On the long list of social justice causes that the Catholic Church advocates for, issues like poverty and the right to life are usually foremost in people’s minds. But, with the help of their pastor, a parish in the Pacific Northwest has rallied around their concern for the environment with a fervor that has not only enabled them to have a significant, tangible impact on their surrounding community but also illuminated a neglected area of Catholic Social thought that continues to grow in relevance.
When Paulist Father Steve Bossi was assigned to St. Phillip Neri parish in Portland, Oregon, he was excited to return to the Pacific Northwest where he grew up, but he knew he was going to face a huge challenge in trying to engage an area that is not known for its religiosity. “Their spirituality is expressed and lived through a strong connection to the environment and the wonderland of beauty that exists in the Pacific Northwest” Bossi says of the people of the region. “I wanted to speak their language and say that ‘The God you find in the ocean and in the mountains is the same God we believe in. We invite you to name that God with us and celebrate that God here in this space with us as part of our community.'”
Contradictions in Human Behavior
Bossi, who has a background in both public policy and natural resource economics, didn’t have to wait long before he discovered a way to engage his parishioners. Another Northwest native, Bishop William Skylstad from Spokane, Washington, began to muse about making an emphatic statement on the care of the environment in the Northwest. Skylstad, himself, had grown up on the banks of the Columbia River, and over the years had begun to see “contradictions in human behavior…throughout the region.” Riverbanks had become deteriorated, forests were degrading and chemical and radioactive wastes had begun to seep into the rivers. Industry began to take its toll on the watershed region as dams and aluminum plants accompanied flooding in Canada and the loss of fishing-related enterprises. The endangerment and possible extinction of the area’s animal and fish species were also of notable concern. In short, this was not the same place Sklystad had remembered growing up.
The Common Good
Because of his good relationship with the Bishops of the surrounding area, Skylstad was able to inspire his colleagues and together these Bishops drafted a document called the Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.
The document stated important factors in linking care for the environment with the practice of Catholic faith. They write:
“Creation provides the opportunity for spiritual contemplation because it is from God and reveals God. The natural world of creation is not itself to be worshiped. It is not an autonomous being, but a revelation of the wondrous power and love of its Creator. In the created universe we may perceive the brush strokes of a loving God.
In the presentation of our spiritual, social, and ecological visions for the Columbia River Watershed and, indeed, for other regions of the earth entrusted to us, we manifest certain underlying convictions. These are:
- God is the Creator of the universe and maintains its existence through an ongoing creative will.
- God’s presence is discernible in all creation.
- God has blessed and called “very good” all that is created.
- God loves the community of life.
- God’s creatures share a common home.
- God entrusts the earth to human care. People are stewards of God’s world.
- God intends the earth’s goods to be equitably shared.”
As the Bishops’ letter gained high visibility in the region, Fr. Bossi and Ken Otto, a parishioner at St. Phillip’s saw a huge opportunity to connect a hot button issue for the people of the region with their Catholic faith.
From Small Things
“Fr. Steve challenged us with the Pastoral letter saying ‘We could do something with this!'” says Otto, who jumped on board as the head of their Columbia River Pastoral Letter committee. Bossi notes “We wanted to allow this document to bring questions to our mind about how we were caring for the earth as a parish.”
They started small, simply placing pieces of the Bishops’ document in the bulletin and adding a bulletin board in the back of the parish with information on the document. Eventually they added some community workshops with expert guest speakers. “The parish had just been renovated and we had been an inward-looking community for some time” says Bossi. “And I really thought the time was right for us to look outside the doors and do something highly visible for the rest of the community to see.”
Otto concurred, “Fr. Steve reinforced that we should think big and he kept hammering that point. He really wanted us to put our faith into action” says Otto.
After considering some solar energy opportunities, the committee came up with the idea of building a bioswale, a depression that is landscaped with native plants from the region and collects and cleans storm water runoff from the parish’s parking lot. The city’s old sewage pipes create problems during substantial rainstorms. Because the systems are combined in many places, the heavy Portland rains on the city’s asphalt and buildings can cause an overflow. That sends untreated runoff and even raw sewage into the Willamette and Columbia rivers. An environmental audit revealed that the parish parking lot was dumping more than 800,000 gallons of untreated runoff into the Willamette River annually. The solution has the water running through the native plants around the edge of the parking lot, acting as a type of filter or sponge ecosystem, cleaning and treating the water and significantly cutting down on the pollution in the rivers.
If the practical environmental effects of creating the bioswale were obvious; the spiritual results were astounding. The parish’s young adult ministry (20s and 30s) was the main group that got involved in the project, but the project even drew people from outside the parish community. “It seemed to me that the project helped people look at both how we look at the environment and how we live as Catholics” says Otto.
“This literally put St Phillip’s on the map in the city of Portland!” says Bossi. He notes that the city now uses St. Phillip Neri parish as a model of good environmental care for some of its tours. “Our parishioners are proud of it and in turn are proud that our Catholic faith is evident to a larger segment of the population” he says.
For their efforts the parish was honored with a Green Congregation Award by the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns. The award recognizes special achievements by Oregon congregations in environmental stewardship.
“When I first read the words ‘caring for creation and the common good’ in the Bishops’ letter I was really proud to be Catholic” says Otto. “I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of those moments recently, but those words and this project mean a lot to me. Most church documents I have found are pretty abstract but this is one that I have seen that has clearly touched people’s lives and more importantly, has contributed to their greater sense of faith.”