By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Few papal encyclicals have been as eagerly awaited as Pope Francis’ upcoming statement on the environment.
While no date other than early summer for its release has been announced, anticipation is building among Catholics as well as non-Catholics and advocates for the environment. Based on the pope’s past statements, they expect the document will call people to protect human life and dignity through greater appreciation and preservation of God’s creation.
What Pope Francis is expected to say has its roots in God’s creation of the world, Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, told the First Friday Forum of Lorain County in Elyria, Ohio, in early April.
“Pope Francis is first a priest and a pastor,” Misleh explained. “He is a Catholic Christian who is reflecting on and articulating the best of our tradition.
“Let us remind ourselves that our creation care tradition goes back to Genesis, not Earth Day. Let us remind ourselves that this ancient teaching is the teaching that was familiar, too, and articulated in new ways by Jesus Christ, reinforced by the witness of St. Francis, expounded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas as well as by St. John Paul and especially Pope Benedict, the ‘green pope.’
“Let us remember that what Pope Francis is offering here and will offer in the encyclical is not new teaching, but a new application of that old teaching,” Misleh said.
That understanding has made it easier for organizations such as the U.S. and Australian Catholic bishops’ conferences, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic advocacy groups and local environmental ministry programs to prepare resources for disseminating and implementing the pope’s message.
Representatives of Catholic organizations told Catholic News Service they are not only preparing for active study of the encyclical in parishes and schools, but that they are hopeful the document will open doors with leaders of other faiths and religious traditions, secular environmental groups and policymakers in the U.S. and around the world.
The encyclical and follow-up programs also are being seen as a way to build momentum for Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit in September and move world leaders to reach a climate change pact during the U.N. Climate Change Conference meeting in Paris Nov. 30-Dec. 11.
“We want to ensure as best we can that this encyclical is not just written and stuck on a shelf in a library and discussed only by theologians and others in schools. We want this to be a call to action,” said Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network.
Carolan will be in Rome May 6-8 to meet with representatives of the Global Catholic Climate Movement to discuss how they can best develop and share resources based on Pope Francis’ message. A handful of GCCM members were to meet with Pope Francis as well during an audience May 6.
Meanwhile, organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Climate Covenant and Catholic Rural Life are working on joint programs as well as complementary resources to share the pope’s document.
The bishops will discuss steps to spread the encyclical’s message during its spring meeting in June in St. Louis.
“As with any encyclical, I think the conference is going to give an analysis, a read of it, provide some content for people who want to get to know the document,” said Mark Rohlena, director of the bishops’ Office of Domestic Social Development and its Environmental Justice Program.
CRS planned to highlight its work around the world in communities already affected by climate change, said Joan Rosenhauer, executive vice president for U.S. operations for the agency. “We want to lift up those stories to illustrate what the Holy Father is talking about,” she told CNS.
“He’s been talking about the intersection of the environment and humanity and the dignity of every person and care for the poor,” Rosenhauer explained. “We can illustrate what he has been talking about.”
CRS unveiled a new page on its website April 22, Earth Day, offering elementary school programs, a prayer and links to other resources in preparation for the encyclical.
The Catholic Climate Covenant is developing a series of videos outlining the church’s long teaching tradition on the environment. Misleh said they will be part of an online and social media effort the organization is planning.
In addition, Misleh and his staff are planning to send homily aids to parishes as a way to encourage priests to discuss the encyclical at Masses.
Around the world, church organizations and Catholic environmental advocates also are preparing educational programs, pamphlets, study guides, classroom aids and special events to introduce and share Pope Francis’ message.
“The encyclical just ups the ante in every sense, which is energizing and wonderful. It provides great impetus,” said Jacqui Remond, national director of Catholic Earthcare Australia, the ecological program of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Remond told CNS the office is working with Caritas Australia to host an information session on the encyclical in August at Parliament House for all elected officials. She called such sessions crucial to helping policymakers understand the church’s teaching and the need to act to protect creation.
The real effect of the encyclical will be felt locally in parishes, schools and neighborhoods.
Father Robert Sanson, senior parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish in North Ridgeville, Ohio, is expecting to use the encyclical as a way to share the church’s teaching with parishioners who may not be familiar with it.
“I hope to be able to carefully articulate the difference between the church’s moral position and political posturing that creates so much divisiveness,” he said. “We have to raise the issues of fracking, of capital punishment, of ethical investing and hope they will create a conversation as Pope Francis has asked us.”
Sister Jean Verber, a member of the Dominican sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, said it will be important for parishes to engage their members so they better understand why and how Pope Francis is calling each person to take better care of the world.
“The pope has a very significant role to play here it all goes well,” she said. “It’s very important that people know this and it’s one of the ways to engage them.”