Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter about environmentalism has put the climate change debate into the spotlight. Laudato Si’ calls for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet,” and urges Catholics to recognize the damage human activities have caused on Earth. It sends a strong message that is getting a lot of attention in the news.
But arguably the most important messengers are priests. They have direct access to the people in their parish, and could serve as a strong mouthpiece to spread the message of Laudato Si’. If they do not bring Pope Francis’ message to the forefront during mass, the call for change may not have a long-lasting impact.
So Iowa Starting Line reporters visited seven different Catholic church services in the Des Moines metro last Sunday, four days after the encyclical was issued, to find out how Laudato Si’ would affect proceedings. This is what we found:
Only one church addressed the newly-released Laudato Si’ directly during the homily. At St. Anthony’s on Des Moines’ South Side, Monsignor Chiodo wove the Pope’s environmental message into a larger teaching on relationships and respecting the wisdom of the ages. He placed caring for the earth as an important moral calling for Catholics.
“[Pope Francis] said we live in a culture of waste – we not only waste material things, we waste the wisdom of the past,” Monsignor Chiodo said, characterizing actions that damage the environment as part of the storm surrounding Christians. “We waste the material, but we also waste the spiritual. The Pope talks about part of the waste is that we don’t realize what counts more than anything is relationships – we have a relationship to the culture, we have a relationship to the climate, we have a relationship to the environment, we have a relationship to nature, we have a relationship with other human beings. And a culture of waste dismisses all that and says, ‘the only thing that counts is what I want, when I want and how I want it!'”
“We have a relationship because we all occupy the same home, the common home,” Chiodo continued. “The Pope calls his encyclical Laudato Si’, ‘how to take care of our common home.’ The world is our common home, and we’re all family.”
Earlier in the day at St. Anthony’s, Father Kiernan, a retired priest filling in at the 8:30 am mass, said that God did not have gospels written for every issue the world would be confronted with. To fill that void, God gave us scientists capable of advising the Church on matters such as environmentalism and climate change. “You can get your ideas about [climate change] from talk show hosts, or you can get it from church leaders,” Kiernan said.
Several other churches – The Basilica of St. John on MLK, St. Pius X in Urbandale, and Holy Trinity in Beaverdale – mentioned Laudato Si’ during the petitions (the prayers between the homily and the Eucharist). At Holy Trinity, the prayer went like this: “For a spirit of holiness, that minds and hearts will be receptive to the insights and challenges presented by Pope Francis in the encyclical on the environment.”
Other churches mostly focused their homilies on the day’s reading or Father’s Day. Saint Francis of Assisi in West Des Moines did not talk about the encyclical on Sunday, a key local church since the Pope took Saint Francis of Assisi’s name, and specifically references the saint in his encyclical. “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically,” Francis wrote.
However, they expect to bring up the topic soon. The significance is not lost on Reverend Ray McHenry, who presides over Saint Francis of Assissi in West Des Moines. “St. Francis is [the Pope’s] inspiration,” McHenry said. “I think because of his name and because of the name of the encyclical – he borrowed from St. Francis for it – there will be some interest here because of the connection.”
McHenry admits that climate-change concerns have never been brought up by parishioners, but that he plans to start a dialogue after he reads the entire encyclical. “I’m hoping some type of discussion questions and aids might come out from the diocese over the course of the next month or so,” McHenry said. “Once we have that I would hope to have some type of open, public discussion of it with the parish.”
The diocese may grant McHenry his wish. Bishop of Des Moines Richard Pates directly addressed Laudato Si’ in a recent statement. Pates encourages Catholics to heed the Pope’s words and “to think of the preservation of that which gives life: air, water, fertile soil.” He also asked followers of Christ to join “together in advocacy of those policies that will characterize us as grateful “stewards” so that all God so lovingly created might thrive.”
While none of the services centered around the encyclical, it was mentioned several times, and Bishop Pates’ words indicate that the Diocese of Des Moines will be pushing each church to recognize the Pope’s message. New ideas can be slow to catch on, especially amongst people who may not be pre-disposed to environmental concerns. Only time will tell if Catholics will heed Pope Francis’ warning, and whether the dispersal of his message locally will seep its way into the Iowa Caucus debate.
by Angela Ufheil
with reporting by Pat Rynard