Pope Francis’ encyclical inspires East Tennessee Catholics ‘to achieve climate and ecological justice’
By Gabrielle Nolan
“Care for our common home.” This phrase was made popular by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, in which the pope both encourages the faithful to practice good stewardship toward the earth that God has given and criticizes the abuse of natural resources and the poor.
Pope Francis writes: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; He never forsakes His loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (Laudato Si’, paragraph 13).
Laudato Si’ Week is celebrated May 21-28 this year, and parishes in the diocese are embracing the call to care for the environment.
All Saints Parish, Knoxville
The Creation Care Team meets at All Saints Church at 1 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month.
“Our team started about two years ago,” said Connie Brace. “We grew out of a person by the name of Beth Hunley here in town who was interested in climate issues…. Beth has a group that is called Catholic Response to Climate Change, and it’s been meeting on Zoom.”
As people gathered for the monthly Zoom calls, it became evident that several of the individuals were from All Saints Parish.
“We decided to go ahead and form a parish group that was willing by then to meet in person and start trying to develop activities at the parish level,” Mrs. Brace said.
The main theme of the group became promoting Laudato Si’ and “the whole idea that concern about the climate and the earth is a Catholic social-justice issue,” Mrs. Brace said, noting that they were influenced by the organizations Laudato Si’ Movement and Catholic Climate Covenant.
Laudato Si’ Movement’s mission is “to inspire and mobilize the Catholic community to care for our common home and achieve climate and ecological justice, in collaboration with all people of good will,” according to its website.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped to form Catholic Climate Covenant in 2006 and “helps U.S. Catholics respond to the Church’s call to care for creation and care for the poor,” its website states.
Mrs. Brace said that their group has “gone a lot of different directions” in the last two years.
“We started out just doing bulletin inserts, quoting from Laudato Si’ and trying to encourage people to think about what is in this encyclical,” she said.
The group has done several activities to support its mission: praying the rosary with the theme of climate care; praying the Ecological Stations of the Cross; Earth Day activities, such as distributing seeds; volunteering on river or street trash cleanups; presentations on recycling and composting; and celebrating the ecumenical Season of Creation with displays in the parish narthex.
“We’ve involved the Girl Scouts, we do the blessing of the animals—just every place that we could make a fingerprint, we have tried,” said team member Denise Clark.
The group also showed a viewing of “The Letter,” a film that “tells the story of a journey to Rome of frontline leaders to discuss the encyclical letter Laudato Si’ with Pope Francis,” according to its website. “The Letter” can be viewed for free on YouTube.
Another action item that the ministry has undertaken is an energy audit for both the parish and Knoxville Catholic High School, which shares a campus with the church.
“We understood that having an energy audit would be one of the steps that our Creation Care Team would want to take in our general plan, which we’re just formulating at this point,” Ms. Clark said. “The energy audit, I was aware, was available through the TVA engineer as long as we could obtain funding from the utility agency.”
“At the same time I asked for the high school, because we want to get youth involved in the climate-care movement and because we figured the high school has rather great energy needs, given all the different activities that they have at all different hours, weekends, etc.,” she continued. “So we obviously wanted to save energy where possible.”
The TVA engineer did a tour of both facilities and is currently preparing a report “to make suggestions as to energy savings, equipment that needs to be replaced, which perhaps could become EnergyStar equipment, and any other measures that might be taken,” Ms. Clark noted.
Mrs. Brace shared that while climate-change issues may be very popular in the newspaper, most people do not connect it to their faith.
“People’s awareness may be real high, but I think maybe linking that to their faith is a missing link,” she said.
“Catholic social teaching gives us the responsibility of taking care of not only the earth but also the poor, and that is what the creation-care movement has as its basis,” Ms. Clark said. “Our earth has been damaged, mostly by what people have done to it, and industry, and so we need to begin to right that wrong. And that’s why we do what we do.”
“We really are doing all of this for the next generation, which is the one who will benefit from it or who will have a very, very difficult time with life because of it,” she continued.
Mrs. Brace noted that it is not easy to change habits, but people, in an act of faith, can try to become “conscious and aware of each action and how it impacts the earth.”
“Every decision about what we buy and the products that we use, for me it’s a daily struggle because I still buy things that are wrapped in plastic,” Mrs. Brace said “But I am at least to the point where I think about it and see that as a responsibility of being a good Catholic Christian, is to have a level of awareness about all of my actions.”
“There’s a lot of people out there who are living a whole lot better than I am, and more sustainably. So it is, it’s kind of a daily battle to change habits that have been well engrained,” she shared.
Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Alcoa
The Care for Creation Ministry meets at Our Lady of Fatima Church at 3 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month.
The group began after Father Peter Iorio, pastor at Our Lady of Fatima, preached on Laudato Si’ during the Season of Creation in 2021.
“He had a bulletin announcement inviting anyone in the parish who was interested in learning about Laudato Si’ to come to a meeting that week, and those of us who came and stayed started working from there,” said Liz McCachren.
“This teaching and ministry are most important, because they highlight the main teachings of our Lord Himself,” Father Iorio said. “We have a responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this totally connected and interdependent world in which we live, ‘neighbor’ has an all-encompassing definition. Jesus always went to the margins and cared for those people who were poor in body, mind, and spirit.”
“Jesus was constantly, in the line of the prophets of Israel, calling the people to repent/change their ways,” he continued. “The call for conversion is ongoing. Our call to conversion is biblical. We have become blind just like people of faith throughout Judeo-Christian history. Prophets called them and us to change our ways. Our way of life has become excessive. We consume much more than we need while the greatest amount of members in the human family do not have enough to even live.”
Father Iorio said that the Catholic faith is “incarnational.”
“To me that means that everything that God created has value. We have a responsibility to care for everyone and all life. The principles of Catholic social teaching give us a framework and inspiration for this ministry,” he said.
Several activities have been implemented by the group: educational messages in the bulletin, chapter-by-chapter presentations on Laudato Si’ for parishioners, a faith and science presentation on creation, educating people on recycling and composting, and planting a native tree on the parish grounds during the Season of Creation.
Additionally, the group has completed its own TVA audit for the parish campus and has already received the recommendations for energy-saving changes.
“We are in the process of having to replace our HVAC,” said Bill Christensen. “We’ve gone through the whole process of getting quotes from different people and finding the most green way to do that. We’ve decided on changing over to dual-fuel units, which are heat pumps, but also if it gets really cold a gas component will kick in. It uses less gas that way than if it was just a straight gas furnace-type thing.”
The group also showed a presentation of “The Letter,” which Ms. McCachren recommends watching in order to better understand Laudato Si’.
“[‘The Letter’] is a beautiful, sad, but inspiring film,” she said.
Mary Tankersley became a Laudato Si’ animator after a six-week program with the Laudato Si’ Movement organization.
“I participated in live webinar presentations, committed to do readings, watched instructional videos, wrote reflections, shared thoughts and ideas, and performed a capstone project of my own design,” she said. “We, the Laudato Si’ Animators, have all pledged to bring the Laudato Si’ message to life in our own communities through actions, writings, and prayer.”
Ms. McCachren says that the ministry approaches everything “with a foundation of prayer.”
“We are inspired by our pope and his reverence for God’s creation, meaning not just our earth but the people that God has created and the poor, who suffer more from climate change than anyone else. So we approach every meeting with prayer and everything we do in prayer,” Ms. McCachren said.
For Ms. McCachren, her Catholic faith is “essential” to her ministry work.
“I don’t think I could have the hope that we continue to have that it’s not too late and that we can make up for our society’s and all of the developed nations’ neglect of the environment,” she said. “I know there are people who say it’s too late; my faith says no, it’s not. It gives me hope, and I think it keeps us from getting political as well. We’re doing this because the pope has asked us to, and because we know what God wants, and that’s our rock.”
“I think the pope has really given us good direction in this, and I believe that it is so important,” Vicki Christensen said.
“I realized how… what we do and how it affects the poor, that they are the first ones to feel the effects of how we purchase things, how we purchase commodities, the changes that our countries are contributing to, and I think that a very important and a faith-filled objective is to try to do what we can,” she continued. “Even though it’s just one person, it does make a difference.”
Ms. Tankersley echoes that call with the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”
“Over decades of being a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima and serving in different capacities, I find this Care for Creation Ministry to be the most meaningful and crucial,” Ms. Tankersley said.
“It has truly taught me a different way to think and live, and to have more gratitude for the blessings of God’s creation, His mastery, and what we were provided as stewards. I now see all other church activities through the lens of creation care. I do think each individual parish should offer a Creation Care ministry for parishioners to learn these crucial truths and to see what can be accomplished together. The Laudato Si’ Action Platform for Parishes is a great start!”