WASHINGTON, DC — As pastor of Francis Xavier Church in Moundsville, West Virginia, Father That Son Nguyen listens to the needs of the world all around.
From a pregnant mother with young children — who needs a crib or stroller — to environmental threats — from a proposed cracker factory across the Ohio River — Nguyen thinks that as a priest he has the responsibility to protect all life against evil.
“Being able to sit and listen is very important,” the Vietnam native told Catholic News Service.
Nguyen said he takes every opportunity possible to educate his parishioners in the panhandle city of West Virginia to connect the needs of the people with the needs of the earth.
He can be found addressing the concept of integral ecology as expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on the care of our common home”. Such efforts are important, he said, because people need to realize that all life on earth is interconnected and that humans are called to actively protect what God has created.
To open this year’s Season of Creation, Saint Francis Xavier organized a workshop on August 30 on the encyclical.
St. Joseph Sister Theresa Metz and parish worker Sister Agatha Munyanyi, a member of the Sisters of the Child Jesus, discussed this year’s theme, “Listening to the Voice of Creation,” during the parish presentation.
Nguyen is among priests across the country who are involved in myriad ways in promoting the encyclical and the ecumenical Season of Creation observed by Christians around the world from September 1 to October 1. 4, ending on the feast day of St. Francis.
Some clergy are leading efforts in parishes to raise awareness of the pope’s message while others have voluntarily encouraged practical, scriptural, and educational efforts led by parishioners.
Lonnie Ellis, Executive Director of In Solidarity, works with Catholic clergy and religious leaders who seek to reach beyond the church community to share the themes of Laudato Si’. He initiated discussions of Catholic social teaching on the environment in several states, including Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
“The Catholic moral voice should be part of the formation of (the country’s) moral discourse,” he said. “That should be part of the policy development. We have lots of ideas to share.
For Father John Grace, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton, Va., the call to protect the environment is a year-round exercise rooted in Scripture and Catholic social teaching of long time. He has worked beyond parish boundaries to help the wider community understand the importance of actions that any faith community can take.
It is from the book of James, one of the shortest in the Bible, that Grace draws particular inspiration – the understanding that the manifestation of faith is expressed in “the work of our beings”.
Caring for a creation is a moral duty, Grace told CNS. It’s a point he stresses to parishioners, who understand that their efforts today will have a lasting impact on the planet and its people.
“Environmental issues are important because it is a gift from God. So morally I have a responsibility to be a good keeper of the gift,” he said. “I did not create the universe. I did not create my own existence. It starts as a gift for me. So the moral imperative is how much I use the gift.
Such an understanding of scripture led the parish to install more than 400 solar panels on the church, classrooms, rectory, and administrative offices as of 2019. It is the first parish in Virginia to be 100% solar .
Immaculate Conception parishioners also donated funds to provide 11,000 trees for planting in Kenya under the International Small Group Tree Planting Program. In 2021, the parish raised $17,000 to buy water filters for 250 Navajo Nation families in Arizona who don’t have access to clean water or electricity.
“I call it experiments beyond the horizon. What I mean is that solar panels will last 35 years. Trees are good for 50 years and water filters are for life,” said said Grace “It gets the attention of older people because it’s kind of their legacy. We leave our campsite better than we found it.”
In another Immaculate Conception parish, this one in Durham, North Carolina, Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski, pastor, guides church members through the seven-year Laudato Si platform of action. ‘, an initiative launched by the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development last fall.
The aim is to help the parish, 60% of whose members speak Spanish, to develop an “ecological spirituality”, he said.
The Polish-born priest regularly preaches at Mass on the care of creation and ecological themes found in Scripture. A parish committee also distributes resources and prayers related to ecological care.
“For me, the Gospel compels me to respond to the cry of the poor, to the cry of the earth,” Orzechowski said. “The issue of climate justice and the issue of the biodiversity crisis are among the most pressing and important moral issues facing us as a church and as humanity.
“These are not just political issues, economic issues, but they are deeply spiritual,” he added. “They are kind of central to our faith.”
Prior to Orzechowski’s arrival in 2020, parishioners were already spearheading green initiatives in response to the papal encyclical. The flagship project was the installation of solar panels which supply around 20% of the electricity needs of the church and the parish school.
Not all parishes and pastors have taken initiatives of such magnitude in response to Laudato Si’.
At Holy Family Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Passionist Father Phil Paxton, pastor, took a low-key approach to introducing the themes emanating from Laudato Si’ to parishioners.
Paxton said he taps into the resources developed by the Passionist Order which are sent to their priests across the country for use in parish life.
“The Passionists as a congregation are trying to respond to Laudato Si’ as a response to Pope Francis’ call for the whole church to be involved. So that’s where I’m trying to start,” he said.
“Pope Francis is simply giving a direct, faith-filled response to what is happening. I think it’s this whole concept of integral ecology, where it’s about how we treat ourselves as human beings. It’s part and parcel of how we deal with everything else, all of creation,” he explained.
Parishioners at the three passionate churches around Birmingham – Holy Family, nearby St. Joseph and St. Mary in Fairfield – are planning a special Mass on October 4 to close the Season of Creation.
John Meehan, a parishioner from St. Mary’s, told CNS that the Mass aims to elevate Catholic teaching and encourage others to join in the three parishes’ decades-long faith-based environmental work.
Meanwhile, to help parishes celebrate the season of creation, Jesuit Father James Hug has developed a Catholic liturgical guide that can be used throughout the five-week period.
It includes prayers based on the sacramentary, appropriate musical suggestions, biblical reflections and general intercessions.
Hug, who is minister of sacramentals for the Dominican Sisters of Adrian in Michigan, said he developed the guide to share “God’s gift of creation through prayer and liturgy.”
He also said he hoped the guide, which can be downloaded in English and Spanish from www.dominicancenter.org — will encourage more parishes to incorporate “green” themes into parish prayer life.