Catholic school students learn to be stewards of creation

Arvada school’s Earth Day project aims to cleanup historic neighborhood

Roxanne King

In Pope Francis’ second encyclical, “Laudato si,” (“Praise be to you”) the pope urges the faithful to be good stewards of the Earth. The title is taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful Canticle of the Sun, which praises God for the wonder of creation.

Inspired by the pope’s document, Erin Hensley, a parishioner at Shrine of St. Anne Church in Arvada, used it to support her case for re-instituting recycling at the parish school. She recently mobilized a Green Team comprised of 20 enthusiastic students from kindergarten through seventh grade and on April 3 kicked off the recycling program with funny skits at the school assembly. 

For Earth Day, April 22, the Green Team, joined by others from the school community, will do a litter cleanup around the parish campus and in their historic Old Town Arvada neighborhood.

“I wanted my children to attend St. Anne’s and grow strong religious roots, but I also wanted to know they were caring for the physical roots beneath their feet—God’s creation,” Hensley, the mother of two students at the school and one toddler, told the Denver Catholic

Hensley’s efforts to reduce waste at the school won’t just help the environment but will also have a positive financial impact on the parish community.

“The quest to reinstate recycling actually saved the school and church $3,500 annually,” Hensley said. “The fact that we were able to save this much money in the transition and that it’s happening during Earth Month gives me goose-bumps!”

School principal Patricia Hershwitzky said that while the financial savings is terrific, the real benefit is calling the students to stewardship and to living lives of Christian dignity.

“Caring for the environment and making it orderly is a reflection of our awareness as being children of God,” she said.

Hensley aims to make the cleanup fun by using an app called Litterati, which has been used to help communities tackle environmental concerns and come up with sustainable solutions. Litterati notes that litter blights the environment, endangers wildlife and hurts the planet.

“With our current throwaway society, we as Catholics are called to demonstrate a love for human life but also a love for all life—the life of our planet. We must be mindful of what we buy and discard moments later,” Hensley said, noting that in “Laudato si,” Pope Francis writes, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Hensley assessed that the school collects 10,000-plus gallons of trash a month, but that nearly half of that can be recycled and kept out of landfills.

“Over the course of the school year, that’s enough plastic, paper and aluminum to cover every square foot of our gymnasium up to our knees—and now it’s going to make new paper and plastic materials,” she said.

The school’s efforts to recycle paper, she continued, should save nearly 100 trees a year, as well as 30,000 gallons of water and 10 barrels of oil from not having to produce paper pulp from those trees.

Next school year, Hensley hopes to expand recycling into the school lunchroom and, eventually, to add composting and perhaps a school garden. To help achieve those goals, she’s applied for a Green Up Our Schools grant, which provides money for elementary school waste reduction, recycling and composting plans.

“She’s a visionary in this,” Hershwitzky said. “And she puts the feet behind the vision.”

Our Lady of Fatima fifth-grade teacher Maddy Crouse and her students head the recycling efforts at her Lakewood school. This year she and her fifth-graders led the move to expand the school’s recycling efforts into the lunchroom, which uses foam trays that were being thrown away daily.

“The (fifth-grade) students put together a Power Point presentation and talked to the other students about the difference between landfill trash and recycling,” Crouse said. “(Now) we have (student) trash supervisors who stand by the bins to help answer questions, especially from younger students, to make sure the trash and recycling stay separated.”

Not only do the recycling projects educate youths about where trash goes and its environmental impact, Crouse and Hensley said, but they help the youths to build vital leadership skills and empower them to know they can make positive change.

“This is discipleship in action,” Hensley said. “There are many ways Catholics are being awesome disciples regarding protecting human life; this helps other living things as well.”

COMING UP: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.