Diocesan social action directors take time to focus on ‘Laudato Si’’

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

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Believers cannot sit out the effort to restore creation after years of abuse, a speaker told diocesan social action directors during their annual Social Action Summer Institute.

"To be at odds with creation is to be at odds with God," Dominican Sr. Kathleen McManus, associate professor of systematic theology at the University of Portland, said in a presentation to the institute's 275 participants. "And it's to be at odds with our neighbor and with our deepest selves."

Sponsored by the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors, the institute convened at the University of Portland July 19-23, focusing on the message of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

McManus said that a heresy contrasting the physical and spiritual continues to emerge in the church, centuries after being condemned. The current version blocks some Christians from recognizing the environmental crisis, she explained.

Before an opening Mass July 19, Aztec dancers whirled before the altar in university's Chapel of Christ the Teacher.

"I know all of you are about the action part -- praise God -- but don't forget the teaching and don't forget the prayer," Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample said during his homily, noting that acts of charity and love open people's hearts to the Gospel.

The campus included displays from Catholic service organizations and fair trade groups that market arts and crafts from artisans in developing nations.

Speakers and participants concurred with the pope in criticizing technology and overzealous economies for harming the environment.

"We have replaced the question 'Ought we?' with 'When can we?'" Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in an address on the pope's encyclical. "Something has gone terribly wrong in our relationship with the earth."

The pope, Wenski said, is asking the world to adopt an "integrated ecology," one that seeks the connections between nature and humans' well-being.

Among other things, Wenski suggested that diocesan building committees make sure they are putting up green buildings.

Francis' encyclical emerges from the teachings of popes that preceded him, said Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace of the Portland archdiocese. The pope often cites Pope Benedict XVI, who is known as the "green" pope. It was under Benedict that the Vatican added solar panels and preserved a Hungarian forest on the way to becoming the world's first carbon-neutral nation.

"Climate is a common good," he said. "People must be the ultimate goal of our choices."

Retired Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., gave a presentation on the Columbia River watershed, saying it connects people across a broad region. He grew up along the river's upper reaches and helped write a 2001 regional pastoral letter calling for stewardship of the river and an eye for the common good.

Patrick McCormick, professor religious studies at Gonzaga University, told the directors the Bible calls for communities of justice, peace and sustainability, in contrast to the empires of the ancient world, which used up resources.

Charles Sams III, communications director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, reminded the listeners they "have a partnership with the Creator to maintain stewardship of the land."

Institute participants were eager to connect the encyclical with everyday occurrences in their home dioceses or around the world.

Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Portland, told a story about her visit to Japan, where she saw toilets that flush with "gray water" that drains from sinks to the toilet tank. She was shocked to find such systems illegal in the U.S. until recently.

"We defecate in drinking water," Chapman said.

Kim Mazyck of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency, reminded institute participants that there are ways to boost sustainability in the developing world.

In 2013, Mazyck visited a remote village in central Mali. There, CRS had built a water tower, a faucet in the village square and a hand-washing station that drained into a garden where local mothers grew food for schoolchildren. The women in general had more time to be with their families because they did not have to search for water for their family's daily needs, she explained.

Conference participants also traveled up the Columbia River Gorge and met with Wilbur Slockish, Jr., hereditary chief of the Klickitat tribe, which is part of the Yakama Nation. Slockish, 71, said he misses his tribal lands and the massive salmon runs of his youth, diminished because of dams.

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