10 ways to green your parish
Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ calls on all people and communities to care for our common home by taking action. “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.” (LS 161)
Parishes throughout the world are in a unique position to lead the way. There are more than 220,000 parishes across the globe. Most have multiple buildings and vehicles that, by using conventional fossil fuels for energy, contribute directly to the ecological crisis and climate emergency.
But many parishes around the world have found a way to operate their soul-saving businesses differently. They’ve switched to renewable energies, such as solar, wind, or geothermal, or made other life-giving changes.
Those changes have been better for our common home, and better for the parishes’ pocketbooks as many have saved money by making such adjustments.
Here are 10 inspiring steps parishes around the world have already taken to care for creation and make their parish more sustainable. Which of these can your parish try?
1. Form a creation care team
Forming a creation care team, also known as a green team, can be a great way to incorporate caring for creation and working against the climate crisis into the everyday work of the parish.
Such teams look differently around the world, but one common characteristic of such teams is that with approval from the pastor they take action themselves — they are not just there to provide advice and recommendations to others.
Two other factors also have come up again and again when talking with creation care teams about why they’ve been successful: they meet regularly, and they have the support of the pastors and parish priests.
Creation care teams are typically made up of entirely volunteers. Some potential ideas that a team can complete to start their community-changing work:
- identify environmental issues of concern in the parish, such as the climate crisis, droughts, environmental justice, or parish energy use
- plan and carry out projects and activities approved by parish leadership
- review and report project results to the parish leadership and fellow parishioners
Photo by Catholic Climate Covenant
The St. Thomas More Care for Creation Ministry is part of the Catholic Climate Covenant’s Creation Care Team network. The St. Thomas group, located in the U.S., was formed in 2015 and holds monthly meetings and climate-related events throughout the year.
Among the ministry’s top achievements: the team led a parish-wide energy-efficiency audit that helped bring about a lighting change and a cost savings of USD $10,000 annually. The parish also saved USD $10,000 in rebates.
2. Eliminate energy waste
Perhaps the least expensive form of energy savings is through our own actions, such as turning off a light when leaving a room. It costs nothing.
What is required instead is an attention to turning things down or off when they are not being used. Energy savings of as much as 10 percent can be achieved simply through conscious and continuous efforts to use less energy.
Turn it down: In buildings with heating or air conditioning, there is probably energy to be saved through careful control of the temperature setting, both when people are there and, even more important, when they’re not.
Many countries, such as Japan, have national guidelines for indoor temperature settings and ask people to dress appropriately for the weather, so as to rely less on heating and air conditioning for our comfort.
Inspect and maintain: To keep building systems and vehicles operating with the intended efficiency, it helps to do routine maintenance, such as cleaning or replacing filters. A good building services manager can make a huge difference toward energy conservation simply by routinely and reliably seeing that things are turned off, temperatures are set back or programmed, systems are serviced regularly, and energy-using spaces and devices are consolidated where possible. A cost-conscious building manager is an invaluable member of a parish creation care team.
3. Monitor your energy usage
The greatest energy savings benefits, however, are achieved through directly monitoring energy use and reporting it transparently to the parish at large.
Energy use at parishes typically includes direct combustion of fuel for heating, cooking, and transportation; and the use of electricity for lighting, refrigeration, communications, computers, and other electrical appliances.
These two types of energy use are usually easy to monitor because the cost of energy has to be paid. A parish’s energy bills will typically specify the exact amount of energy used during each billing cycle.
TERESA OF AVILA PARISH
San Francisco, California, USA
St. Teresa of Avila Parish conducted a number of energy-saving measures, including replacing worn out light bulbs with more efficient bulbs and adding insulation to a priory.
One year later, the parish had saved 36 percent on natural gas, eight percent on electricity, and 18 percent on its total energy cost. The parish energy savings reduced parish greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in one year.
4. ‘Lock in’ energy savings step by step
It can be a challenge to help conserve energy but there are low-cost devices, such as programmable thermostats and light and motion sensors, that can help.
Inexpensive items, such as weather stripping and high efficiency light bulbs, can also be very cost effective. These simple items may pay for themselves in savings in a short time — sometimes less than a year.
Once these items are installed, they “lock in” the savings year after year. A payback period of seven years is reasonable. A payback period of three years or less is even better.
5. Commit to divesting from fossil fuels
For years, Catholic institutions, including parishes, dioceses, archdioceses, and religious orders, have made the prophetic decision to divest from fossil fuels.
In June 2020, the Vatican fully endorsed the decision to divest through its first-ever set of comprehensive environmental guidelines. The guidelines frame investing in fossil fuels as an ethical choice, on par with other significant ethical choices.
The guidelines suggest that Catholic institutions’ ethical commitments should lead to “taking care not to support companies that harm human or social ecology (for example, through abortion or the arms trade) or environmental ecology (for example, through the use of fossil fuels).”
Pope Francis also has strongly spoken out about the need to transition away from fossil fuels and for Catholic institutions to lead the way.
In his second TED Talks appearance (below), Pope Francis said that there should be a “gradual replacement but without delay” of fossil fuels and that investments shouldn’t go to “those companies that do not meet parameters of integral ecology…”
He continued, applauding those parishes that have already made such bold and inspirational decisions.
“Many organizations, Catholic and of other faiths, have already taken on the responsibility to act in this direction,” Pope Francis said.
Nearly 200 Catholic institutions worldwide have already divested from fossil fuels. Click here to view the entire list of Catholic institutions that have commited to divest fully or partially.
Father Endra Wijayanta, director of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission for the Archdiocese of Semarang, in Indonesia, said of their decision to divest, “We have to stop our ecological spiral of death. We have to revive our
ecological hope, in massive repentance of humankind, by taking the pathway to more sustainable living.”
6. Transition to renewable energy
In the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, countries agreed that the transition away from fossil fuels should be nearly complete by 2050.
Catholic parishes can lead by example by switching partly or fully to renewable energy as soon as possible before 2050.
Already, hundreds of parishes and religious communities have led the way by installing solar panels or relying more on wind or geothermal energy.
There has never been a better time to make the switch. Past economic barriers to renewable energy sources, such as higher costs to solar panels, have all but diminished as the price of solar has dropped drastically.
If your parish has looked at such moves in the past but decided differently because of cost, it’s worth reviewing the opportunity again.
Bandra, Maharashtra India
St. Peter’s parish installed 165 solar panels (52 kW total) on the church and terrace that will supply power to the church, school, and other parish buildings.
“St. Peter’s Parish and St. Stanislaus High School have a reputation of being in the forefront of education for over a century and a half in Mumbai. The management felt the necessity of targeting a zero carbon endeavor to showcase to the students and society at large the necessity, economic viability and the responsibility of institutions to contribute to energy conservation,” said Fr. Errol Fernandes, SJ, parish priest.
The project is expected to pay for itself within seven years, Fr. Fernandes said.
7. Inspire parishioners through dialogue
Laudato Si’ creates a marvelous opportunity to start or continue conversations about caring for God’s creation in parishes.
There are numerous ways parishes can help Catholics better understand Laudato Si’, which reminds us that “everything is connected” and places millennia of Catholic teaching in the context of today’s ecological crisis and climate emergency.
Among the ways:
- Celebrate creation through special liturgies, devotions, prayer services
- Educate members on the themes of Laudato Si’
- Promote lifestyle choices that are respectful of creation and compatible with a stable global climate
- Work towards social and environmental justice in solidarity with the poor
- Foster personal conversion and holiness, especially through the virtues of temperance and prudence
OUR LADY OF EL CISNE
Tena, Napo Ecuador
Father Victor Toapanta, Pastor of Our Lady of El Cisne in Tena, recently emphasized the study of the encyclical Laudato Si’ in pastoral planning for an entire year.
Fr. Toapanta also made some changes to the infrastructure of the parish, upgrading the lights to conserve energy, and water use is controlled and monitored monthly to prevent water leakage.
MOTHER CHURCH OF SAINT GUGLIELMO & ST. BARTOLOMEO
In Sicily, Italy, Rosetta has helped her parish and her community, Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII, create a new pastoral mission, one that is revived and enriched by the spirituality of Laudato Si’.
They plan to incorporate Laudato Si’ into their next pastoral year the following ways:
- Beginning of the year: spending two days to deepen the message of Laudato Si’ and the Canticle of the Creatures of St. Francis
- Advent: another two days on ecological spirituality
- Lent: two days on ecological conversion and developing new lifestyles
- June: Laudato Si’ Retreat
“These opportunities for prayer and reflection will nourish our souls and orient us further towards a life-giving relationship with our Creator and all of creation,” she said.
Rosetta has helped her Italian community bring Laudato Si’ to life.
8. Empower parishioners to take action
Thousands of parishioners around the world are leading the way in their churches. The parishioners on six continents have become Laudato Si’ Animators, champions for Catholic action on climate change.
Passionate people from six continents come together during the course to learn about the root causes of the climate crisis and the core tenets of Laudato Si’. To finish the program, they take action in their communities with a final project.
In many instances, the parishioners have learned about the Laudato Si’ Animator program through parish leadership, by reading about it in the bulletin, or on the church’s social media pages and/or website.
MARY, MOTHER OF GOD
After Małgorzata Zawilska of Warsaw, Poland, became a Laudato Si’ Animator in early 2020, she felt inspired and eager to continue taking action for creation.
She worked with her priest at Mary, Mother of God to form a Laudato Si’ Circle, small groups that meet regularly to deepen their relationship with God as Creator and all of creation.
Her Laudato Si’ Circle welcomed all into the group, preparing Facebook posts to promote the meetings and announcing the Circle gatherings after Sunday Masses.
Małgorzata’s most visible work happened during the 2020 Season of Creation. To mark the annual celebration of prayer and action for our common home, Małgorzata and GCCM Poland organized for an air quality sensor to be installed by her parish.
Małgorzata Zawilska, with help from GCCM Poland, installed an air quality sensor near her parish.
The air sensor not only informs parishioners of air pollution in the area; it also serves as a visible reminder that the Catholic Church views air pollution as a real problem affecting everyone’s health, and that it’s something that needs to be solved.
Poland has some of the worst smog in the European Union, largely because of the country’s heavy use of coal. In 2016 alone, Poland’s air pollution caused more than 43,000 premature deaths, according to estimates from the European Environment Agency.
9. Help spur ecological conversions
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis states the need for all of us to undergo an ecological conversion “whereby the effects of [our] encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in [our] relationship with the world around [us].” (LS 217)
As parishes and their leaders have done for centuries, they can help Catholics more deeply connect with our Creator through special liturgies and homilies, devotions such as Holy Hours and the Rosary, music and artwork, and a plethora of other ways, all of them held with the intention of helping parishioners understand the need to care for God’s creation.
Malate Parish, situated on Manila Bay, is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines (1588). Run by the Columban missionaries, it has a strong social justice orientation to
which a similarly strong Care for the Earth component was added around 25 years ago.
The ministry program helps organize activities for the Season of Creation, the annual celebration of prayer and action for our common home, held from 1 September to 4 October.
Care for the Earth also has developed a wide range of other programs that help parishioners, including Earth Hour, a Lenten detox program, Cosmic Rosary and Ecological Stations of the Cross, and education around the installation of 60 solar panels on the roof of the church.
CATHEDRAL OF ST. MATTHEW THE APOSTLE
Washington, D.C., USA
The creation care team at St. Matthew’s, which includes Deacon Clayton Nickel, is motivated to act so others care for our common home, especially as the climate crisis worsens around the globe.
But team members also especially feel called to act so that they can help their sisters and brothers undergo an ecological conversion.
During the 2020 Season of Creation, the creation care team organized five events that featured prayer, listening, and conversation.
“We really feel that there has to be something more than just something of a technological change, but it has to be a change of heart and a change of mind,” Nickel said.
“This COVID-19 pandemic is allowing us to really, really look through and really reflect on a lot of preconceptions that we are carrying, and that’s [where] we’re trying to lead our brothers and sisters, to that sense of ecological conversion.”
10. Engage in faith-based advocacy
Laudato Si’ calls for public pressure to bring about decisive political action by embracing these concepts:
- urgent need for drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
- need for enforceable international agreements
- greater responsibilities of high-emitting industrialized nations to provide solutions to the problems they have caused
Parishes are also encouraged to take part in local efforts that work against the ongoing climate crisis.
On the eve of the 2020 Season of Creation, Pope Francis also forcefully spoke out against acts of “plundering” against God’s creation and called on all people to take action to protect God’s gifts “today, not tomorrow, today.”
His Holiness, speaking in his monthly Pope Video, said countries and companies in the Global North exploit “natural gifts from the [Global] South, generating an ‘ecological debt.’
“Who is going to pay that debt?” he asked.
“Furthermore, the ‘ecological debt’ is enlarged when multinationals do outside their countries what they are not allowed to do in their own. It is outrageous.”
Parishes are invited to join thousands of Catholics around the world and “Stand With Pope Francis” by saying no to plundering, and yes to sharing the Earth’s resources.
More information on all of the above can be found here, in Global Catholic Climate Movement’s Eco-Parish Guide.