We cannot forget to celebrate creation,
to give thanks for so much good we have received.
– The Spiritual Exercises
Since the publication of Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home on May 25, 2015, Pope Francis has compelled Catholics and others to reexamine their relationship with the environment.
In what remains one of his signature publications, Pope Francis addressed not only humanity’s relationship with God’s creation, but also the culture it has spurred, namely, a “use and throw away” culture, whose “logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.”
Secondary schools in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province are actively working against this throwaway culture. They are finding creative ways to go green. With the help of school administrators, innovative teachers and partner organizations, students are creating opportunities to take better care of their own immediate environments, while living the call to care for the Earth.
Some of the inspiration for this care for creation may also stem from the Society of Jesus’ 2016 General Congregation. In the first decree of General Congregation 36 (GC36), Jesuits and their companions in mission are called to reconcile with all the Earth, and to recognize that “Poverty, social exclusion, and marginalization are linked with environmental degradation. These are not separate crises but one crisis that is a symptom of something much deeper: the flawed way societies and economies are organized.”
Addressing this crisis requires a serious reconsideration of society’s structures, but it can begin by taking a fresh look at school structures. Several of the provinces’ secondary schools have made significant changes to the architecture of their facilities to make them more sustainable. These changes often come with cost benefits, but the primary impetus is to care for creation by reducing the school’s environmental impact.
At Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston, recent sustainability work has made the buildings on their expansive campus more efficient. The renovations included replacing all roofs and overlays with white reflective material and improving their insulation factor to R-21 or better. New buildings on the Strake Jesuit campus feature efficient, double-paned, tinted windows; older structures have been retrofitted with the same.
Inside and out, lighting at Strake Jesuit is also being updated to be eco-friendlier. HVAC units are being replaced with more efficient models. All plates, napkins, eating utensils and take-out containers used in the school’s dining hall are compostable materials. Recycling containers are distributed throughout the campus. In classrooms, about 80 percent of textbooks and most forms of communication (e.g. the school paper and report cards) are digital, thereby reducing paper use.
Environmental efforts at St. Louis University High School (SLUH) are numerous and broad. It received a National Green Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education in May 2018. One of 46 schools recognized nationally “for their innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education,” SLUH is the only high school in the state of Missouri and the first Jesuit school to be honored with this award.
A keeper tends the bees in Backer Garden at St. Louis University High School.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis University High School
The school has made significant changes to the physical plant over the years, including the installation of two 25-kilowatt arrays of 100 solar panels. But perhaps more importantly, SLUH students are responding to the call to reconcile with creation by creating their own sustainable projects.
Introduced this academic year, Sustainability Student Teams assess practices, define goals and implement solutions in areas of waste, energy and food. Their efforts resulted in a seven percent decrease in electricity use at the school. Their initiatives include an Iron Chef SLUH competition that raised awareness about sustainable food production and consumption. The competition also helped fund a $1,200 donation of locally sourced food to a St. Louis organization that trains people in culinary skills to reduce homelessness.
SLUH shares a community garden with the surrounding Kings Oak neighborhood. Known as Backer Garden, the space is an embodiment of the school’s commitment to sustainability, community building and cura personalis.
Arrupe Jesuit High School, Denver, made care for creation a priority during a recent remodeling of the school. Director of Philanthropy Kim Smith said, “In our construction process that began in 2013, we were very intentional on new construction products and installations that would lower our energy usage.” As a result, Arrupe Jesuit holds an EPA Energy Star rating of 70 out of a possible 100, well above the national average of 50.
Arrupe participates in Energize Denver, a $340-million benchmarking program that tracks the school’s electrical and natural gas use throughout the year and compares it to other data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The school has already reduced their energy usage by 5.5 percent.
Classrooms at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver are energy efficient.
For a decade now, Jesuit High School of Tampa has been home to a vibrant Environmental Club that handles all the school’s recycling. Club moderator and human geography teacher Vindri Gajadhar said, “The students are entirely in charge of the recycling program. They create the routes, determine who goes on what routes, do all the labor and report any problems to me. They make it all happen.”
Gajadhar also noted that the students’ work on behalf of the environment helps them learn to “take personal responsibility and actually make a difference in our environment right now.” This helps form “generations of students who are stewards of the environment as they grow into adults.”
Students of Jesuit High School, Tampa, participate in coastal restorations and park cleanups.
Photo courtesy of Jesuit High School
“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato si’. “It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”
Province schools have intentionally introduced questions of ecojustice in curricula and as a part of the spiritual formation of students. Students in province schools can take classes in environmental science, oceanography and limnology. Care for creation is a topic for consideration in both science and theology classrooms.
"Let us sing as we go,
may our struggles and our concern for this planet
never take away the joy of our hope."
– Pope Francis
Matthew Klassen, who teaches theology and helps moderate the Environmental Club at Regis Jesuit High School, Denver, reflected on a shift from stewardship to care in the school’s Inspire & Ignite blog. He wrote, “It is exciting to ponder what the implications would be for the future of the planet and all of its inhabitants if humans genuinely embraced Pope Francis’ call to see ourselves as a link in the chain of Creation, rather than as benevolent administrators atop a hierarchy of earthly entities.”
Questioning this hierarchy also invites students to consider the people most affected by the throwaway culture due to socioeconomic stratification. As Pope Francis wrote, “The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society.”
Regis Jesuit has developed a policy that “seeks to integrate sustainability processes and a deep respect for the natural world into every facet of the institution.” This involves multi-step conservation efforts, like campus-wide recycling and composting, and the use of solar energy and high-performance building techniques in the design of the recently completed Steele Center. These measures promote the school’s vision for students to “internalize their responsibilities for living sustainable and restorative lives.”
Cultivating student concern means more than living the call now; it also indicates the schools are committed to building the foundation for a greener future, by forming young people who care for the Earth and take responsibility for it as part of their identity.
At Colegio San Ignacio (CSI), the Jesuit secondary school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, opportunities to care for the Earth and those affected by environmental threats are many. Students lead the environmental efforts as part of the environmental club ECO-Ignaciano, demonstrating students’ bold accountability for their immediate and community environments.
“Every day, more students join the commitment to the environment by joining forces with the broader Ignatian community,” said Director of Communications Juan Antonio Alberty Mercado. One such partnership is with Caras con Causa, an organization founded by CSI alumnus Michael Fernández Frey.
Caras promotes community development to eradicate poverty through education, the environment and economic development in the communities of Cataño and Guaynabo. CSI students have helped in the reforestation of mangroves along the coast, an area and ecosystem heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
CSI students also collaborate with Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable (OPAS) – Sustainable Environment Organization. An international organization committed to solving school and community environmental issues, OPAS has recognized CSI’s institutional commitment to increasing environmental awareness by naming it an Eco-School for six years.
Students from Colegio San Ignacio volunteer for coastal cleanups.
“Let us sing as we go,” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato si’, “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
Secondary schools in the province find ways to balance hard work with joyful appreciation of God’s creation. Students at Colegio San Ignacio installed bird feeders and drinking troughs, identify flora and fauna at the school, and take time to birdwatch.
SLUH students turned their desire to minimize waste into an artistic production called “Waste Not, Want Not: Art Reimagined.” In an exhibit featuring art made from recycled and upcycled materials, the creators of the project challenged the SLUH community to “reflect, pray and create a story about the beauty of creation and to contemplate what is meant by a throwaway culture.”
Through these efforts to care for creation, each school provides students with opportunities to be leaders in their community and to take responsibility for their impact on the world. Supported by school administrators, students are playing active roles and challenging their school communities to imagine and establish new approaches to consumption, conservation and restoration.
“Young people demand change,” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato si.’ “They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”
In working for both structural and personal change, the schools’ efforts can help transform students’ minds and hearts toward a greater availability to respond to the call of eco-justice. Students who participate in the green efforts of their schools live the Jesuit ideal of being men and women for others, today and for generations to come.