It was one of those moments when everything came together.
On June 18, Pope Francis issued an encyclical — a teaching letter to the global Catholic Church — focused on the environment.
As a Catholic who has spent years working professionally and personally to protect our land, water and air, I read the encyclical while visiting Ocracoke Island. And I wept.
I’ve always felt a connection between my faith and caring for the natural world. For nearly a decade, I’ve been working with the Environmental Stewardship Committee at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Schools in Annapolis. We arranged for a comprehensive energy audit and undertook lighting upgrades and other energy-efficiency improvements in several of our buildings. We implemented a parishwide recycling program, placing recycling bins in every classroom of our schools and rectory.
And closest to my heart, we partnered with the Spa Creek Conservancy and obtained a state grant to retrofit the parking lot with nine rain gardens filled with native plants that filter the storm water running off our property into Spa Creek.
Today, nutrients in the water from the grounds of the St. Mary’s campus flowing into the creek are down 70 percent; sediment is down 90 percent. In a warming climate, where future storms will be stronger and water levels higher, I’m grateful that my parish has rain barrels and rain gardens that will help our property weather heavy rains.
I know I’m only one of many Catholics throughout our watershed for whom the pope’s encyclical was a powerful validation of their work. Here are some of their voices:
“For me, a beautiful part of being Catholic is recognizing ‘communion’ — being in solidarity with others to promote the common good,” said Tony Bosnick, who works as the social concerns minister at St. Francis of Assisi in Derwood, MD, where the Care of God’s Creation Committee has undertaken an energy audit and planted a pollinator garden.
“Jesus talked about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry,” said Jodi Rose, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth’s in Rockville, MD, who directs Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. “To do that today, we have to heal the Earth. But we’re going to have to learn that love for the Earth and love for humanity are interconnected.”
“Catholics are told to honor life above all,” said Jenny Michalak, whose Baltimore parish St. Pius X has organized an annual St. Francis Day fair, hosted a Community Supported Agriculture program from a local farm and are in the process of installing a rain garden through the Blue Water Congregations program. “To me, caring for creation is caring for life.”
In my view, it was a momentous action for Pope Francis to assert the fundamental unity of social and climate justice, as he did in last month’s encyclical. He asks everyone, including all of my neighbors here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and throughout the world community — Catholic or not — to hear “both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”
“We are not disconnected from the rest of creatures,” he teaches, “but joined in a splendid universal communion.”
It was that feeling of splendid communion that brought tears to my eyes last month.
Finally it all came together. This remarkable pope validated the values that have guided both my professional work and my work at St. Mary’s and that of so many other parishioners to advocate creation care in Catholic parishes.
“Pope Francis isn’t only issuing his encyclical from Rome,” said Ramon Palencia-Calvo, of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, MD. “In September, he’s coming to deliver his message directly to Congress. That teaches me that we, too, must speak out.”
What does that mean for us here? In every state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Catholic conferences advocate for Catholic values on state level policy issues.
The Pope’s teachings unite our mandate to care for our neighbors with the mandate to care for the environment.
I hope and pray that every Catholic Conference and every parish in the Bay watershed will answer the pope’s encyclical and encourage their parishioners to be guided by his words and to support strong environmental policies in their state legislatures and in Congress.
If we are to be faithful to this teaching — to this powerful spiritual truth that we are all interconnected — we can do no less.