'Laudato Si'' initiative in California archdiocese looks at how to 'green' parishes

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

Christina Gray

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In the final chapter of his 2015 encyclical letter, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis said "individual conversion" and "community networks" will ultimately motivate Christians to develop the new convictions, choices and habits necessary to authentically care for God's creation.

On April 23, the archdiocese of San Francisco will launch an initiative designed to help bring those lofty ideals down to earth with a workshop for members of parish and school communities who may want to respond to the pope's call but may not know how or where to start.

"Parishes shouldn't have to figure this out on their own," said Stephen Miller, a member of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in San Francisco, who is on the planning committee for "'Laudato Si': A Parish Response."

It will be a half-day, bilingual -- in Spanish and English -- workshop at St. Anne parish hall in San Francisco.

The workshop is designed to engage members of parish and school communities around the messages of the encyclical and give them the inspiration and tools to evaluate the environmental sustainability of parish activities and practices through the lens of Catholic values.

"Living our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience," wrote Francis in paragraph 217 of his 184-page encyclical.

Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, along with Msgr. Michael Harriman, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in San Francisco, is driving the initiative organized under the archdiocese's Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns

The bishop told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, that the workshop will "help people see the ground they can walk on" because the document is so big.

In a March 2 letter to priests, deacons, and men and women religious of the archdiocese, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced the workshop and urged each to promote the event, where he will lead the invocation.

Fr. Kenneth M. Weare, pastor of St. Rita Parish in Fairfax, will deliver the keynote address followed by case studies from local parishes with existing teams that have made strides toward sustainability. They include St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi parishes in the San Francisco archdiocese, and St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto in the San Jose diocese.

The second half of the workshop offers a combination of practical, educational and inspirational tools. Participants may choose one of three concurrent workshops: reduction of energy use, cost and emissions; educating and inspiring parishioners; and engaging the wider community on the importance of environmental justice.

The ultimate aim of the workshop is to help mobilize volunteers for "care for creation teams" at each parish, said Miller, chair of the St. Teresa of Avila Parish team that has implemented changes to reduce the parish's output of greenhouse gas emissions.

"We saw that many parishes in the archdiocese already had various earth-friendly initiatives in place," Miller said. "Pope Francis has called us all to get more intentional about sharing our stories."

There is no one-size-fits-all plan, Miller said. "The idea is to encourage parishes to engage their own parishioners around this theme of caring for creation in whatever makes sense for that parish and how the parish connects to the surrounding community," he said.

St. Teresa of Avila has benefited from the expertise of Miller, who works as deputy director of a Marin County nonprofit that helps shape "green" communities, and of parishioner Gail Kendall, a climate scientist educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Miller and Kendall stressed that no special expertise is required to participate in the workshop or on a parish "green team."

Parish engagement is another objective of the workshop.

"We saw the potential of motivating groups of parishioners like young adults, that might not feel as connected as they'd like to their parish community," Kendall said.

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