Catholics join Earth Day effort to plant 7.8 billion trees

Staff at Light of Hearts Villa, in Bedford, Ohio, plant a new juniper tree April 21 as part of an Earth Day prayer service at the Sisters of Charity-run living center. (Light of Hearts Villa)

The new juniper tree at Light of Hearts Villa, in Bedford, Ohio, offers its nearly 100 residents another scenic outpost in the landscape that often draws deer, fox and recently, a peregrine falcon.

The tree was planted as part of the assisted-living community's Earth Day celebration on Thursday. Some of the 25 residents in attendance braved the rainy weather with umbrellas to partake in the prayer and planting outside, while others watched from drier conditions inside.

Sr. Regina Kusnir said the Sisters of Charity ministry does much of the planting, viewing them as partners in their mission to help others be "light of heart." Many of their residents, in their 80s and 90s, hold "great respect for the earth," she said, since many grew up on farms and relied on family and community gardens for their meals.

"That sense of blessing the earth for its generosity to us and we being responsible stewards is something that I find is very meaningful in their lives," said Kusnir, the director of pastoral and special ministries.

The Light of Hearts Villa service relied on a program produced by the Catholic Climate Covenant to help Catholics plan Earth Day celebrations. In previous years, the nearly 10-year-old Covenant has primarily produced programs around the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). This year marks their first foray into Earth Day.

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"There's a hunger for this in the faith community," Paz Artaza-Regan, a program manager for the Covenant, told NCR.

The "Trees for the Earth" program includes an opening prayer from "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," along with Scripture readings, videos and discussion questions rooted in the centrality of trees and plants in the web of life.

The program grew from a broader effort orchestrated by the Earth Day Network, which has positioned the 46th Earth Day -- a holiday that began in the U.S. but has since spread worldwide -- around the act of planting trees. The network has set a goal of planting 7.8 billion trees, or one for each person on Earth, by the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020.

Planting trees, the Earth Day Network says, "will serve as the foundation of a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet for all." Part of that is the role trees play in addressing climate change.

Forests operate naturally as "carbon sinks" in capturing and storing carbon. According to the third National Climate Assessment, released in 2014, U.S. forests represent "an important national 'sink'" by storing the equivalent of "roughly 25 years of U.S. heat-trapping gas emissions." In 2011, American forests and wood products absorbed and stored about 16 percent of all carbon emissions from fossil fuels; the Assessment found that active establishment and planting of forests in the next century has the potential to almost double that storage capacity.

But how much carbon forests absorb in the future largely depends on how they're managed, and how pervasive threats to trees from a warming climate -- drought, wildfire, invasive insect species -- ultimately become.

In Laudato Si’, Francis spoke of trees -- which he acknowledged assist in mitigating climate change -- most often through their loss, typically through economic pursuits.

“As long as the clearing of a for­est increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution,” he wrote.

The pope grouped planting trees among what he called “a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.”

“Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us … All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in hu­man beings,” he said in Paragraph 211, later adding “Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.”


More: "On Earth Day, Pope Francis calls all ‘to see the world through the eyes of God the Creator’" (April 22, 2015)


In a bit of symbolism, as communities across the globe used Earth Day for the simple act of planting trees, roughly 170 world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York to plant pen to paper in officially signing the historic Paris Agreement, the international roadmap for addressing climate change.

The "Trees of the Earth" toolkit draws information from the Earth Day Network -- such as an acre of mature trees in one year captures the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by an average car driving 26,000 miles -- but adds passages from Genesis and from Matthew's Gospel, the parable of the sower.

Beyond climate change, it discusses the importance trees play in keeping air clean and in building communities. It highlights one group of women in Africa who rely on planting trees for income through carbon credits from high-emissions companies.

While it offers resources for planting a tree, it also suggests alternatives, such as donating to Catholic Relief Services or TIST, the group of African farmers highlighted in the program. Other options include distributing seeds, bulletin inserts, or blessing creation care teams at weekend Masses.

About 1,000 groups downloaded the Earth Day program, said Artaza-Regan, who has been receiving updates on how people have incorporated it in their own Earth Day plans.

Numerous congregations of women religious across the country have planned to use "Trees of the Earth" in prayer services.

The Chicago archdiocese has sent weekly Laudato Si'-inspired email reflections and planned an Earth Day-focused Mass Friday that will include aspects from the closing prayer from the Catholic Climate Covenant program.

The Newman Catholic Center at Eastern Illinois University planned a discussion Friday on the detrimental effects of climate change on basic needs, and will screen the animated film "The Lorax" on Sunday.

At Bellarmine Chapel at Xavier University, in Cincinnati, they plan to distribute apple trees and milkweed seeds to parishioners at Masses all week.

In Eden Prairie, Minn., Pax Christi Catholic Community is holding Saturday an "Earth Day Retreat" where Fr. Larry Snyder, former head of Catholic Charities USA, will speak.

At Our Mother of Peace School in Church Point, La., this year marked their first Earth Day celebration. That's in part thanks to Assistant Principal Sr. Joel Miller.

"Well, my first question was 'Are y'all involved in Earth Day?' and they just kind of looked puzzled. I could tell right away they were not," she said.

Miller, who through her Marianites of Holy Cross congregation has been engaged in environmental issues for about a decade, decided it was time to change that. She offered materials to her teachers and then watched with amazement at how quickly they embraced it, the school's hallways soon decorated by drawings from the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes.

"I was just filled with joy, because I didn't expect that much of a reaction," she said.

Throughout the week, Our Mother of Peace has begun their day with prayers concerning the Earth. In addition to coloring, the younger classes have talked about recycling, while all classes have looked at the stark figures of how wasted water, food and energy.

The Earth Week exercise, Miller said, has helped the children -- as well as the adults -- recognize what is happening around them and how their actions can impact other people and the planet.

"When you see a little kindergarten child saying, 'I will never waste water again,' I think that plants a seed that hopefully they will use for the rest of their lives and begin to do other things with it," she said.

A few grades up and about 400 miles west, students at St. Edward's University, in Austin, Texas, held their own Earth Week. Earlier days hosted a discussion of the Paris Agreement, an Earth Day Fair, a local creek clean-up, and sustainable clothing swap. The big moment comes Friday, when they will plant trees marking their new designation as a Tree Campus USA college.

Cristina Bordin, sustainability coordinator for the school, told NCR the Tree Campus recognition, a program through the Arbor Day Foundation, comes as a cherry on top of the work the 160-acre campus began in 1999 through its long-term landscape plan. Since then, the campus has planted nearly 1,000 trees.

At the ceremony Friday they will plant 10 more. The seed to planting so many trees was initially pragmatic: It gets hot in Texas, and trees provide shade and help keep temperatures cooler – "so we're not a heat island," Bordin said.

The trees were also seen as a way to make the campus more pedestrian and to create community spaces. A 350-year-old Sorin Oak tree at the school's center already serves as a gathering point and source of campus pride.

The act of planting a tree, beginning with a seed buried deep in the earth, is a sign of growth, Kusnir said.

"We're each a kind of tree and we have the seeds of God's love and inspiration in us. And we grow branches and touch other people, and let them rest within the comfort of our love and care," she said.

Back in Church Point, Earth Day Week at Our Mother of Peace School has included plenty of prayers, coloring and environmental discussion, but so far hasn't included a tree-planting. A local resident, though, has approached the school about doing just that, perhaps next week. Asked about the current landscape of the school, the assistant principal Miller said its roughly four acres already have numerous trees.

"But you know, there can always be more," she said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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