Catholic group launches global climate-focused Lenten fast

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Forty days of Lent this year will equate to 40 days of fasting for Catholics in 40-plus countries in a push for greater unity and action around the issue of climate change.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement, which formed in January, officially announced on Monday the Lenten Fast for Climate Justice. The goal is to raise awareness on climate change as well as for Pope Francis’ Lenten call to confront “a globalization of indifference,” and to spur world leaders to work out a binding agreement to stave off a temperature rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to pre-industrial levels. Climate scientists and politicians have regularly pointed to maintaining an increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“The essential message is reduce our carbon footprint and increase our spiritual footprint,” said Jacqui Rémond, director of Catholic Earthcare Australia, which is coordinating the fast there.

The climate justice fast is one of several similar efforts worldwide. The Fast for the Climate is an interfaith campaign that began Dec. 1 -- the start of the United Nations climate negotiations in Lima, Peru -- and will continue through the end of November when the talks resume in Paris. The interfaith group Our Voices and the Anglican church in South Africa are also holding climate-focused Lenten fasts.

Related: "With Lima Accord reached, climate attention turns toward 2015"

So far, Catholics from 44 countries and one U.S. territory (Guam) have signed onto the climate justice fast. Support for it has picked up in recent days, with climate movement members activating their broad network to spread the word.

“Two weeks ago, we had six countries signed up,” Patrick Carolan, executive director of the U.S.-based Franciscan Action Network, told NCR.

Rather than asking each country to hold a continuous 40-day fast, the climate fast will operate in a pass-the-baton fashion, with a different country -- represented by a group of people or, in some cases, an individual -- observing it each day before giving way to the next nation in line. In keeping with church tradition, all Catholics are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The U.S. fasting date is set for March 16.

[Explore this interactive map to see what countries will be fasting on which days]



Organizers are asking Catholics on their country’s day not only to abstain from food, but also to incorporate carbon-limiting behaviors, as well: walking, biking or using public transportation in lieu of a car; working from home; using less electricity or water.

They have also encouraged fasters in each country to share statements and videos explaining why they fast and how climate change has affected their homelands. The Global Catholic Climate Movement will then share the testimonials on its website as a way for people to follow the fast.

The first country up Thursday is Peru, the site of the most recent round of U.N. climate talks. From there, the fast moves east, stopping in Zambia (Friday) and Kenya (Saturday) in Africa, before heading to Hong Kong (Feb. 23) and Japan (Feb. 25).

In all, nine African nations and seven Asian countries will participate -- more than a third of all partaking. In addition, the fast will feature seven countries in South America, 11 in North America and the Caribbean, and nine in Europe.

The reasons for the climate fast are both unique and shared. In Australia, Rémond said it would call Catholics, as citizens of one of the highest per capita emissions countries, “to play our part” in addressing climate change. For many, the act is one in solidarity with those who have and will suffer from the negative impacts of climate change.

Allen Ottaro, director of the Kenyan-based Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, described severe flooding in Malawi and Mozambique “that has killed hundreds and left thousands homeless,” in addition to the destruction of crops and farmlands that has affected food security.

On a continent that has contributed the least to climate change but expected to be struck the hardest, Ottaro said it’s important for Catholics to lead on climate justice, as it has on other peace and justice issues.

“Besides fasting from food, it will also be a time of prayer for and with these communities,” he told NCR in an email.  

Related: "UN report: As climate warms, poverty will grow"

In his 2015 Lenten message, the pope described a tendency for healthy and comfortable people to become unconcerned with others and their problems, and called on Christians to confront “a globalization of indifference” by forming more merciful hearts.

“Every Christian community is called to go out of itself and to be engaged in the life of the greater society of which it is a part, especially with the poor and those who are far away,” Francis said.

Ottaro, who has seen the gap between rich and poor grow in his hometown Nairobi, believes the climate fast is an opportunity for Christians to examine ways they can live simpler, but also how they can challenge structures that perpetuate such globalized indifference.

“Very often we are caught up in our own worries and activities and have no time to pause to reflect and pray. Fasting offers us the opportunity to stop and reflect, and to feel the absence of things we might consider ‘normal,’ like three meals in a day,” he said.

Plans are still in the development phase for the U.S. fasting day, but Franciscan Action Network is hoping to recruit Catholic members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to join the fast, “to raise awareness that climate change is a moral and spiritual issue, not a political issue,” Carolan said.

Already on board is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “Uniting people of all faiths is the principle that we are called upon to be good and responsible stewards of God's creation,” he said in the climate fast press release.

During the 2013 Fast for Families on immigration reform, Carolan said the communal fasting experience led to a strong spiritual connection among the participants.

“We started out each day in that fast in a circle, and we started out in prayer and shared our stories … And really built that sense of connectedness, that we’re all part of the one,” Carolan said.

Carolan hopes the global climate fast, in addition to the upcoming papal encyclical on the environment, has a similar effect in uniting Catholics behind the need for serious action on climate change -- not for political or environmental purposes, but on moral and ethical grounds.

“Maybe that changes people’s hearts and helps more with the transformation of our society and into a society of interconnectedness, not a society of separation. And that includes connected to all of creation,” he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe. Map of fasting nations created by NCR Bertelsen intern Mick Forgey (@mcforgs).]

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