In Pope Francis’s landmark 2015 encyclical on ecology, “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” the pope emphasized that the world’s environmental and social challenges are interconnected, and that people of faith are called to take action to protect God’s creation.

To mark the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’, the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Social Concerns on May 21 held a Virtual Symposium On the Care for Creation and the Response of the Faithful, that featured insights from a spectrum of people who reflected on how protecting the environment is an essential work of faith. The speakers included the archbishop of Washington, the head of Catholic Charities in the nation’s capital, a graduating high school senior, a scientist and former government official, an immigrant who works with a hunger relief organization, a lay leader involved in interfaith work, and a parish priest. 

“Responding to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth is not a partisan issue. They are the Gospel,” said Ben Campion, a member of the class of 2020 from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., who addressed the symposium in a videotaped message.

Campion spoke passionately, tying the fear unleashed by the worldwide coronavirus outbreak to the concerns young people have about the degradation of the planet’s environment.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is testing our ability to work together and rely on each other to heal our world,” he said, “…This fear of what the future holds is not a new feeling to me and most other young people.”

Noting the urgency of the world’s climate crisis, Campion said, “We not only need to preserve this beautiful world for us and future generations. We must repair the broken system which has created the current reality and hurt so many people in the process.”

He underscored how the Catholic Church teaches a consistent ethic of life, recognizing human dignity from conception to natural death, and he said that defense of life must include preserving the planet and caring for the poor.

“You have the ability to be a bold defender of life and show my generation that the Church cares about our future,” Campion said, encouraging priests to preach about environmental justice, and for local Catholics to support an upcoming archdiocesan action plan inspired by Laudato Si’.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory opened the symposium with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. Pope Francis named his encyclical Laudato Si’ – Latin for “Praise be to you” –  after the first line of a canticle by St. Francis of Assisi praising God and all His creation.

A key topic for the discussion was the Archdiocese of Washington’s future Laudato Si’  implementation plan for parishes and parishioners to help people live out its message in their daily lives, similar to what the Archdiocese of Atlanta did when it was led by Archbishop Gregory before he became the archbishop of Washington in 2019. 

That action plan for Catholics in Atlanta was one of the first such plans formulated by a U.S. diocese in response to Pope Francis’s ecology encyclical. The Archdiocese of Washington’s plan is being formulated by the Office of Social Concerns, with input from local Catholics, including the archdiocese’s Care for Creation Committee. The office plans to survey pastors and lay leaders for their input on the plan.

Archbishop Gregory explained that the plan devised in Atlanta was drawn up on the initiative of a faculty member from the University of Georgia with help from colleagues who had expertise in that field.

In bringing the papal encyclical to life in that diocese, Archbishop Gregory said the plan was written with the understanding that “not everyone could do everything.” So he said the plan was designed to be implemented on the diocesan level, at the parish level where pastors were encouraged to use energy more efficiently and save costs, and also with ideas for steps families could take in their homes. Then that archdiocese gained funding support for its energy initiatives from local philanthropic groups.

“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,” Archbishop Gregory said.

The symposium’s next speaker, Msgr. John Enzler – the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington – was joined by Archbishop Gregory this past fall at the launching of a major energy initiative, as the archbishop blessed a solar array being installed on five acres of Catholic Charities land surrounding the Missionaries of Charities’ Gift of Peace home. 

The array of 5,072 solar panels was described as the largest such solar project built thus far in Washington, D.C., and it was estimated that the panels would generate 2.7 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, equivalent to powering about 350 homes. The proceeds will offset nearly all of the energy costs of Catholic Charities’ 12 properties in the District of Columbia and also fund maintenance costs for the Gift of Peace building. The solar array was operational at the end of January 2020. 

Addressing the virtual symposium on Care for Creation, Msgr. Enzler noted how Catholic Charities has responded to the growing need for food assistance in the wake of the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown. He said the agency has provided more than 100,000 meals to people in need over the past three weeks.

“But charity is not enough. We are called to do justice,” Msgr. Enzler said, noting how “the parallels between the pandemic and climate change are striking, stunning and grim. Failure to urgently address the rapid heating of our planet will result in far greater and unimaginable consequences than the devastating effects of the coronavirus.”

The priest added, “If we do not dramatically change our collective and personal lifestyles, COVID-19 is a grim glimpse into our future.”

The Catholic Church must address the environmental crisis, he said, noting that it is also a social crisis.

That point was echoed in a video message from Dulce Gamboa, an associate for Latino relations for Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group that works to end hunger in the United States and around the world. Gamboa, a Catholic who was born in Mexico City and now lives in Washington, D.C., noted that climate change is a key factor causing the migration of poor people experiencing hunger and malnutrition in their countries.

“Many places around the world are struggling with drought, extreme heat and deep freezes,” she said, adding, “meeting the needs of the most affected communities and ultimately eradicating hunger depends heavily on how we address climate change.”

Gamboa said she hopes the Catholic community can help lead the way in addressing the environmental issues impacting the world’s poor. “We are called as Catholics to love, offer mercy and work for justice for the most vulnerable,” she said, adding, “For the largest migration crisis in modern history, how will we respond?”

Archbishop Gregory said that over the centuries, environmental factors have been a primary cause for migration, and he pointed to the example of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s.

“Many of those people fled Ireland because they could not find food to feed their families. The same dynamic goes on in too many places now,” he said, adding that people migrating to find relief from hunger or disaster should be welcomed as they are trying to find a new home.

Another speaker during the symposium, Bob Simon, discussed the scientific basis of climate change. Simon, a member of the archdiocese’s Care for Creation Committee, has a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He retired in 2016 from his position as principal advisor to the director of Energy, Transportation and Resources at the White House Office of Science and Technology.

“Right now, the Earth’s climate is changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization,” he said. “…Perhaps 90 percent of the global warming we’re seeing is due to human activity.”

The change, he said, is not only affecting faraway lands, but it is also being felt in the United States, including in heavier rains throughout the country. Simon, a member of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, said that has real-world consequences for parishes with older roofs, downspouts and gutters.

In another video, the symposium featured Angela Wilson-Turnbull, a member of the archdiocese’s Care for Creation Committee who leads the social justice advocacy ministries at St. Augustine Parish in Washington, D.C., and is a strategy leader for the Washington Interfaith Network. 

Wilson-Turnbull said the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been “partly caused by human degradation of the environment.”

“The virus’s rapid spread and disastrous consequences, especially on our minority and disadvantaged communities, presents a challenge and an opportunity for all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington,” she said.

Environmental and racial justice issues underline this disparity, Wilson-Turnbull said, pointing to poorer parts of the nation’s capital where people of color, who have been especially hard hit by COVID-19, have a lack of basic access to clean water, green spaces and healthy food, and experience health care deficits, a lack of affordable housing and low wages.

She noted how the Washington Interfaith Network has successfully lobbied DC Water to implement a green solution for water runoff that benefits D.C. residents in those wards, with jobs being filled by unemployed, underemployed and returning residents.

Noting the importance for people of faith to be engaged in those justice issues, Wilson-Turnbull said, “This is our moment to do God’s work.”

In response, Archbishop Gregory said he wanted to underscore her point about people from different faith backgrounds working together to protect the environment.

“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.

Simon said parishes have a key role to play in implementing Pope Francis’s vision on protecting the environment, not only through preaching and educational programs, but also by modeling behavior through taking steps to make their facilities more energy efficient. 

He noted the District of Columbia has the highest solar energy financial incentives in the nation, and one D.C. parish is proposing having a solar project installed at no cost that could save it $32,000 in its first year and an estimated $1 million over 25 years.

That kind of opportunity, he said, is potentially available to parishes across the archdiocese, and at a time when they have experienced financial losses due to the coronavirus shutdown, those cost savings would be especially beneficial. Parishes could also save significant funds by installing LED lighting, he added.

“The bottom line is, we should be doing these things because we care for our common home. Even if they didn’t save us money, they’re the right thing to do. They align with Pope Francis’s vision,” Simon said, adding, “In the current economic crisis, I think there’s a clear pastoral imperative to look for these kind of environmental and economical savings.” 

Also in a video during the symposium, Father John Grace, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton, Virginia, said, “As human beings, we are part of the interconnected web of life.”

Father Grace, who was filmed speaking on the rooftop of a parish building, surrounded by solar panels, said, “We are 100 percent solar energy.” That initiative has saved the parish significant energy costs. The priest said he was striving not only for energy efficiency, but for the church to give a good example, and he said that has gotten a very positive response from young adults in the parish.

“Every child I baptize with the clean waters of Baptism, I am concerned about the world they will live and move in the next 50, 60, 70 years,” he said.

The symposium’s organizer, Genevieve Mougey, the new director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office for Social Concerns, noted that care for creation is one of the key principles of Catholic social teaching, and the discussion they were holding offered an opportunity to reflect on “what it means to be a steward of the Earth.”

Every Catholic, she said, is called to do his or her part in that effort, and she expressed hope that the survey her office is distributing will be shared far and wide through social media, so many people across the archdiocese can offer their insights to help shape the upcoming action plan on implementing Laudato Si’.

Paula Gwynn Grant, the archdiocese’s secretary for communications, served as the facilitator for the symposium.

Summarizing the reflections made during the discussion, Mougey said, “There’s an underlying message of hope.”

Closing the symposium with a prayer, Archbishop Gregory asked God to “help us appreciate the gift of this Earth which is a source of bounty for us and glory for you.”