The publication of Pope Francis’ historic encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), dated May 24, 2015, but released June 18 of that year, was one of the most talked about Catholic events of the past year.
A year later, it is clear that many U.S. dioceses intend to make sure the Church offers more than just chatter in response. Here is a sampling of what’s been happening around the country.
Action guide in Atlanta
“The No. 1 thing I am asked when it comes to this encyclical is: ‘What can we do to help the situation?’” said Kat Doyle, director of the Archdiocese of Atlanta Office of Justice and Peace Ministries.
Fortunately, she has an important new resource to help her provide inquirers with a thorough and practical response. The Archdiocese of Atlanta’s “Laudato Si’ Action Plan” is the fruit of an impressive collaboration of several local experts and intense interest on the part of Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory.
“Long before the encyclical was even released, Archbishop Gregory insisted that we needed to be prepared to put into action what the pope presents to us,” Doyle told Our Sunday Visitor.
In early 2015, Archbishop Gregory invited a half-dozen Catholic laypeople, each of them experts in various fields of science and based at the University of Georgia, to collaborate in preparing an archdiocesan response. The result was the action plan, released by the archdiocese in November and introduced April 6.
At just over 50 pages long, the action plan offers a menu of concrete actions to be carried out by parishes or individual believers. The items are categorized according to level of complexity (easy through advanced). Some are as simple as turning the water off while brushing your teeth; others, like calling for legislative action, demand more time, knowledge or resources.
“But it’s worth remembering that the things that are more difficult and complex usually have a greater impact, too. So though doing small things is important, we can’t ignore the larger efforts,” Doyle said.
Taking up one of the action guide’s recommendations, the archdiocese planted a “Laudato Si’ Tree” on its chancery office grounds. A local landscaping company donated its time and expertise to come and explain to officials how to choose which kind of tree to plant and where to plant it.
Archbishop Gregory joined a gathering of archdiocesan staff to bless the new tree and pray with the group. Speaking to those gathered for the occasion, Doyle recalled, the archbishop told them, “This is our call as Christians.”
The archdiocesan plan also has a strong ecumenical aspect. She shared the action plan with leaders at Atlanta’s historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor for several years. Clergy there were so impressed with the resource that they shared it with their entire congregation one Sunday morning in April. Leaders at the Atlanta office of the American Jewish Committee have also expressed great interest in its contents.
“Some Catholics have said to me, ‘I didn’t know our church cared about this. We really need to let people know and to do something,’” she said.
“The thing that seems to grab people is that the pope addressed the encyclical not just to bishops and not even just to Catholics, but to everyone in the world. That changes the playing field. Our pope has put this out, and we need to lead the world in taking care of the environment,” Doyle said.
Weekend workshop in San Francisco
The Atlanta archdiocese is not alone in answering the call of Laudato Si’. On the other side of the country, the Archdiocese of San Francisco found that several groups and organizations — the archdiocesan priests’ council and Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns, for starters — were interested in providing a concrete response to the encyclical.
So Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, director of the social concerns office, proposed a collaboration. The result was a major workshop for clergy and laity on Laudato Si’ and its practical implications, which was held April 23.
The event included presentations on how climate change affects the poor, the establishment of parish “green teams” and more. Small group discussions addressed how priests might include environmental themes in homilies and how leaders can constructively address “pushback” on the topic.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was present for the event and offered a reflection on the theological aspects of the encyclical.
“There was a lot more interest than we had anticipated. Well over 100 people showed up,” Bishop Justice told OSV. He noted that the archdiocese has received “very positive responses to our efforts, from laypeople, clergy and religious.” As a result, a second workshop on the topic is being planned for October.
High-level talks in D.C.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic leaders had the benefit of the example of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl in shaping a robust response to the teachings of Laudato Si’. Cardinal Wuerl was at the forefront in introducing the encyclical not only to his own archdiocese but also to the national media.
At a major press conference at the National Press Club on the morning of the encyclical’s release, he shared the stage with Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Since then, the cardinal has spoken frequently about the document to various groups and media outlets, and he has promoted it in several substantial posts on his own blog.
“The cardinal sees the evangelizing opportunity that this encyclical represents. There is so much interest right now in care for the environment, and he’s convinced the Catholic Faith has something important to offer on the topic,” said Susan Timoney, director of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns.
Within the archdiocese, the Catholic response to the encyclical has been guided by the release of a major “parish toolkit” intended to help parishes and individuals implement the document’s teaching. The resource was prepared by Timoney’s office in consultation with its Care for Creation Committee.
The 33-page toolkit includes an overview of the encyclical, suggestions for prayers of the faithful and liturgical music to be used at parish Masses, sample bulletin announcements, catechetical guidelines and lists of ways that parishes can “go green” and save money at the same time.
Timoney has seen an enthusiastic response to the toolkit as well as to the pope’s encyclical. She noted that several parish-based young adult groups read and reflected on the document together and even teamed up with local environmental groups for more concrete action.
“I’ve seen a pride in many people that the Church is taking a lead in proposing solutions to such a grave problem,” Timoney told OSV.
She noted that in a city like Washington, D.C., home to myriad of federal government offices and a variety of national and international organizations, conversations about the environment among the lay faithful, many of whom lead or work in these offices, can quickly become highly politicized and, as a result, challenging. On the other hand, when active parishioners include so many top experts and leaders on a variety of topics related to the environment, “it allows us to have some pretty high-level discussions in our parishes and institutions, and that benefits everyone.”
With so much effort being expended in making the teaching of Laudato Si’ known to people within and outside the Catholic Church in the United States, it is clear that the full impact of Pope Francis’s historic document still remains to be seen.
Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.