Editorial: We may be seeing the birth of a new lay movement

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

Frédéric Ozanam, a French lawyer, scholar and poet, founded with six companions the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris in 1833 to provide direct services to the poor. That small band grew until today it is an international organization with some 700,000 members, men and women in 142 countries. In the United States, there are more than 160,000 members, all laypeople, providing direct services in 4,400 communities. The genius of the St. Vincent de Paul Society is its decentralization. The society's core work is individual service at the local level, and it is a lay organization.

That personal commitment to serving our vulnerable brothers and sisters is also a core charism of members of the Catholic Worker Movement, founded by a laywoman, Dorothy Day, and a layman, Peter Maurin, and led to this day by laypeople. The Catholic Worker movement, too, has grown from a small tenement in New York City to houses of hospitality around the world, although it is more decentralized than the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Common to both ministries is their emphasis on personal commitment to service in the local community as the unique responsibility of the laity.

As we mark the first anniversary of "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and human ecology, we wonder if -- and hope that -- we are seeing the emergence of a lay-led, community-based, action-oriented movement for the environment. What we see and hear so far is encouraging:

  • Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parish groups have studied the encyclical.
  • In many parts of the U.S., parish buildings are undergoing energy audits toward greater energy efficiency.
  • Environmental clubs and courses have sprouted up in the Catholic academy, where countless conferences have taken multidisciplinary lenses to the encyclical.
  • Nearly 200 leaders in Catholic higher education worldwide, including many top U.S. universities, pledged to address Francis' environmental concerns within their institutions' research and engagement.
  • In Lipa, Philippines, 10,000 people joined an archbishop in marching against a new coal-fired power plant as part of global "Break Free from Fossil Fuels" actions.
  • Nearly 1 million Catholics signed a petition urging action on climate change ahead of last December's U.N. climate negotiations in Paris.

"I've never seen anything with so much energy in the 14 years that I've been working in the area of development and environment," Lorna Gold, head of policy and advocacy for Trócaire, the Irish Catholic development agency, told NCR's Brian Roewe as he prepared our report (see story).

These are small, but important steps toward building a strong and deep movement. From these local actions spring policy initiatives, regulations and systemic change.

The Catholic climate pioneers are moving quickly from education to action. The Global Catholic Climate Movement is expanding its Laudato Si' animator program that began with training 500 people in 60 countries to mobilize local advocacy efforts. In this country, the Catholic Climate Covenant is developing a pastoral training program aimed at clergy gatherings to help bring church leaders into the Laudato Si' fold.

Climate action, with its blend of science, engineering, local action and political advocacy, is a uniquely lay ministry. Indeed, as Tomás Insua, co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, says, "The bishops of many countries will follow when they see that the Catholic grassroots are taking action by themselves."

This new Laudato Si' movement shares one more key element with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Catholic Worker movement. While direct action is the outward manifestation of these movements, at the core they are spiritual movements. Laudato Si' places care of the Earth squarely in our Catholic identity and spiritual foundation.

To quote the encyclical: "Living our vocation to be protectors of God's creation ... is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience."

We may be witnessing the birth of the newest lay movement in the church. We must do all we can to nurture it and help it grow. Each of us can take a step in that direction by joining efforts in our parishes and dioceses.

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