Care of people and the Earth is one
I have always been passionate about the social teachings of the church, and in my studies I had the opportunity to explore documents that raised my awareness of justice issues and see how the church encourages her missionaries to address them in light of Gospel values.
I was encouraged by how the social teachings assessed the realities of our world, especially in the countries where I have worked, and how they helped me discern how I can respond in collaboration with others. I am also able to situate the mission statement of our institute, the Sisters of St. Louis, within the church's social teaching and her option for the poor.
Some years back, our community chapter was discerning our priorities for mission. Some of us chose care of the Earth as our main focus, while others chose caring for the poor and marginalized. At that stage, the connection between the two was not so clear to many of us.
In recent years, as I reflected more on the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, climate change and sustainability of the Earth, I was pleasantly surprised to find papers online that link the environment and poverty; global warming and food scarcity; migration of peoples and other species; economic systems and the biosphere; human activities and the survival of the Earth's resources; pollution of the environment; and the threat to the survival of human and non-human species and ecosystems.
I discovered that there hadn't really been a church document on the topic, though many Catholic theologians (Thomas Berry, Sean McDonagh, Donal Dorr,Teilhard de Chardin) have written so much on it. So when "Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home" was released by Pope Francis, it was a very welcome document. In 2016, I heard Dorr speak on ''The Ecology Encyclical of Pope Francis: An inspiring call to contemplation and action.'' This introduced me to the encyclical and aroused my desire to read the whole document.
I was enthused by the document's integrative approach and the pope's vision of ecology, which clarifies the interconnectedness between human poverty and environmental degradation. For the first time, many Catholics actually came to realize that care of the universe and the environment is core to their Christian faith.
Release of the encyclical had a huge impact on the Paris climate change conference. It made many aware of the harmful human activities that degrade the environment and the effects of these activities on other people's lives. For me, it was a call to conversion and a mission to invite others to conversion and greater consciousness through awareness-raising. It helped me and my sisters to see that our mission statement to stand in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized will not be complete until we commit ourselves to work for the care of the environment and the whole community of life. Therefore, in assemblies throughout our institute this past year, significant time was devoted to reflecting on our mission in the context of the universe story.
In all parts of our institute, including our formation houses, our sisters have studied, discussed and generated actions based on their reflections on Laudato Si' either with fellow St. Louis Sisters and associates or with other religious, parish groups, women's groups, justice and peace groups, school groups, and other church and state entities. Here are some examples:
One of our sisters gave a workshop to the U.K. national conference of head teachers of Catholic schools, concentrating on the text of Laudato Si' itself and its basis in Catholic theology and spirituality. She emphasized how to promulgate it within a school context, by raising awareness of its content, mainstreaming its main teaching as appropriate across subject areas, and promoting leadership around these issues in the school community. She provided a management plan template, a list of online and print resources (suitable across the age ranges) and suggestions for further staff training.
Another sister joined the diocesan study day on Laudato Si', in which discussion focused on the impact of our present use of resources on future generations and our attitudes about food. We were challenged to see the need to cultivate new habits (new mindsets) in many areas of our lives and invited to see the need to be motivated by love rather than duty.
A third sister participated in a parliamentary debate as preparation for the 2016 U.N. Paris climate summit. Several speakers felt that Laudato Si' gave much enlightenment and support to the progress of world concern for the future of the planet. During the debate, the text was often quoted with appreciation of its truth and hopefulness: "A truly ecological approach always becomes a social approach: it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor."
The question was: how do we achieve the reduction of carbon from the use of fossil fuels, through divesting at all levels, as indicated in Laudato Si'? A minister commented on Francis' words that it is incumbent on all politicians to limit the increase of climate change in order to protect the poorest of the world.
One of our sisters in Brazil said that at their work at Grupo AAVE (Association Aids: Support, Life, Hope) they have constantly tried to care for the Earth and recognize the interconnectedness of all of life, in their work with people affected by HIV/ AIDS. In the year 2000, they began a project of collecting paper, plastic and aluminum for recycling. Users bring this material to the AAVE center for weighing and storage. Using an agreed-upon system, "points" are noted in the contributor's file. Through this work they awaken in participants their responsibility for the "common home" (the theme of the 2016 Lenten campaign of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil and of Laudato Si'). The campaign sought to promote a lifestyle change and preservation of natural resources for future generations.
One of the users of the recycling service says, "We learned (from the bishops' campaign) that our contribution is essential to preserve what God has loaned to us. To us, our contribution may seem very small, but it does make a difference. Imagine what it would be like if everyone in our country were to recycle!"
In the spirit of Laudato Si', our sisters in Nigeria joined in the campaign of the Africa Faith and Justice Network to stop the Nigerian government from allowing a company to allow genetically modified crops in Nigeria.
Another sister, who coordinates the St. Louis Sisters' ecology group, is the Catholic representative for an ecumenical ecology group in Ireland called Eco-Congregation. According to her, the first and most important response (from both groups) to Laudato Si' was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, affirmation, support and relief. Laudato Si' gave the ecological spirituality/ministry a long-awaited "imprimatur" and a new sense of confidence. As a result of Laudato Si', several parishes have enrolled in the Eco-Congregation program. Other Christian denominations are also using the encyclical, which they find a "readable, comprehensive, simple, inspiring and spiritual document."
The more we reflect on our mission in light of the realities of our world today, the more our sisters and associates feel moved and motivated to consider the calls and invitations in Laudato Si'.
[Winifred Ojo belongs to the Sisters of St Louis, an international congregation founded in France in 1842. Born in western Nigeria, she currently lives and works on the St. Louis Central leadership team in Ireland.]
Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.