Earthly stewardship is a Christian virtue

School’s environmental care efforts reap rewards for people, planet, pocket-book

In Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” the Holy Father calls all people to an “ecological conversion,” whereby one’s encounter with Jesus Christ is reflected in one’s relationship with the Earth.

“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience,” the pope writes. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he asserts, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”

Erin Hensley, 35, parent leader of Shrine of St. Anne School’s student Green Team, took to heart Pope Francis’ words and reinstituted recycling at the Arvada school last year. Those efforts decreased the school’s landfill waste by 40 percent weekly and saved it $3,000 annually. The project also won a $1,000 Green Up Your School grant, which the Green Team is using this year to expand recycling in the classroom and in the lunchroom.

For Earth Day, the Green Team took their efforts into the wider community by stationing themselves at the Arvada Chick-fil-A on April 21 to urge customers to recycle their take-out containers.

To help foster environmental stewardship, Hensley shared tips with the Denver Catholic on how to start or expand one’s own sustainability efforts in schools and at home.

DC: How is recycling going at St. Anne’s this school year?

Hensley: It’s going great! One of the things we’re doing now in the lunchroom is to encourage students not to throw their food away. We learned that 16 percent of our waste (90-100 pounds weekly) is perfectly good, untouched, still packaged food items. If they haven’t touched their sandwich or fruit or treat, students can put it in a Giving Basket and kids who forget their lunch can help themselves to it. What’s left is refrigerated and at the end of the week donated to Arvada’s Blessing Box for the homeless.

The Giving Basket has a Scripture passage, John 6:12: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments so nothing is lost.’” Packaged food has become such a convenience and easy to come by that we’ve lost touch with how much is thrown out; years ago that would have been unheard of. This isn’t just common sense, but a Christian practice that needs to be embodied.

DC: Tell me about your reusable water bottle campaign.

Hensley: Of the 300 students at St. Anne’s only 10 percent typically bring their reusable water bottles to lunch, a lot of kids leave them at their desk and use singe-use containers at lunch. The Green Team had a contest and gave tickets to students who used their reusable bottles in the lunchroom. At the end of two weeks we had a drawing for prizes.

Erin Hensley (left) with students from Shrine of St. Anne Catholic School set up camp at the Arvada Chick-Fil-A April 21 to encourage people to recycle more. (Photo provided)

Making that small switch from disposable to reusable containers helps to both reduce our waste and to reuse. We also did away with little wax cups that were used for kids who didn’t have a drink container at lunch. Those cups would go into the trash. If kids forget to bring a drink, they can get one from the water fountain. It’s a “hard” lesson that isn’t too hard!

DC: What are some small steps families and schools can take to reduce, reuse and recycle?

Hensley: Parents can make sure kids have a way to bring leftovers home. I’m a big fan of Tupperware. If you use plastic sandwich bags, switch to reusable containers. Also, reuse disposable cutlery, which can’t be recycled. Limit disposable beverage containers to occasional—not daily or weekly—use. And when making such purchases, keep in mind that fruit juice pouches are not easily recyclable, but juice boxes are. Keep in mind that convenience comes at a cost: both financially and for our planet.

Everyone can read a book to kids about nature or conservation. The Earth Day 2018 message is: “End plastic pollution.” [One sobering fact from the World Economic Forum Report: if plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050.] Remember to take reusable bags when you shop, and to reuse and recycle plastic bags and wrap. Also, refuse freebies and unwanted items from vendors. The stress balls, wristbands, pens and plastic junk are only destined for the dump!

Schools can install a Giving Basket. A teacher or volunteer can take photos of all the untouched food kids throwaway and get that info home to parents. Schools can install paper reuse bins to promote double-side paper use and to repurpose paper. We tied that in with an Earth Art contest, which will be held at Shrine of St. Anne Church. The parishioners will vote on the most visually appealing or informative entry.

We have fun with our projects! Kids are excited to be able to participate and feel like they are making a difference helping the Earth by saving trees and by keeping our planet clean and safe for all life.

Earth Day Tips
Nonprofit Recycling Websites
Colorado Association for Recycling:

COMING UP: Four simple themes of Laudato Si’

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Much will be written in the coming days, weeks and years about the second encyclical of Pope Francis, titled Laudato Si’: On the Care of Our Common Home. The lengthy and ambitious 184-page letter, addressed to “all people” who inhabit the planet, covers a lot of ground.

The Holy Father touches on everything from the invasiveness of technology in our daily lives to climate change to a very specific mention of the increased use of air conditioning. He even makes an unexpected and welcome reference to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her doctrine of the “Little Way.”

While the more specific points are covered well in many summaries already published, here are four simple themes that can serve as a quick framework for understanding the first Papal encyclical on ecology.

1. Everything is connected

The Holy Father uses words such as connection, interrelation, unity, relationship and harmony dozens of times throughout the encyclical, thus promoting the idea of an “integral ecology” that brings together an “ecology of nature” with an “ecology of man.”

Using St. Francis as an “example par excellence” of living out an “integral ecology,” the Pope notes that the saint “was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself.”

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with God, and with others,” the Holy Father states in making the point that the “justification of abortion” is incompatible with a concern for nature.

Additionally, Pope Francis underlines that every single person on earth is connected by the very fact that we all inhabit the earth, which is our “common home.”

The encyclical itself is addressed to “all people,” every single resident of earth, and it seeks “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” The dialogue includes every person, because we are all connected, and it requires “a new and universal solidarity.”

2. We are broken

The root of the problem that we commonly face together, The Pope states, is disunity.

Laudato Si' is the second encyclical of Pope Francis.“The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality,” the Pope writes. “They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.

“According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”

The Holy Father repeatedly mentions “excessive anthropocentrism,” which gives rise “to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world.”

Instead of “mastery” or “domination” of the world, the Pontiff states, “our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”

The Pope also expresses a particular concern for the fragmentation of knowledge, particularly of the disconnect between the sciences and technology and philosophy and theology.

3. The earth cries out

When man breaks his connection with God, neighbor and creation, he eventually does injury and violence to himself, others, and to the earth.

In the nearly poetic introduction to the letter, Francis writes of the earth as our sister: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.

“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

Instead of caring for the earth, which is our “home,” we have made it “look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” the Pope writes.

Pope Francis includes several pointed paragraphs on the role of mankind in the warming of the climatic system, which he says is due in large part to “intensive use of fossil fuels.” He argues for a reduction of carbon emissions, in addition to other measures that would alleviate stress on the earth’s resources.

He advocates seeking clean and renewable energy sources, a “basic and universal human right” to drinkable water, and more far-sighted practices that respect the earth’s biodiversity and seek to protect species that are close to extinction.

Then there is the social destruction. Pope Francis points to several signs of “real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.”

As an example, he points to media and the digital world that contribute to a sort of “mental pollution” through the production of “noise and distractions of an information overload.”

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation,” he states.

4. A call to conversion

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast,” the Pope writes, quoting Benedict XVI. “For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.”

In a powerful statement on what the Pope terms “ecological conversion,” the Holy Father calls all Christians, even those who “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” to allow the “effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ [to] become evident in their relationship with the world around them.”

“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue,” he asserts. “It is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

He proposes “cultivating sound virtues” through “little daily actions” to help people grow in a “selfless ecological commitment.” He suggests cutting down on the use of paper and plastic, reducing water consumption, using public transportation and planting trees.

The Pope suggests an examination of our lives and attitudes, particularly those connected with consumerism and a “throw-away culture,” and move toward “heartfelt repentance and desire to change.”

Pope Francis seeks with the encyclical that all people approach nature with an “openness to awe and wonder,” and to view creation as a gift of the Creator, and to speak of creation with the “language of fraternity and beauty.”

“If we feel intimately united with all that exists,” he states, “then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”