Earth Day and Pope Francis’ encyclical reflect Catholics’ call to care for creation, official says

    Father Kennedy blesses the site of a new rain garden next to the church.

    A papal encyclical is the Catholic Church’s highest form of teaching document, but Genevieve Mougey, the new director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Social Concerns, believes that Pope Francis’s landmark 2015 encyclical on ecology, “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” is something much more personal for Catholics to take to heart.

    “The whole document was such a beautiful statement. It was just a love letter to the Earth, and a love letter to each of us,” she said.

    And the pope’s clarion call for protecting the environment is especially important for Catholics as people around the world commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020, she said.

    “I would hope we would see the celebration of Earth Day as a convergence of our Catholic identity with just being a responsible citizen engaged in the world,” Mougey said, adding, “These two things, what it means to be a citizen of the Earth and Catholic are not divergent, they complement each other.”

    Mougey noted she grew up in Nebraska and her parents talked about what it means to be stewards of the Earth. She spent summers with her grandparents who ranched and farmed in North Dakota and experienced their respect for protecting the environment. Later as an adult, she was moved to contact public officials to oppose the Keystone Pipeline project out of concern for that oil pipeline’s impact on the Ogalla Aquifer, a water table beneath parts of eight states in the Great Plains and a vital water source for that region.

    “I feel like we have an obligation to live out the prophetic nature of what it means to be Catholic and to speak out against injustices,” said Mougey.

    She pointed out that caring for creation is one of the themes of Catholic social teaching, and she noted how Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ underscored how Catholics are called to see that work as part of their vocation as followers of Jesus in today’s world.

    One of Mougey’s favorite parts of Laudato Si’ is where Pope Francis noted, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (#139)

    That quote, she said, “speaks to the very idea that we are all connected and that what I choose to do will have an impact on others around me.  This is what it means to belong to the body of Christ.  I do not live in this world alone, I am responsible for how my choices and my engagement influence and affect others.”

    A key responsibility for her office in upcoming months will be to help produce a Laudato Si’ action plan for parishes and parishioners to help people live out its message in their daily lives, similar to what the Archdiocese of Atlanta did when it was led by Archbishop Wilton Gregory before he became the archbishop of Washington in 2019. That action plan for Catholics in Atlanta was one of the first such plans formulated by a U.S. diocese in response to Pope Francis’s ecology encyclical, and Mougey said the Archdiocese of Washington will collaborate with laity, including members of its Care for Creation Committee, in drawing up the plan for Catholics in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Maryland counties of St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery.

    “We have amazing lay people in the archdiocese who have picked up the mantle to say this is an important issue and we’re going to continue working on it,” she said.

    Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, visit before the October 2019 blessing of a solar array under construction then at Catholic Charities property in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

    The Archdiocese of Washington celebrated a special milestone in its energy conservation efforts in October 2019, as Archbishop Gregory blessed a solar array on five acres of Catholic Charities’ land surrounding the Missionaries of Charities’ Gift of Peace home. The array of 5,072 solar panels was described as the largest such solar project built thus far in Washington, D.C., and it was estimated that the panels would generate 2.7 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, equivalent to powering about 350 homes. The proceeds will offset nearly all of the energy costs of Catholic Charities’ 12 properties in the District of Columbia and also fund maintenance costs for the Gift of Peace building.

    At the blessing ceremony, Archbishop Gregory praised the partnership among Catholic, government and business entities that made the project possible.

    “We are also here engaged in an act of prayer,” he said. “…It’s not simply political, social or economic action we’re taking. We’re praising God today in prayer… for the gift of the sun that shines on us, and more importantly, the Son that saves us.”

    In an April 21 interview, Pat Dunne, the chief operating officer for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, noted that the solar array was operational at the end of January 2020. According to Catholic Charities, since the array was turned on in January, it has helped save nearly 640,000 lbs. of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of planting more than 16,000 trees.

    Catholic Charities officials are working with engineers to evaluate storm water management on the property, and later this spring, a pollinator meadow will be planted beneath the solar array as planned, designed to draw birds, bees and butterflies to the field.

    Dunne, who is an engineer by background, said it was inspiring to see the solar array project unfold, and he praised its partners, which included Catholic Charities and its donors, the District of Columbia, IGS Solar, Solar Energy Services and Catholic Energies, for “all working together to accomplish this task.”

    In an October 2019 photo, workers install panels for the solar array on Catholic Charities’ property adjoining the Gift of Peace home in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

    He noted that Catholic Charities has also recently installed energy efficient LED lighting in some of its buildings, including at the Spanish Catholic Center’s medical clinic in Washington, D.C., and at the reopened Angels Watch Shelter in Waldorf for women and children fleeing domestic violence or homelessness in Southern Maryland. For more than 15 years, Catholic Charities’ Green Construction Program at the Spanish Catholic Center has trained students in green building technology to prepare them for jobs in green construction.

    “We’re fully aware of the pope’s efforts to communicate the needs of the environment. We’ve taken that to heart,” said Dunne, noting that work enables the agency to be a good steward of its resources. He added, “We’re reliant on the environment to do the good works we do… The effort is worth it.”

    Other noteworthy environmental initiatives in the Archdiocese of Washington in recent years included a green infrastructure project at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., blessed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl in 2018. The Archdiocese of Washington partnered with The Nature Conservancy, a national organization working on land and water conservation, to create a storm water retention garden and related infrastructure to reduce pollutants from water runoff in the cemetery.

    A green infrastructure project at the historic Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., was designed to significantly reduce pollutants from storm water runoff. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

    Also in 2018, Father Kevin Kennedy, the pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Washington, D.C., blessed a site for a rain garden outside the church designed to limit stormwater runoff that causes pollution in area waterways. The project was funded by a grant from the RiverSmart program of D.C.’s Department of Energy and the Environment.

    After the blessing for St. Gabriel’s rain garden,  Ashley Novak – a registered nurse who is a member of the parish’s Green Team that helped plan the project – said the effort was in harmony with the message of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ encyclical.

    “It’s important for us to care for the environment as best we can, to preserve it for those around us and for future generations,” she said.

    In a photo from September 2018, Father Kevin Kennedy, the pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Washington, D..C., blesses the site of a rain garden outside the church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)