by Jill Ragar Esfeld
MISSION — Don’t be surprised if, as churches across the archdiocese don their traditional purple this Lent, St. Pius X Parish here sticks out like a sore thumb — a green one, that is.
Yes, St. Pius parishioners are going green this Ash Wednesday, but you needn’t expect them to clash with the time-honored color scheme of the upcoming penitential season. The Vatican itself has even recently formalized its plans to become the first carbon neutral state in the world.
In his World Day of Peace message, in fact, Pope Benedict XVI made clear that we need to care for the environment — and through it, the poor.
The earth, he said, “has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion.”
THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL
Saint Pius’s interest in all things environmental started out with the chance meeting of parishioners Carol Meyer and Kelly Harris-Zehr last spring at several Earth Day events. Further conversations followed, and eventually the two decided to propose to pastor Father Ken Kelly the introduction of a parish-based Green Committee.
After receiving his enthusiastic approval, the two found that getting others to share their passion was as easy as changing a light bulb. They didn’t even have to beg for committee members — parishioners came forward with interest.
The congregation also responded enthusiastically to a weekly bulletin message called “Caring for Creation,” and the committee’s first glass-collecting drive filled a van with recyclable glass.
Encouraged by that initial response, Meyer thought members might be open to a communal project in environmental stewardship.
And Lent, she decided, was the perfect time for it.
“The environment is a foundational issue of our times that the Spirit is calling us to do something about,” she explained. “Lent is a communal time, a time of discipline and conversion; it just felt like a good time to build some energy and excitement around doing something that makes a difference and helping people see the connection between their faith and environmental issues.”
Eileen Horn, community outreach coordinator for the Climate and Energy Project in Lawrence, thinks Meyer is right on track. Horn grew up in Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa and sees her faith as central to her passion for the environment.
“My major motivation comes from the fact that, at its heart, this is a social justice issue,” she said. “Climate models show that the world’s poor are disproportionately affected by the natural disasters and problems that come with climate change.
“And so, for me, it’s a moral call to change my behaviors — to be my brother’s keeper and to love my neighbor as myself.”
With both the earth and the poor in mind, therefore, the Green Committee, with the support of Father Kelly and the parish council, formulated a plan to use this Lent as a time for parishioners to renew both their spirits and the earth. Organizers divided the program into several elements based on the central theme “Caring for God’s Earth: Environmental Awakening and Conversion.”
• A few weeks prior to Lent, a list of “Suggested Lenten Actions to Benefit the Earth” was published in the bulletin, encouraging families to give some serious thought to the changes, sacrifices and commitments they could make during Lent to improve the environment. (See box below.)
• Each weekend Mass during Lent will feature a different speaker, who in a brief presentation at the end of Mass, will address the way in which different environmental issues relate to church teachings.
• A “Prayer for the Earth” will be included in the prayer of the faithful each week, and copies of the prayer will be distributed so parishioners can pray it at home as well.
• Harris-Zehr will host an environmental film and discussion one evening each week.
• A retreat entitled “On Fire for the Earth: Awakening to a New Vision of Creation” is scheduled for March 1. It will be directed by Meyer and Sister Rose Therese Huelsman, a member of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Sister Rose Therese, who met Meyer through their mutual interest in climate change, is impressed with St. Pius X’s commitment to the Lenten program and hopes to multiply the impact by opening their retreat to anyone interested.
“Our deepest hope is to give people a whole new way of seeing themselves and the world in organic continuity with their faith tradition,” she said. “We hope that will ground them in being ecologically responsible citizens who understand the connection with poverty, with Catholic social teaching and with human dignity.”
A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY
Saint Pius parishioners are free to choose how much they want to “sacrifice” this Lent. But the Green Committee maintains that even a small effort to help the environment can make a big difference. Sister Rose Therese learned that lesson when the women religious she lives with decided to switch to incandescent bulbs, and one of them volunteered to track how much carbon dioxide they saved.
“The 18 of us have saved 225,000 pounds of carbon dioxide,” she said. “That’s over a 5-7 year life of the bulb, but that still shows that a lot of people doing a little thing can make a very real difference.”
Like many of his parishioners, Father Kelly is enthusiastic about the St. Pius Lenten program and has gotten a head start on his commitment to environmental stewardship.
“I have three canvas bags,” explained the pastor. “I shop at Aldi’s and I take my reusable bags back and forth. I use neither paper sacks nor those horrendous plastic sacks that they always talk about as so bad for our environment.”
“And I’m trying to recycle,” Father Kelly added, “although you have to be very organized for that. Out in the garage I have my different piles, and I’m trying.”
Many families are taking time before Lent to review the Green Committee’s list of Lenten action suggestions and choose one or two they feel they can accomplish.
If they succeed, said Horn, they won’t just be helping the planet. Even making a small commitment, she said, can result in a powerful spiritual experience.
“Every day, when you remember to turn off your lights, when you change the route of your errands so you use less fossil fuels, when you don’t idle while waiting for your kids in the car line at school, it’s going to remind you, ‘I’m doing this because I care about creation, and I’m called by God to do that,’” she said.
“It sounds weird that screwing in a compact fluorescent light bulb would be a spiritual moment,” she But I think if we’re mindful of that, it can be really powerful.”
LENT ALL YEAR LONG
The Green Committee hopes the new habits that parishioners develop this Lent will make them better stewards of creation all year long. But committee members are not anticipating resting on their laurels any time soon.
“Lent will end,” said Harris-Zehr, “right in time to get ready for Earth Day!” “Taking care of the earth is a moral issue,” said Father Kelly, “and we’re on the cutting edge in this area. We might be small in Johnson County, but we are . . . committed to ecology and committed to taking care of our planet. We are a vital parish. And boy, we do some great work!”