Five keys to bringing Laudato Si’ to life at your school

March 23, 2020

Caring for creation remains a priority for St. Athanasius School in Illinois, U.S.A.

Susan Castagna spent much of her career bringing Laudato Si’ to life in Catholic schools, and that includes the decades she worked before the encyclical had even been written.

Castagna, who retired in 2016, spent 24 years leading Catholic schools in the United States.

Before Laudato Si’, she relied on the centuries of Catholic teaching that encourage all people to make caring for our common home an integral part of our lives. After Laudato Si’ was published, in June 2015, she used the document to accelerate her leadership.

“When Laudato Si’ came out, it was like a mandate from heaven,” Castagna said. “It served as an education and as a motivator.”

Castagna stays plenty busy in retirement by serving as a Laudato Si’ Animator. She’s also an expert on how to make the tenets of Laudato Si’ a priority at any school. She recently shared the five keys to bringing Laudato Si’ to life at your school or company.

1. Don’t be afraid to introduce something new.

Castagna became the principal of St. Athanasius School in Evanston, Illinois, in 2006. She and her husband moved from Portland, Oregon, which has one of the most comprehensive environmental programs of any location in the U.S., and found that their new home had fewer resources available.

But she didn’t let that stop her from making caring for creation a key component of her tenure at the school.

“I was really passionate about the environment, and I really saw the need to increase awareness and activity in Illinois and Evanston,” she said.

Her passion for creation came from a childhood spent outdoors and in Catholic churches. Castagna was raised near Portland, not far from Mount Hood, and as a child she spent countless weekends hiking and fishing near her family’s cabin by the mountain.

Her family members would often ask each other, “Is the mountain out?” And if clouds weren’t blocking their view, the answer was “yes.”

2. Be OK with falling short of perfection.

The St. Athanasius parent organization wanted to stop using single-use water bottles at school events, and eventually they did. But the organization still used plastic pitchers and plastic cups.

In a perfect world, they would have switched to biodegradable cups and waved goodbye to plastics. But at the time, biodegradable cups were very expensive.

“We reduced our use of plastic rather than eliminate it completely,” Castagna said. “We weren’t perfect, but we were moving in the right direction.”

The school also had a solar panel that generated enough electricity for the lights in the gym, which were on all day. Castagna hung a TV outside her office that was supposed to show data from the panel. But despite working on the project for nearly four years, the monitor, which could have been a visual reminder for students, never worked as she wanted.

The solar panel showed students the potential of renewable energy.

She and the school, however, didn’t let falling short of their ultimate goals stop them from doing what they could. They were still educating themselves and the student body on how to be better stewards of the earth, and they were still making incremental changes that helped them move closer to living out the values of Laudato Si’.

As Pope Francis wrote, “Our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.” (Laudato Si’ 61)

3. Embed Laudato Si’ into the school culture.

One of the first things Castagna did was establish an environmental sustainability committee that was composed of herself, parents, teachers, and students. The committee wrote the school’s sustainability guidelines, which included a commitment to recycling classroom paper and to reducing the use of plastic utensils.

Once the guidelines were finished, she took them to faculty and asked them to review and send her any suggestions.

By involving so many different groups in the process, rather than just teachers or only parents, Castagna let everyone have a voice in prioritizing the school’s efforts and developing its shared environmental values.

“Everything we did, we always brought as many constituent groups to it as we could,” she said. “As a community, you assess, what are we doing well? What can we improve in? And if it comes from the grassroots like that, then people are willing to go forward with whatever goals you set up.”

Castagna also made sure that new staff members received the guidelines to ensure that they understood how important caring for creation was at St. Athanasius. “You have to be very intentional about the culture you want to develop,” she said.

4. Involve the students, and make it real for them.

Following Castagna’s lead, students established an ecology club that met monthly. A teacher advised the group, but the students independently created programs and thought of ideas.

They started a lunchroom recycling program, recycling brown paper bags, milk cartons, and Capri-Sun packaging. They also organized the occasional “trashless lunch,” in which students were challenged to produce no garbage from their lunch by using reusable containers and reusable drink holders, and by altogether avoiding plastic bags.

Among its other achievements, the club started the school’s composting program and created posters that were displayed around the school and explained how their programs worked.

“We tried to bring things to life for the students as much as we could. Make it real, make it tangible,” Castagna said. “All of those activities brought our kids together.”

5. Be aware that you’re changing more than the environment.

On the surface, the work Castagna, parents, teachers, and students did improved the environment in their small part of the world. But during her 10 years at the school, she saw the focus on creation and doing God’s work have intangible effects that were just as, if not more so, important.

“It helps people get outside of themselves. You’re doing something for the common good. You’re trying to live out God’s message,” she said. “From the beginning, in Genesis, God is asking us to be a steward of the environment. So we’re living out God’s message to us. We’re doing something that we know in this day and age is very important.”

More than most, Castagna knows how busy schools can be. The list of demands on teachers is never-ending, including papers to grade and parents to call. When she made the values of Laudato Si’ a priority in the school, Castagna said she was conscious of how busy everyone already felt.

“Every time you add a new committee or have these guidelines that you’re trying to enforce, it does add to your workload. But by sharing with all the constituent groups, I never felt like it was much of a burden,” she said. “It all fit within our mission and our goals.”

Rather than seeing the work as something extra or something to be done on the side, she saw it as a way to form community and to make caring for creation an integral part of everyone’s lives.

“This is a way I can help this community. This is a way I can help the world,” she said of how she viewed the work. “I’m very proud of the way the community came together.”