Environmental work of Laudato Si’

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Ursulines Alive.

In 2015, Pope Francis urged “every person living on this planet” to engage in a dialogue about the role each of us plays in shaping the future of the earth. His encyclical was called “Laudato Si’: Care for Our Common Home.”

His words were met with great affection by the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, who have made caring for the earth a staple of their spirituality since they began in their rural home in 1874. Now that the newness of Laudato Si’ has worn away, the Sisters see more work to do.

“I believe Pope Francis has attempted to unify all the social teachings into one articulated whole – in so many ways he calls us to recognize the global relationship among people, all creation, and how we treat each other and each component in creation,” Sister Sharon Sullivan said. “Economics, health care, education, justice, development and politics are all part of one unit – each affecting each other and the whole. Sort of like a Rubik’s Cube. What still needs to be done is basically that we all need to get on board. I was so energized by the Paris Accord, the hope it generated, the reality of what looked like a global effort with real political will.”

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 established a framework for global climate action, including the mitigation of climate change. President Trump later withdrew the United States from the agreement.

Ursuline leadership joined with other women religious communities in Kentucky to publicly state their disappointment with that move in a 2019 letter to the editor published in several newspapers.

“Catholic teaching is clear – climate change is a grave moral issue that threatens our commitment to: protect human life and dignity, exercise a preferential option for the most vulnerable, promote the common good, and care for God’s creation,” the letter said. The Ursuline Sisters received criticism from some of their supporters over taking that stand.

“When we write letters like that, we want people to know that we not only care about our own area, but we are a part of the whole global community,” said Sister Amelia Stenger, congregational leader. “We believe that all people share this planet and each one of us must do our part to take care of it. It is so important for the people of the United States to have a part in decisions that are made globally because the decisions that are made affect the local. Jesus said to love our neighbor, and this is one way we can do that.” 

The pope’s encyclical took its name from “Laudato Si’, mi Signore,” which appears in the third stanza of Saint Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun.” It means “Praise be to you, my Lord.” The Sisters believe they have an important role to play in teaching people that spirituality is a part of protecting the earth.

“If people actually become convinced that spirituality is involved in the way we treat the planet, we would go much farther, much faster,” Sister Michele Morek said. “Many people had pigeonholed the issue of climate change so that it had nothing to do with their personal lives or with spirituality – until Laudato Si’ came along. We can help through programs offered, and through prayer services, discussions, etc., that we offer in our chapel or even on Facebook. I think we could have some virtual, online presentations that might attract some interest. The way to get parents involved is through the kids – the ones who are really getting behind it and always have are the kids.”

“Sometimes I hear people equating care for the planet with political realities,” Sister Sharon said. “The notion that a spirituality could drive something so complex as caring for the planet seems foreign to so many. It is vital that we continue to model the spiritual base – and what a rich, rich base that is. Isn’t it Thomas Berry who suggests that one of the core spiritual bases for us even being here is to serve as, for want of a better word, the appreciators of God’s creation?”

Aside from being the last three congregational leaders for the Ursuline Sisters, these three Sisters have been active in environmental issues for years.

As director of the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, Sister Amelia developed an environmental education program for children visiting the Mount. She created such programs as “Save Money, Save Energy, Save God’s Earth” for churches of all faiths, a Green Living Symposium and was among those involved in the GREENing Western Kentucky Expo, which stood for “Getting Renewable Energy Education Now.”

Sister Michele and Sister Sharon were both members of Water Watch, and then Watershed Watch, and Sister Sharon continues to do water testing of local streams. Sister Michele began an environmental science class during her former days as a biology professor at Brescia University in Owensboro. During her previous ministry with UNANIMA, in 2016 she attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. From her ministry in Kansas City recently she took part in an online discussion on Laudato Si’ with EarthBeat, through National Catholic Reporter.

With so many other issues dominating the national conversation, the Sisters know it will take extra effort to focus attention on care for the planet.

“It is all connected – environmental issues make Covid worse,” Sister Michele said, noting that natural disasters like fires, floods and storms make people take shelter and ignore social distancing.

“Black and Brown and Indigenous People suffer more from Covid and from environmental disasters, another result of racism,” she said. “Climate change has a great potential to unite us across political divides, unless people don’t ‘believe in it’ and actually use it as a political weapon.”

“I hear and see so many whose focus is only on the present, daily task,” Sister Sharon said. “The forester who clear cuts because it is easier, faster and initially more lucrative is living only in the present. The forester who selects and carefully removes to preserve and enhance growth and forest diversity focuses on the sustainable future. The former seems easier – and can become ammunition for those who try to say that strong environmental policies cost jobs. While that is not true, those lobbyists and publicists can get people believing it is true,” she said. “I guess we just have to be the broken record that keeps teaching and modeling the truth that we are one integrated whole and we must believe that every tiny move we make affects the whole.”

Among the many Ursuline efforts to care for the earth, Sister Amelia is especially proud of the environmental audit the community did in 1997 to develop a 10-year plan for sustainability.

“Our community has tried for at least 25 years to move to sustainable ways of living,” she said.  “We worked with Father Al Frisch, a well-known Catholic environmentalist, to evaluate our properties. When buildings were renovated, they incorporated many ways to sustain the environment, for example, geothermal heating and cooling systems, low flow showers and commodes, better lighting and other water-saving techniques. The Sisters have incorporated recycling in every area possible.”

Sister Michele also cited the sustainability plan as a source of pride, along with the work being done by Sister Larraine Lauter at Water With Blessings, bringing clean water to impoverished nations.

For Sister Sharon, there isn’t a single effort that makes her as proud as much as the decades of consistent efforts from the Sisters.

“Efforts to recycle, to reduce the carbon footprint, to model certain practices, to educate,” she said.

Sister Amelia said Laudato Si’ continues to re-energize the need to work for a sustainable environment.

“It gave the spirituality of the environment that we needed to connect all aspects of saving our common home.”