Integral ecology themes in 'Laudato Si'' resonate with 'green' sisters

by Sharon Abercrombie

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At the conclusion of, in his own words, “this lengthy reflection,” Pope Francis proposes in the final pages of “Laudato Si’, on Care for our Common Home” two prayers for the earth community. Both have taken a powerful hold on Notre Dame School Sr. Kathleen Storms’ heart.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting, if we used these prayers as a Creed?” she said.

A dip into those last pages of the 184-page environmental encyclical reveals the deep allure and poignancy of Francis’ words in “A prayer for our earth”:

“All-Powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.”

He continued:

“Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,
not pollution and destruction.”

Storms, director of Our Lady of Humility, an ecological retreat center in Wheatland, Iowa, was one of seven “green” sisters who shared with NCR their initial impressions of Laudato Si. As a whole, the sisters welcomed with gratitude the encyclical’s release. His words, in many ways, embodied the various ministries each has served since the 1970s and ‘80s.

The debut of Laudato Si’ is especially sweet for Charity Sr. Paula Gonzalez of Cincinnati. Since 1970, she has worked on the environmental front championing clean energy and has presented by her estimation nearly 2,000 workshops and retreats across the country.

“I’m exceedingly excited, and especially thrilled with all the background stuff the pope has included,” Gonzalez told NCR, predicting that “he’s going to grab the attention of the global community, for sure. I think people will be really moved and motivated.”

At the same time, she foresees “the battle will be on” for the fossil fuel industry and for many Republicans, “who won’t accept” the pope’s words. Likewise, Ursuline Sr. Larraine Lauter of Maple Mount, Ky., expects “a ferocious pushback” to the encyclical from Kentucky’s coal industry.

“When you back people into a corner, they go for the gut because they can’t go anyplace else,” she said.

Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Caldwell, N.J., viewed the encyclical as a strong impetus for transforming “the tragedy of the present global economic system.”

“It is currently run by a handful of bullies and the pope is calling them out,” she said, praising Francis for his “fiercely courageous” stand “in speaking his outrage.”

“He does so with a moral authenticity, a rare quality often grown dim and thin in the present political, social, economic world order itself narrowly orchestrated by a dominant controlled news media,” she said in an email.

Like Gonzalez, MacGillis is a pioneering environmentalist, having founded in 1980 Genesis Farm, one of the oldest earth-friendly enterprises in the nation that is supported by a women religious community. Genesis Farm, located in Blairstown, N.J., was founded on the philosophy of Fr. Thomas Berry and the premise that the universe, Earth and everything therein are permeated by the presence and power of the creative sacred.

While pleased Francis affirmed the science of climate change and connected the dots to its fossil fuel and economic drivers, she was disappointed the encyclical neglected to address “a radically new ‘deep time’” perspective on the origin, nature and functioning of the universe. Deep time is a concept used to understand Earth’s roughly 4.6-billion-year history along a geological time scale dating back to the Big Bang 13 billion years ago. It also includes the existence of a “spiritual-psychic” dimension to the universe from its first emergence, MacGillis said, pointing to Berry’s view that there was a danger in a cosmology that assumes there is a fundamental discontinuity between the human and non-human world.

“This understanding could have been a major foundation for Francis’ encyclical, suggesting major corrections to the inadequate cosmology upon which the entire Western worldview has developed,” she said.

Lauter, founder of Water with Blessings, which trains women in developing countries to use simple filtering devices in ministry of their neighbors, told NCR that Francis’ words tapped deeply into her Chickasaw Native American heritage, which views everything in the universe as interconnected. 

Throughout Laudato Si’, Francis emphasized again and again how everything is connected. In the opening of chapter four, “Integral Ecology,” he wrote:

“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is intercon­nected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatom­ic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet -- physical, chemical and biological -- are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.”

Francis has demonstrated how poverty and environmental degradation are related to out-of-control economic development, she noted.

“Part of his genius is integrating everything at the level of the human heart,” said Lauter, who noted Francis demonstrated the relationship between poverty and environmental and unrestrained economic development.

The concept of integral ecology also resonated with Holy Child Jesus Sr. Terri MacKenzie, founder of

“[Francis] makes a clear and compelling case for all the interconnections: global unity, the effects of everything on everything/one else, concern for the intertwined issues of the planet and the poor, and how this affects every species now and into the future,” she said in an email.

MacKenzie said that in reading the encyclical she felt that she was “listening to what our Sister, Mother Earth, most wants us to hear now.”

Franciscan Sr. Rosine Sobczak, liked the term “integral ecology” in that it speaks to both progressive and conservatives, bringing to mind “a global perspective of ‘over there,’ and what the terrible consequences will be if people do not begin working together.”

The key to the encyclical is reverencing nature, she said, which ties to the ecological teaching ministry she has conducted in the Toledo, Ohio, area for 25-plus years.

“Francis points out how the natural world and Earth are our first revelation of God, and how Jesus’ coming here manifests God incarnate,” she said.

MacGillis said a cosmology missing the human/non-human continuity has resulted in a civilization whose body of laws gives “all rights to humans and no rights to what is not human because only humans have spiritual souls,” and has provided legal cover for humans and corporations to buy, sell, pollute and extract from the earth.

Extraction without regard to people, animals, the water and the air is a major point of concern for Canadian Charity Sr. Maureen Wild. A former teacher at Genesis Farm, she now conducts retreats to the Athabasca River in the Alberta province to allow people to see for themselves damage caused by the Keystone XL pipeline. (The transnational leg, crossing the U.S.-Canadian border remains pending executive approval.)

Wild welcomed the encyclical, saying that the pope is urging us to “live lighter on the planet.” Reading it brought to her mind the work of Rachel Carson, from a religious standpoint.

On Monday, Wild had just finished presenting a retreat in Emmitsburg, Md., on the “Cosmic Symphony of Love,” During the session, the 70 sisters and lay associates from the Federation of Charity Sisters studied and meditated on quotes from the encyclical before writing their own reflections. One from Sr. Mary Pat Lenahan of Leavenworth Kan., read: 

“How appropriate that our Pope Francis, who witnesses simplicity, compassion and care would wake up the world with a cry for communion with all creation. As our spiritual leader he is challenging us, urging us to be responsible and accountable creatures of the Cosmos in caring for one another and for all of the Earth, our home and our blessing.”   

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