The Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), born in 2015, is the fruit of a kairos – the Greek word used in the Gospel to express “an opportune moment.” The kairos of 2015 was the combination of two transformative events that would shape how the Church and humanity responded to the ecological crisis: the Laudato Si’ encyclical release and the Paris Climate Agreement.
First, Pope Francis wrote and released the encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, the first-ever papal encyclical devoted to the crisis of our planetary home. Inspired by his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi and his deep communion with all Creation (best captured in the Canticle of the Creatures that inspired the encyclical’s title), the Pope issued a powerful appeal to the Church and “all people of good will” to urgently come together and respond to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Second, with the backdrop of increasingly starker warnings from the scientific community about the severity of the climate emergency, leaders from nearly 200 nations gathered at the U.N. Paris Climate Summit (COP21) to agree and sign the Paris Agreement. After 21 years of failed negotiations, nations of the world had a deadline to finally agree on a common plan that would tackle the climate crisis before it was too late.
in the Philippines
Months before those two events (Laudato Si’ was released in June and the Paris Climate Summit took place in December 2015), in the midst of the momentum that was building and the wide media coverage anticipating both events, GCCM launched on 15 January 2015, inspired by the Holy Spirit. That was the day Pope Francis arrived in the Philippines for a highly symbolic trip that would feature a visit to Tacloban, the epicenter of the Super Typhoon Haiyan. The disaster killed more than 10,000 people and left 13 million homeless.
Haiyan became a symbol of the climate crisis as it was the strongest storm ever recorded, and scientists explained that it was intensified by climate change. As if emphasizing the urgency of “the signs of the times,” another typhoon hit Tacloban the same day that Pope Francis visited the town (17 January), reminding him and the Church how poor countries like the Philippines are the ones that suffer the most from the unjust climate crisis. The choice of the Philippines for GCCM’s foundation has marked the movement’s commitment to hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
During his Philippines trip, Pope Francis was hosted by Cardinal “Chito” Tagle, who as Archbishop of Manila was GCCM’s foundational episcopal sponsor and an essential companion for the journey ahead. The Archdiocese of Manila and some Philippine religious orders were part of the foundational group of 17 organizations and 12 leaders from all continents that came together to form GCCM. Soon before, sparked by the momentum of the People’s Climate March of September 2014, the group started gathering in December 2014 through weekly Skype calls to coordinate a united Catholic plan to support the upcoming papal encyclical that was being reported by the press – we didn’t know its name back then! – and raise the voice of the Church to call for climate justice and an ambitious agreement at the Paris Climate Summit.
The founding group chose St. Francis of Assisi as the movement’s patron saint, recalling that he is the patron saint of ecology (it’s worth noting that several Franciscan organizations were GCCM founding members), and issued a foundational statement that read:
“The Global Catholic Climate Movement is a first-of-its-kind international coalition of Catholics from many nations, continents, and walks of life. We are laity, religious, and clergy, theologians, scientists, and activists from Argentina, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Australia, the United States, and many other nations. We are united by our Catholic faith and our work in various roles and organizations on climate change issues… Pope Francis will be issuing an encyclical about caring for the environment. With this statement, we the undersigned now seek to help bring these teachings of the Church to the world.”
Working For Climate Justice From The Start
The first year of GCCM was an unexpected explosion of energy and life. The initial group of founding members quickly grew to include 300 Catholic organizations by the end of the year and a vast network of grassroots leaders who coalesced around the goal of supporting the encyclical and mobilizing for an ambitious Paris Climate Agreement. A tiny Secretariat, which is the central team supporting the movement, was set up with the support of the Franciscan Action Network. The Secretariat initially included Tomás Insua and Christina Leaño, who worked out of university libraries in Boston for the first two years, and Igor Bastos and Fabian Campos who worked out of Franciscan and Caritas offices, coordinating Latin American efforts.
Members of the founding Steering Committee had their first in-person gathering in Rome in May 2015, on the occasion of a pre-encyclical preparatory meeting with Vatican officials and Caritas leaders from different continents. The Rome trip included an inspiring encounter with Pope Francis, in which he encouraged the movement to prepare for the upcoming encyclical and shared that he supported the Catholic Climate Petition that GCCM had just launched.
As stated in the petition text, GCCM’s goal was to push governments to adopt the ambitious goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C, rather than the less ambitious goal of 2°C that the most polluting nations were backing. Energized by the Laudato Si’ release in June 2015, more than 900,000 Catholics signed GCCM’s petition. The effort was largely driven by the Church in the global south, especially in the Philippines, where Cardinal Tagle helped the petition receive widespread support.
The petition signatures were symbolically carried by Filipino “climate pilgrim” Yeb Saño, a member of GCCM’s founding board, from the Vatican to Paris in a prophetic two-month pilgrimage. Saño hand-delivered the signatures in deeply moving interfaith events with the high-level officials who hosted the COP21 summit: French President Francois Hollande and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres.
Eventually, after two weeks of frenetic negotiations and huge pressure from the climate movement, including from the memorable Global Climate March that saw 40,000 Catholics participate, the Vatican and many others, the negotiating block of the poorest nations successfully enshrined the 1.5°C goal in the Paris Agreement. The miracle had happened, “for nothing will be impossible for God.” (Luke 1:37) This 1.5°C victory, in which we Catholics had an important role, set an ambitious bar for all climate action to follow.
After the hectic ride of 2015 (see photos and timeline), the following year saw GCCM start what have become some of the cornerstones of its holistic approach: the Laudato Si’ Animators formation program, Season of Creation celebrations, prophetic initiatives, such as the fossil fuel divestment campaign, and creative projects that raise awareness about Laudato Si’, such as the providential screening of a Pope video to three million World Youth Day pilgrims at Krakow.
Taking Transformative Action
In subsequent years, the movement has continued to expand throughout the globe through a growing number of Laudato Si’ Animators, Circles, Chapters and Member Organizations, all of which continue to drive transformative action to care for our common home. In terms of the movement’s structures, the Steering Committee evolved to have co-chairs, Marianne Comfort (Sisters of Mercy) and Christina Leaño, and a formal legal entity and Board of Directors were set up in 2017, chaired by Amy Woolam Echeverria (Columban Missionaries), following a planning meeting in Assisi with all GCCM bodies (which included a new encounter with the Pope). Soon after, the Secretariat’s main office was relocated to Rome to better serve the Church to “live Laudato Si’” by deepening the collaboration with the Vatican and Rome-based Catholic organizations. And in 2019, GCCM established an Episcopal Advisory Council with cardinals from different continents who have been accompanying the movement in its journey.