“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”
A great deal of anticipation always surrounds a new papal encyclical. People wonder: Is Church teaching going to change? Will I, as a Catholic, be called to greater conversion and prayer? Will the pope use awesome words like “sourpuss?” (The answers are pretty consistently “Never,” “Always,” and “Probably,” respectively).
Back in May, you might remember the excitement surrounding Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home. But for many Catholic school teachers, that was right around the time they were grading finals, packing up the classroom, and getting ready for summer — not exactly the ideal time to read a 42,000-word encyclical.
Laudato Si, in short, is Pope Francis’ appeal to the faithful to take a closer look at how we are shaping the future of our planet, the effect of humanity on global issues such as climate change and poverty, and the protection and care for what Francis calls “our common home.” I can hardly think of something that functions as more of a “common home” than a school or classroom, so with class back in session and the Holy Father himself visiting our neck of the woods in a few weeks, here are some ideas on how the Catholic educator can incorporate some of the main messages of Laudato Si in their classroom.
"Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.” (#211)
1. Discuss with your students ways of being more environmentally responsible.
The Holy Father gives a number of examples of ways in which we can become more responsible stewards of creation. When planning lessons, teachers can certainly incorporate environmental themes into their content. But often, the most relevant lessons are in the form of actions. As a class, consider how you’re caring for your own “common home.” How much paper are you using, and how can you and the students work together to create less waste? If you teach older students, consider how you might be able to find out how much your school spends in heating/cooling/energy costs and if there are responsible ways to cut down. Lastly, social justice must extend outside the classroom and school to the wider community. Consider ways in which you and your students can serve the poor in your own communities — even if it’s something as simple as making sandwiches.
“‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations” (#67)
2. Keep a class garden.
Having some kind of shared space or garden in which students can share responsibility can be a great way not only to cultivate understanding basic elements like botany and scientific observation, but helps the student community grow together and take root in a climate of collaboration (see what I did with all of those puns?). I dare you to watch this adorable video and not drive to Lowe’s for supplies right after. Whether it’s for beautification or growing some classroom zucchinis, a garden is a great way to work together and build community.
“You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters.” — St. Bernard of Clairvaux
3. Have class outside.
While good classroom management is a necessity here, there are plenty of good reasons for students to have engaging experiences with nature during the school day. A science teacher might have students take a look at local plants or an English teacher might have students write nature poems. Regardless of the discipline, though, there’s no substitute for some good ol’ Vitamin D. Many a teacher has deprived students of sunshine for fear of the class devolving into chaos and unpredictability, yet the NEA suggests it’s actually good for student behavior.
“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” (#217)
Pray with your students, especially when it comes to cultivating an attitude of gratitude and humility in response to all of creation. As Francis has said, protecting creation isn’t optional. But it must first come from a deep-seeded faith and awe of God and his handiwork. Turning attention in prayer to the wonder of creation and reflecting on our responsibility for defending it is a necessary step in our continuous “conversion” towards becoming greater stewards and tillers of this planet. At the end of the encyclical, Francis included the following prayer, which is a good place to start:
A Prayer for Our Earth
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
Whether teachers, school leaders, custodians, secretaries or otherwise, there are myriad ways in which we can take Francis’ words to heart. While many Notre Dame fans might bristle at the saying, the Holy Father’s words are clear, both now and moving forward: Go Green.