No surprise: Nuns are taking the lead in putting ‘Laudato Si’’ into action
In December 2019, students from the Notre Dame Preparatory School in Baltimore joined members of the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame at a grocery store for a giveaway of reusable bags. The reusable bags were handmade by Sisters Virginia Brien and Clara Beall, aged 94 and 85. Other sisters, many long retired, attached information about plastic pollution and climate change. It was one of the many ways that the School Sisters of Notre Dame exemplify what it means to promote “the dignity of life and the care of all creation,” as their directional statement “Love Gives Everything” exhorts.
In light of this guiding principle, it is no surprise that the S.S.N.D. and other communities of women religious are among the first to make a public commitment to join the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which Pope Francis initiated in May “to help lead the world’s Catholics along a journey of intensified action in caring for creation.” Among Catholics, women religious have been leading the way on issues of environmental justice and ecological spirituality. I suspect this is because their work in the trenches of encounter offers a good vantage point for recognizing the connections between “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor,” as Francis describes in the encyclical letter “Laudato Si’’’ (No. 49).
Pope Francis initiated the action plan in May “to help lead the world’s Catholics along a journey of intensified action in caring for creation.”
The Action Platform encourages diverse sectors of society (including families, parishes and dioceses, schools, health care centers, businesses, farms and religious orders) to engage in a seven-year transformation to a sustainable world. The project is based on seven interconnected goals: responding to the cry of the Earth; responding to the cry of the poor; creating an ecologically sustainable economy; adopting simple lifestyles; supporting ecological education; promoting ecological spirituality; and building community awareness, participation and action.
With the exception of ecological spirituality, these goals find parallels in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, our global community is not on track to meet those at this point. The hope is that each new Action Platform participant will attract observers to make their own commitments until a critical mass of public engagement is reached to facilitate real social change.
The beauty of the Action Platform is that it does not require any specific actions by participants but instead encourages those involved to assess the actions they have already taken and expand upon them, doing what makes sense in the context of their lives. Still, transformative sacrifice will be required, as there are specific benchmarks participants will be expected to achieve.
For many religious communities, the Action Platform is both a challenge and an opportunity to be creative. The sisters of the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the S.S.N.D., with whom I work, have engaged in initiatives to make their residences more eco-friendly, such as installing solar panels, reducing waste and water use, pledging to be a Blue Community that refuses bottled water and purchasing fair trade products when possible.
This energy and creativity does not match the alarmist idea that communities of women religious are fading into obscurity.
Sisters in the Atlantic-Midwest Province have also partnered with Beyond Borders, a nongovernmental organization in Haiti that focuses on sustainable development through “Model Community Initiatives.” To reduce violence, child labor and trafficking, and poverty, the partnership promotes sustainable livelihoods and education for all.
This energy and creativity does not match the alarmist idea that communities of women religious are fading into obscurity. Though their capacity for ministry is changing, women religious are finding new ways to share their charisms with the church and the world.
Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., S.T.D., recently noted, “In 1965 there were 180,000 women religious in the United States, the majority of whom were below the age of 50, and today there are somewhere between 30 and 50 thousand, whose average age is 74.” But still, she goes on, we have seen “the emergence, in the same recent time period as the precipitous decline in entrants into religious life…of a long list of remarkable examples of what women’s Religious Life is and fosters and produces.”
This Trinitarian spirituality fosters their sense of integral ecology—the recognition that “everything is interconnected.”
For the School Sisters of Notre Dame (average age: 81), this involves developing personal gifts and talents in ministries directed toward the kind of education that enables the flourishing of their neighbors, especially the most marginalized. Trinitarian spirituality motivates their action: In the directional statement “Love Gives Everything,” the School Sisters of Notre Dame declare, “The Triune God impels us into the heart of the world to be women of peace, hope, and love.” This Trinitarian spirituality is linked to the unity-in-diversity that marks their ministry, and it fosters their sense of integral ecology—the recognition that “everything is interconnected,” as we are reminded in “Laudato Si’” (No. 240).
The spirituality of interconnectedness that infuses their culture and animates their actions offers a critical source of inspiration for pursuing the goals of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, and I am hopeful the leadership of the S.S.N.D. and other women religious will indeed attract a critical mass of participants.
On a personal level, the example of the School Sisters of Notre Dame has motivated my own family to adopt a spirituality more consistent with integral ecology and to make significant changes to our lifestyle, such as purchasing cloth napkins, cooking more vegetarian meals, shopping for gently used clothing, planting a garden and composting, and prioritizing ecological justice as a pro-life issue. My children have grown up immersed in the S.S.N.D. culture of integral ecology, and at ages 8, 6 and 4 they are more conscious of creation’s interconnectedness than I ever was. And they are vigilant about reminding us to avoid plastic packaging at the grocery store!
In discerning whether and how we ourselves can commit to joining the Action Platform, we should follow the example of women religious such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Sister Brien summed it up nicely with an unintentional metaphor when she reflected on her engagement with the bag swap project, saying, “I have so much material that was given to me to do something with.” In whatever ways we can—with whatever material we have been given—we should find ways to build a just and sustainable society in the spirit of “Laudato Si’.” Like the School Sisters of Notre Dame, may “we dare to respond boldly in unsuspected ways.”