As archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory quickly set to work raising the profile of environmental concerns within the archdiocese -- lending experience, leadership, and a proven record of conservation awareness to existing efforts in caring for creation. 

Prior to being installed as Washington’s archbishop in May 2019, then-Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta helped shepherd one of the first action plans in the nation responding to Pope Francis’s encyclical, “Laudato Si,’ On Care for Our Common Home.” Designed to assist people in living out the document’s message in their daily lives, the Atlanta action plan recognized, in Archbishop’s Gregory’s words “not everyone could do everything.” Instead the response divided recommendations between efforts for the diocesan level, specific steps for parishes and ways to invite all the faithful to practice conservation in their own homes.  

At a virtual symposium in May 2020 celebrating the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ ecological document, then-Archbishop Gregory said, “All the components that would make for a successful implementation plan, that we were fortunate to find in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, I think are present in the Archdiocese of Washington.” 

In pursuing such an action plan, earlier this year then-Archbishop Gregory re-established the archdiocese’s Office of Social Concerns, which surveyed the faithful throughout the entire archdiocese for input on the plan. The office was also charged with coordinating the Care for Creation Committee – a pre-existing group of more than 30 local Catholics working on guiding the archdiocese on environmental issues. 

Genevieve Mougey, the director of the archdiocese’s Office of Social Concerns, said there’s “a lot of really good momentum, energy to be the driving force of implementing Laudato Si’ and what this means for our archdiocese and the care of the environment.” 

Hired last March, Mougey said she was only two weeks into her new role before being asked to start work on the Archdiocese of Washington’s own implementation plan. Now Mougey said she is excited to be celebrating both Cardinal Gregory’s elevation and the environmental action plan as it moves through various stages of revision toward final approval.  

The archbishop’s leadership “speaks to Cardinal Gregory’s understanding of what it means to be Church” and his witness to social concerns illustrating that racial justice, the environment, food insecurity, poverty and immigration – are all woven together and require “a conversation around the care for God’s creation,” added Mougey.

This idea of “integral ecology,” as Pope Francis described in Laudato Si,’ underscored Catholic teaching on caring for one another and creation. “(The idea) we are all connected, and the choices I make will affect my neighbors – is rooted in what it means to be Catholic,” said Mougey. The director, who previously worked at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she was impressed with Cardinal Gregory’s work on the environment in Atlanta. “He seems to have this close to his heart and very close to his priorities.”

Since the prelate’s arrival in Washington, the exploration and use of solar energy expanded as well. In October 2019, then-Archbishop Gregory blessed a solar array being installed on five acres of land surrounding the Missionaries of Charity’s Gift of Peace home and leased by Catholic Charities. At the event he prayed over the array of 5,072 solar panels which will offset the energy costs of 12 buildings run by Catholic Charities and fund maintenance costs to the Gift of Peace home. The archbishop emphasized the spiritual side of stewardship for creation. “It’s not simply political, social or economic action we’re taking,” then-Archbishop Gregory said. “We’re praising God today in prayer… for the gift of the sun that shines on us, and more importantly, the Son that saves us.”

In an October 2019 photo, workers install the solar array on Catholic Charities’ property next to the Missionaries of Charity's Gift of Peace home. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

One year later, on the eve of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the archdiocese celebrated the inaugural Green Mass. Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., the celebrant and homilist at the Mass, said the faithful are called to reflect Jesus’s love “in the love and care you have for one another, and the love and care you have for God’s creation.”

Bishop Campbell pointed to that day’s Gospel reading which told of Jesus’s parable of tenants not caring for the master’s vineyard, saying that today’s tenants are the people of the Earth, who should recognize that all they have, including the Earth, is a gift to them from God, and they must be thankful for those gifts and be good stewards of them.

For several years, Father Kevin Kennedy, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Washington, D.C., and a “green team” made up of parishioners implemented environmental improvements at the church property. Recently Father Kennedy received permission for St. Gabriel’s to become the first parish in Washington to install solar panels, and he hopes their efforts can serve as a model to other parishes. According to the pastor, energy generated by St. Gabriel’s solar panels not only will eliminate their electric bill but will also produce 40 percent more energy than needed, which can be shared with three other parishes in their energy consortium.

Father Kennedy said expanding the use of alternate energy sources is an important next step for parishes and institutions in the archdiocese. In addition to the parish project, he cited the example of the Consortium of Catholic Academies’ plan to harvest solar power in exchange for roof repairs. The pastor, who is already fielding calls from other parishes on how to make green improvements, advises parishes to begin planning right away. 

Other conservation steps at St. Gabriel’s include a community garden providing food for a soup kitchen, installing water barrels to capture rain run-off and planting nearly 30 trees offered for free through a program sponsored by Pepco. Father Kennedy noted the importance of collaboration with other local parishes, schools and businesses. Then-Archbishop Gregory agreed, also emphasizing those partnerships during both his time in Atlanta and at the virtual symposium sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington, noting that care for the environment should be shared by people of all faiths. “This is a prime ecumenical, interfaith opportunity. This is not a Catholic issue. This is a human issue, and the ecumenical community, if they are invited, would be very helpful partners,” the archbishop said.