Local Catholics embrace pope's message on climate change
New London — Twenty-five minutes into the regular Sunday morning service at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, the Rev. Robert Washabaugh stepped to the pulpit to deliver a 10-minute homily challenging his congregation to expand their definition of what it means to be a faithful Catholic, a true Christian and an ethical human being.
“God is summoning us today and speaking a word to us now,” he said, addressing a sanctuary of about 100 people of mixed ages and races, many clad in shorts and sleeveless tops befitting the late summer heat.
“It isn’t what God summoned our grandparents to do. They lived in different times. You all know that Our Holy Father, Pope Francis has published an encyclical on climate change. It is called ‘On Caring for Our Common Home.’ It is a summons, a kind of command. It is not an opinion, not a political question, not an economic conundrum, but a deep, abiding spiritual challenge to every one of us.”
Released in June, the 120-page encyclical letter captured the attention of many, both among and outside of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The document is widely cited as historic for being the first time a pope has issued a message focused on the environment.
As Catholics and others anticipate Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September, when he will address groups at the United Nations, Congress and in Philadelphia, many are hoping the themes of the encyclical will be a central focus of his upcoming public speeches that will resonate across the religious and secular worlds.
“His trip to America can trigger an enormous conversation about the role of religion and our ethical obligations for the environment,” said Joe McGee of Fairfield, a Catholic who has been active in climate change issues in the state as head of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storms Panel and in developing climate resiliency plans as vice president of the Fairfield Business Council.
After reading the encyclical, McGee said, he came to the conclusion that Pope Francis is “right on target” in calling the degradation of Earth and its climate a sin that governments, industry and individuals regardless of their faiths have a responsibility to rectify.
“He’s surprising everybody in moving off the typical culture wars of human sexuality, toward a broader focus,” McGee said. “Our planet is changing and we’re affecting it, but each generation has an obligation to leave the world in a better place.”
The sermon Sunday at St. Mary Star of the Sea was not the first time that congregation had dealt with the encyclical message. A few weeks after it was issued, church leaders organized a meeting to give parishioners a chance to discuss it that drew about 20 people, and more meetings are being planned. Sunday’s sermon was, however, timed both in advance of the pope’s Sept. 22-26 visit, and of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation on Tuesday.
In declaring this as a day of prayer for the Earth, Pope Francis acknowledged that he was following a tradition begun by the Orthodox Church in 1989, and invited people to give thanks for creation and reflect on how they should act to protect it.
Father Washabaugh, before ending his short remarks with a promise to return to the encyclical for future sermons, called climate change “the defining issue for the rest of our lives for every man, woman and child” in the congregation.
“We are poised at a tipping point where we will not be able to stop the decline of the climate,” he said. A moral response is not just up to governments and industry, he said, but also depends on individuals “moving away from being mere consumers” and doing simple, significant things in their everyday lives to conserve resources and protect the Earth.
“When we hear the word addressed to us and respond, our internal environment, the environment of our souls, heals,” he said. “And when that environment changes, the environment around us has a chance to heal as well.”
Javier Padilla of New London, who attended the first meeting about the encyclical, said he has seen the effects of the changing climate in his home country of Honduras, from which he emigrated eight years ago. Changing rainfall patterns, he said, are causing severe drought in some agricultural regions there, and frequent flooding in others. Thousands there are being displaced and suffering because of it, he said.
“The encyclical makes me feel like I have to do something,” he said, adding that he tries to be frugal in his use of electricity, turning off lights and air conditioning. “The pope is calling us to awareness.”
Fellow parishioner Jim Gillooly of New London said he, too, has been moved by the encyclical message. In particular, he said, he appreciated how Pope Francis connected care of the Earth to the Catholic Church’s traditional concern for the world’s poor, who are most at risk of the most harmful effects of rising sea levels and intensifying storms.
“You can’t take care of the people if you don’t take care of the planet,” Gillooly said. “We are so wasteful in what we consume, but we need to realize that the decisions we make about what we consume do affect other people.”
Gillooly said he is hoping for guidance from the church on practical ways he and other Catholics can put the pope’s message into practice in their daily lives.
“I’d really like everybody to take ownership of it, by cutting back on electricity use, driving less,” he said. “We can all do that.”
For Tom Kehoe of Glastonbury, a former state representative who served on the General Assembly's Environment Committee, the encyclical message called his attention back to the Catholic Church. No longer a practicing Catholic, he said considers himself "Catholic by upbringing," having attended a Catholic high school and a Jesuit college. He especially appreciates, he said, that Pope Francis is a Jesuit and a "man of reason" who draws on that order's traditions of respect for both science and faith.
"He really is trying to transcend just being a leader of Roman Catholics and reaching out to other religious groups," said Kehoe, who is a member of the board of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters and is active in land preservation in his town. "He's elevated what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be a human being, that it doesn't stop at borders. Francis is saying that everything is part of our home and needs to be respected."
He and others also noted that the encyclical's release, followed by the pope's visit in a few weeks, comes at a particularly important time. Though the scientific evidence of climate change has continued to strengthen over the last decade, that has not been enough to move world leaders to take decisive action. Now, as the U.N. Climate Change Conference is preparing to convene in December, climate change is reframed as an ethical challenge as well.
"Bringing a moral dimension to it puts it in a broader context," Kehoe said. "It's very significant."