the commission’s email list. “Our children, grandchildren, and their children 30 years from now will look back to us for what we did or did not do. It’s not too late to keep the earth, our common home, a place of beauty and life. We must act with urgency. It’s a life-giving decision.”

The first year of the initiative will be devoted to learning about the spirituality and teachings of “Laudato Si’,” whose title in medieval Italian translates as “Be praised, my Lord,” the first line of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, which envisions all of God’s creation as our brothers and sisters.

“We will be praying for conversion of heart, and beginning to understand what we personally can do to help preserve our earthly home,” said Carla Walsh, the diocesan staffer who is coordinating the commission’s plans. The next five years will focus on the actions individuals, parishes and communities can take, followed by a year of reflection. More details will be released in coming months, she said.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge spoke about creation care as a pro-life issue when he visited St. Bernadette Church in Springfield in May to bless the parish’s new solar panels. “The Holy Father reminds us that our preeminent duty to protect and safeguard all of human life from the moment of conception to natural death is in harmony with our duty also to take care of his creation, which makes that life possible,” he said. “When we fail to take care of that creation, who suffers the most? Our brothers and sisters who are poor and vulnerable and in most need.”  

St. Bernadette is the fourth parish in the diocese to go solar, following Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington in 2019; Church of the Nativity in Burke and St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

Adding solar panels is just one of the ways churches in the diocese have been focusing on environmental consciousness. Some formed groups to study the encyclical and many have launched environmental ministries to educate parishioners about the impacts of climate change and how they can make a difference. Several of these parishes formed a diocesan Care for Creation Network, to share resources and encourage other parishes. 

One of the most active has been St. John Neumann Church in Reston, whose Care for our Common Home ministry has reduced parish energy consumption, achieving a 28 percent reduction in electricity use and cutting the annual fuel bill by $15,000. The parish was named a Certified Cool Congregation by Interfaith Power and Light. The ministry also spearheaded projects to reduce paper and plastic waste by using real dishes and organizing volunteers to wash them after parish events. 

The environmental ministry at St. Mark Church in Vienna is using the Season of Creation (Sept. 1-Oct. 4) to turn a prominent plot near the main entrance into a Mary Garden — which also will be a native pollinator garden. Plans call for the traditional statue of Our Lady, a bench and stones or beads for praying the rosary, but instead of European flowers such as bleeding heart, lady’s slipper and baby’s breath, they’ll substitute native plants suggested by the Saint Kateri Conservation Center, including fringed bleeding heart, native white turtlehead and yarrow, to support the ecosystems of local pollinator insects and native birds. 

“We want to create a place of beauty, prayer and education, and draw everyone in to develop a connection with creation,” said ministry member Faith Roberts. “This is our little patch of earth that God gave us, we should be better stewards of it.”

Third graders at St. Mark School will be involved in the garden, which will tie in to lessons in science, social studies and religion, said teacher Susan Heard. Children will track plant growth, learn about soil and pollinators, study St. Kateri and Mary’s connection to flowers in the garden, she said.

St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle has long been focusing on environmental stewardship. Staffed by Franciscans, the parish in 2014 was the first church in Virginia to complete the GreenFaith environmental certification program, which looks at parish activities from eco-themed worship services and environmental education to energy consumption. 

The parish encourages appreciation of nature, with native gardens, picnic areas and outdoor prayer spaces including a labyrinth and Mary grotto. The campus is a certified National Wildlife Federation wildlife habitat, with bird feeders all over the grounds. “I can watch birds from my room,” said Franciscan Father George Corrigan, parochial vicar and a member of the Care for Creation ministry, whose website includes links to videos, official documents and Franciscan resources on environmental stewardship.

But Father Corrigan, a former tech executive who served as a lay missionary in one of the world’s largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya, before becoming a priest, knows that getting people to truly focus on the environment is a challenge, because parishioners are pulled in so many directions and asked to focus on dozens of important issues, from global crises, to COVID-19, to helping the airlifted Afghan refugees now arriving at Marine Base Quantico near his parish.

“It’s the year of so many things,” he said. “You only get a handful of opportunities to say ‘Let’s focus on this.’ ”

Find out more

For the latest updates on the diocesan Laudato Si’ initiative, sign up for Peace and Justice Commission emails at arlingtondiocese.org/peace/

Read the full text of Laudato Si’ on the Vatican website.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021