The 2016 Top Ten Catholic Eco-Stories

With insights into what's ahead in 2017

2016 came in roaring on the momentum of Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical Laudato Si’. Then it stumbled here and there as uncertainty came from unexpected winds. And now in these last days, the Catholic eco-sphere is filled with worry but also, as always, with hope in the healing grace of God and the Gospel of Life.

And so away we go with the top ten Catholic eco-stories of 2016.

10: The momentum of Laudato Si’

Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical was the big story of 2015 and its momentum and influence hammered away into 2016 with an omnipresence that graced even secular gatherings, like the COP 22 climate talks. Eco groups and Catholic religious orders, parishes, dioceses, and schools continued to study the pontiff’s words and (as we will see) infuse them into the life of the Church. Rome itself continued to shine the light of Laudato Si’ within its own prayer life and its engagement of the intersection of the natural sciences and public policy. The result of all this? One of the most impressive consequences coming out of the encyclical is arguably the movement in 2016 by many Catholic groups to divest from fossil fuels—which no doubt will be a top story in 2017.

9: The Season of Creation

You can also thank Laudato Si’ for the growth in the celebration of the Season of Creation. From September 1st (the traditional day of prayer for creation among the Eastern Orthodox) to October 4th (the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi), the Season has been a longtime ecumenical observance among many Christians. Then it was taken to great heights in the Filipino Catholic Church, and from there (with the help of Manila’s Cardinal Luis Tagle and his close friend Pope Francis) the Season of Creation became an annual event in the life of the universal Church. 2016 then saw a growing number of parishes and dioceses worldwide joining in, which is why this year may well be remembered for making the Season of Creation a Catholic tradition worldwide.

8: Local church advocacy

Speaking of the Philippines, Catholics in that nation raised loud voices in 2016 for eco-protection issues and interrelated social ones. Protesting massive developments, the continued use of coal, and the treatment of the indigenous, Catholic Filipinos continue to show the rest of us what it means to take seriously Benedict XVI’s demand that we bring our eco concerns into the public square—a demand, of course, championed by his successor. Throughout South America, Africa, and Oceania, the Church continues to find and raise its eco-voice. One hopes that 2017 will see growing levels of eco-engagement by even more bishops, priests, and laity, especially here in the Global North.

7: Diocese, parishes, and religious orders going green

Local Catholic communities are not just demanding that others live out Laudato Si’. They’re living it themselves—or at least trying to. While energy efficiency and renewable power sources are some of the more common ways that parishes are “going green,” there have been other efforts related to stormwater management, organic landscaping, and composting and waste reduction. Entire dioceses are getting into the act, especially (as always) in the Philippines. In the United States Stockton, California has long been recognized as a leader in environmental stewardship, while on the other coast, Burlington, Vermont just announced its upcoming Year of Creation for 2017. Then there are the religious orders undertaking massive eco-initiatives, notably the Columbans and the Mercies—especially that order’s Western Province in Ireland, which in 2016 published Walking Gently on the Earth. Helping Catholic communities figure out what practical steps to take—in part by learning from what other communities and parishes have already done—groups like the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant, Ecojesuit, and Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa have provided lots of free information in the form of educational resources and parish eco-guides to assist in work that will most certainly be found in the top stories of 2017.

6: Saving the relic

While all this advocacy and education is happening, some Catholic eco-groups, like the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center in North America, have been quietly stoking more spiritual fires. It was indeed the quiet Saint Kateri center that rocked the church in the United States in 2016 with its deft and determined recovery of a first-class relic of Saint Kateri that was being peddled on eBay. The group quickly spread the word online, raised over $5,000, and brought Kateri home, where the relic is now safe at the Saint Kateri shrine in upstate New York, awaiting ecclesial authentication and approval for veneration. In all, the use of twenty-first century technology to save the relic of a seventeenth-century saint (and patron of ecology) reminds us that the end game of the Catholic involvement of ecology is both worldly and spiritual. Read more here about this big story.

5: Cardinal Robert Sarah

Speaking of the spiritual, this story may not seem a Catholic eco-story at all. But it is, and deeply so. Given the cosmic realities of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is vital that we get the liturgy right if we really want a culture devoted to protecting people and creation. Alas, with the Mass as Entertainment being an all-too frequent reality in too many parishes, the purpose of what God is doing can be clouded and forgotten. And this forgetting encourages more and more Catholics to find little relevance in going to Mass. Satan, then, rejoices, and the planet continues to be consumed and defiled by the vices of humanity. Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has bombastically and beautifully fought to bring the sacred, the profound, and even the silent back to the Mass. His call for saying Mass ad orientum, for instance, has been seen by some as dreadfully archaic and cold. Quite the contrary. What Cardinal Sarah is calling for is less focus on you, me, and the celebrant, and more worship of Christ, who alone takes away the sins of the world.

4. Krakow’s World Youth Day

Talk to Tomás Insua, the executive director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, about the eco-efforts at 2016’s World Youth Day and he'll happily tell you about that “loaves and fishes” moment when a special video eco-message from Pope Francis was played somewhat randomly in front of three million participants waiting for the pontiff’s arrival for evening prayer. Turns out, this was the only moment when Laudato Si' was mentioned at the event. The video, and all the eco-efforts at WYD, were assembled from a small, dedicated, and prayerful team, including Lou Arsenio of the Archdiocese of Manila and Allen Ottaro of the Catholic Youth for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. Insua says that their work “ended up with the jaw-dropping outcome,” as well as ecclesial promises for much more eco-engagement at the next big World Youth Day in Panama in 2019.

3: The Global Catholic Climate Movement

Notice a trend? One Catholic eco-group involved in one way or another in much of the top ten stories thus far is The Global Catholic Climate Movement. Founded with no funding by a group of Catholic eco-advocates from around the world in early 2015 (I was blessed to have been one of them), the GCCM has skyrocketed in visibility and effectiveness as it weaves prayer and action, faith and reason to elevate the Church’s public role in global climate discussions and on issues of sustainability of all sorts. Read through the group’s own Top Ten stories from 2016 and you’ll see why the GCCM will continue to be a vital movement in 2017 and beyond.

2: The Great Divide

The eco-news in 2016 has not all been good. The year is ending with worry and consternation over what some are saying are too few changes in business and consumption as usual, and an unhealthy nationalism among many countries—most notably here in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. Of course, the elections of eco-unfriendly leaders and governments are often a symptom of a great divide between (to use the popular vernacular) the political and ideological left (which have long embraced eco-issues, often while also embracing abortion and same-sex marriage) and the right (which very often does not embrace environmental stewardship at all). 2016 saw Princes of the Church openly question Pope Francis on the moral teachings within Amoris Laetitia; heated debates about Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities; and Catholic eco-advocates and traditional pro-life street warriors sparring in print and in person. And here again, Satan rejoices as this divide, and the ensuing mistrust, grows. Caught in the middle are things like objective science and the common good—not to mention the integral approach to ecology championed by Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, Saint John Paul II, and many of the world’s bishops. Benedict XVI saw this division plainly in 2009 and rebuked it. “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person,” he wrote. “It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.” But the trampling has gotten heavier these past years and months as some in the pro-life community erupt in fury should someone dare to say that ecology is a pro-life issue. Of course this division is principally a reality in the United States and other Western cultures—places that have seen abortion kill millions, which explains why people devote their lives exclusively and often heroically to turning that reality around. But elsewhere, eco-issues and traditional pro-life issues are joining hands—which is what our pontiffs have been urging us to do.

Which brings us to our top story of 2016 ...

1: Bridging the Divide in Ecuador

Examples of Catholics working together to defend human dignity and creation come from Ecuador, where the Church is often on the front lines of environmental and social justice issues.

A dedicated group of Catholic eco-advocates affiliated with the Global Catholic Climate Movement marched last month in El Amor en Movimiento ( Love in Motion), organized by the Ecuadorian Red Vida y Familia (Life and Family Network). The march took place in Quito, Tena, Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, Loja, Cuenca, and Esmeraldas.

The group also participated in the organizational meetings “where we were welcomed by all the other organizations that promote this march,” said GCCM Latin American coordinator Fabián Campos. During the march they carried their own, sizeable flag with a baby and a phrase of Laudato Si’, and they shared information about the GCCM along the way. (See them march below.)

“We were able to talk to many young people who were very interested in our work. In fact, this march was the beginning of a beautiful [partnering] with several groups. They are now very active people in our campaigns and are frequently present in the various activities promoted by the GCCM.”

Campos said that Lucy Urvina, one of the GCCM advocates in Tena, an Amazon city affected by the exploitation of its resources, worked with other groups and organized the Global Climate March as well as the March for Life.

Another Ecuadorian collaboration took place at “Habitat III,” a United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development held in November in Quito. Campos said that “religious advocates for uncontacted indigenous peoples, lay people struggling for persecuted Christians, pro-life groups, and the GCCM marched and worked together to show our concern on these issues at this UN meeting.”

Then there was Vita Fest.

Under the motto "Que Ecuador ¡Viva!," some two-thousand people participated in the first ever LifeFest held in Ecuador. Campos said that “the event brought together people of all ages who were able first of all to give thanks to God for the gift of life and forgiveness for the culture of death through prayer.” There were also educational moments and heartfelt talks, including the participation of the bio-ethicist Piedad Calva, and the famous Colombian model and actress Amada Rosa, who shared her testimony on abortion. Campos said that the LifeFest was framed with integral ecology in mind, which Pope Francis stresses in Laudato Si'. In his address at LifeFest, Campos said "we cannot conceive [of] care of nature without the care of human dignity."

Amen! And thank you Fabián and everyone working with you to bring alive an integrated, Catholic view of life and love of God’s gift of creation.

One hopes that with a little charity, open minds, hard work, and, of course, God’s grace, the shining example of the eco-life link lived out in Ecuador can be a mainstay in the Church worldwide in 2017.

Looking back, of course much more happened in lots of places in 2016 that should be mentioned—but this post is already a little long. Here I think especially of some hefty efforts by my colleagues at the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, as well as the wide array of activities and assistance offered here in the States by the dedicated folks at the Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Rural Life. But I bet all of you, who have read this post this far, are in your own ways active champions of human life, creation, and, hopefully, both.

That said, feel free to share your stories with an email to me or in the comments below.

For now, 2017 beckons. Let us continue, onward and upward, for life, in Christ.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.