Earth Day Commemorations Include Education, Activism

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

A Franciscan webinar on the single greatest threat to the environment — climate change — coincided with this year’s commemoration of Earth Day – the annual effort, now in its 49th year, that raises awareness and increases education about the preservation and care of the planet.

Although the timing of the webinar — held a week before Earth Day’s 2019 commemoration on April 22 — was coincidental, according to Russ Testa, he said it provided an opportune overview of climate change and the Franciscan response – and how the papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, drives that response.

In the encyclical – which means “Praise Be To You,” Pope Francis laments environmental degradation and global warming, warns against consumerism and irresponsible development, and urges humankind across the world to take unified global action.

The Order’s webinar on climate change can be viewed online.

“There is an urgency for us to respond to issues of climate change and ecological destruction,” said Testa, director of the HNP Office for  Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, during a phone interview from his office in Silver Spring, Md.

“Climate change is one of the Order’s priority issues. As Franciscan-hearted people, we have to encourage conversation and action on local and statewide levels and engage in it ourselves,” said Testa, adding that HNP’s JPIC team is planning to launch a series of webinars in September as part of an advocacy effort to localize climate change issues.

The timing of the Province’s JPIC webinars is critical because the United Nations begins its next round of negotiations on climate change in November, according to Testa, who also noted that the 2020 presidential election and next year’s fifth anniversary of Laudato Si provide even greater motivation to raise public awareness and educate citizens around the world about the urgency of addressing climate change.

“We are developing a faith-response-driven call to action, so that by early next year we can implement localized plans that change public policy and energize communities to change the way they do things,” said Testa, adding, “If we are being authentic about who we are, we have a responsibility to assume some leadership role because of St. Francis and our Franciscan heritage.”

The Order’s recent climate change webinar, which can be viewed through this link, was part of an ongoing series offered in three languages (English, Spanish and Italian) by the Order’s JPIC office in Rome and its animation committee. They sponsored a webinar on migration earlier this year and are planning a fall webinar on the issue of mining.

Global warming is a long-term rise in the average temperature of the earth’s climate system caused by carbon emissions that primarily come from burning fossil fuels for energy.

Water Where It Doesn’t Belong
One of the presenters in the climate change webinar, Danny Richter – vice president of government affairs of the Citizens Climate Lobby who works extensively with social enterprises and Catholic religious orders in Africa to advance U.N. sustainability development goals in the spirit of Laudato Si – said global warming is putting water where it doesn’t belong – which has resulted in heat waves, droughts, flooding, storms, decrease in crop yields, and rising sea levels.

In Syria, for example, Richter said climate change has created a humanitarian crisis – leaving people without adequate food and water, causing mass migration of 1.5 million people from rural farming areas to urban cities, and contributing to social unrest through poverty and unemployment.

“There is considerable consensus that climate change affects the poorest people and poses a threat that can lead to greater instability and war in parts of the world. Syria is a prime example of how human culture and livelihoods are entwined in the climate system,” Richter said.

“Communicating the problem effectively and healing the damage that has already been done – and government implementing [tighter] regulations on emissions, and consuming less [food can make a dent in] reducing emissions,” he added.

Br. Keith Warner, OFM, of St. Barbara Province, another chief presenter in the Order’s webinar, said Laudato Si “is in dialogue with the U.N.’s sustainable development efforts,” but provides a holistic framework for action by addressing scientific, technical and policy questions with moral and spiritual renewal of humanity.

“It focuses on the importance of an integrated approach to the needs of the poor and the need to protect the planet at the same time,” said Br. Keith, noting that Laudato Si is the most Franciscan papal encyclical in history.

“St. Francis, cited a dozen times in this document, is held up as the model for 21st century Catholic spirituality. It is the most Franciscan moment in the Church in a long time. It is our obligation as Franciscans to step forward and motivate ourselves and others toward an ecological spirituality that takes into account the sum total of our interdependent relationships with other people, the material world and the earth,” he said.

He also noted a wide global Franciscan response: in Latin American countries, friars have organized simultaneous ecological conversion pilgrimages and events, while in southern and southeast Asia, Franciscans have maintained rural development centers that foster sustainable agriculture for local farmers and helps them develop new techniques to respond to the changing climate. In Eastern Europe, friars are working extensively with youth, incorporating the ecological spirituality of Laudato Si into existing and new summer camp programs.

“Religious Catholics have a particular obligation to respond with great passion and energy to the call of Laudato Si for ecological education, spirituality and conversion,” Br. Keith said.

River Cleanup and Fair in Maryland
Earth Day commemorations at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., involved two annual events – an education and awareness fair and a river cleanup. The fifth annual Earth Day Fair, held indoors at St. Francis International School on May 5, drew more than 750 participants despite drenching rain, according to the pastor, Christopher Posch, OFM.

Chris Posch with parishioners at St. Camillus’s Earth Day event. (Photo courtesy of St. Camillus Parish Facebook)

With the theme “confronting climate change,” Chris said the parish’s JPIC commttee and local environmental organizations were on hand with informational materials and interactive table displays that were both entertaining and educational – including a wheel spinning game with ecological questions and prizes, and an “eco-confessional,” which asked people to confess things they had done lately to pollute the earth.

“Some people feel guilty about the car they drive, or that they consume too much meat and use plastic water bottles. It was a way to create consciousness and make people aware of what we can accomplish if we do this together,” said Sandra Perez, a parish staff member and one of the organizers of the fair, which was started in 2015 by the St. Camillus Latino JPIC group.

“It’s an education process that hopefully makes people realize that we need to listen to the cry of the earth. It’s no longer a matter of climate change – it’s a climate emergency,” added Perez, who said participants received free dogwood tree plants and flower seedlings.

She said that the Latino population at St. Camillus knows too well the pollution that has destroyed the once pristine waterways and nutrient-rich soil in Latin American countries. “Mine drilling in places like Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala has contaminated large areas, forcing farmers and locals to leave,” she explained.

Perez continued, “The role of the Church is important. If we don’t see it as part of our faith, nothing will change. As a Franciscan parish, we especially need to put our faith and words into action and lead the way.”

There were table displays about pollination, the dangers of pesticides and fertilizers, recycling, the impact of being vegan, and hand-written messages in support of clean energy jobs that were later sent to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

The week before the fair, more than 70 teenagers and other parish youth and their families participated in the Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual cleanup of the Anacostia River. Led by Eric Lopez, OFM, guardian of St. Camillus Friary, they spent the day picking up trash and other debris, ranging from plastic bottles to rusted bicycles and automobile tires, along the riverbank. Volunteers also planted shrubs and flowers around the parish school and friary.

Stewardship of the environment is a year-round effort at St. Camillus, according to Chris – present in friars’ Sunday homilies and liturgical music, and in ministries like adult faith formation programs on care of creation. A month before Earth Day, a group of parishioners, many of them young people, visited Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin to support proposed legislation for offshore wind farms. Children at St. Francis International School, on the campus of St. Camillus Church, participate in the “garden project,” a program whereby students plant and harvest vegetables that are part of the school’s lunch program.

Beach Sweep at Jersey Shore

Beach Sweep brought residents together to remove debris from the sands and shores. (Flyer courtesy of St. Francis Community Center)

At St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Long Beach Island, N.J., parishioners joined with St. Mary’s of the Pine Youth Ministry on April 27 for “Beach Sweep,” a community-building event that brought residents together to remove debris from the sands and shores, according to Lori Dudek, communications and special events/volunteer coordinator of the parish and community center.

The pastor, James Scullion, OFM, greeted St. Francis parishioners as they gathered in the parking lot of the community center to receive their cleanup site assignments. Afterward, participants celebrated their Earth Day efforts with refreshments and food at a St. Francis-St. Mary’s-hosted social at the St. Francis community center – which included a sponsor-ware expo, post-Beach Sweep briefing and awards ceremony.

Beachsweep LBI, according to its website, is a non-profit designed to educate and unify the community through environmental action. “Oceanic pollution is a silent and deadly killer. As the stewards of this earth, we have a duty to protect our environment. The ocean is our home, our lifeblood, and it’s the common ground that can unify the world. It’s been overlooked for too long,” says the organization’s mission statement.

 — Stephen Mangione, a writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.