That is how the United States Council on Catholic Bishops describes the Catholic social justice teaching of care for creation, which was reinforced by Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, which encourages all Catholics to better protect and repair the damage done to the environment.
For many years, Glenmary Father John Rausch has dedicated his mission to caring for all aspects of creation, from protesting the death penalty to educating people about the perils of strip mining to advocating on behalf of nonunion workers who lost their benefits. A well-known author and public speaker, Father John is a member of many organizations that seek to preserve the beauty and dignity of Appalachia and the Earth’s ecosystem.
In his ministry, Father John met Tom Barnes, an author, photographer and long-standing conservationist in Kentucky. Father John wrote a chapter in Tom’s book, The Gift of Creation: Images from Scripture and Earth.
Passionate about wildflowers, Tom led a wildflower restoration initiative. He would collect seeds from wildflowers like silky asters, sunflowers or blazing stars, wildflowers that were unique and not in abundance throughout Kentucky or in prairie areas. He then would grow them in the greenhouse in the University of Kentucky’s Forestry Department and transplant the flowers into prairie areas where the wildflowers had died off or were minimal. He was trying to repopulate the area with native wildflowers to save the species.
His work is a fitting metaphor for the work Glenmary does. Glenmarians seek to cultivate Catholicism in regions where it is sparse, nurturing the seeds it plants so faith can grow naturally in a new environment.
In describing the home missions, Glenmary’s founder Father William Howard Bishop once said, “A flower is small, like the small, isolated groups we minister to, like the children. So small a flower is easily overlooked on the roadside. You hardly see it as you pass by. But pick it up and examine it; it becomes a thing of beauty, so, too, the country parish and the country child.”
Helping Tom with his work was Tara Littlefield, now a Kentucky state botanist. Previously a pre-med student, Tara had gone out west to finish her schooling after earning a degree in chemistry. But, she found herself more interested in exploring the wood, looking for wildflowers.
She decided to come home and pursue her love of botany, which is where she met Tom. Together, they grew flowers and conducted prescribed burns. She counted Tom as a mentor.
He died in 2014, and Father John began conducting the Tom Barnes Memorial Wildflower Walk in his honor and to celebrate the gift of creation. This year, Tara joined him. She said she and her coworkers at the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission would do anything to pay homage to Tom, because he had done so much for conservation in Kentucky.
Together, Father John and Tara led a 1.3-mile walk on Rock Bridge Arch Trail in Red River Gorge April 10 for about 25 participants. Littlefield pointed out native species from violets and trillium to hemlock and partridge berry.
“We are learning new (flowers) and befriending the old,” Father John said.
The walk kicked off Holy Week and allowed participants to commune with nature, as well as learn about how the ecosystem in Red River Gorge has changed over the years. For example, hemlock has begun to go extinct, which has a ripple effect. A couple of rare fishes that grow in Gorge streams rely on the hemlock to shade them. Without hemlock, they are in danger.
Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired diocesan priest in Louisville, met Father John when they both served on the Catholic Conference on Kentucky’s Social Concerns Committee, and they are both members of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia. He attended the walk because he enjoys walking through the Gorge.
“I see flowers and don’t know what they are,” Father Patrick said. “This place is so unique. But it was interesting to see how Laudato Si fits into the walk. When she was saying earlier how if the hemlock goes, then something else goes, then something else goes, it shows there is a connection. We are all connected. What we are talking about is integral ecology.”
Peggy Burgio of Lexington knows all about the inter-connectivity of existence. She worked at Berea College for 20 years, and one of her coworkers gave her a “wormy” chestnut tree, an American chestnut tree. Chestnut trees had been virtually eliminated in the 1900s chestnut blight and their wood could only be used for picture frames or reclaimed projects. Her friend could not sell the trees or even give them away because they were so difficult to grow.
Several years later, Peggy joined Father John as he and a group of people tried to repopulate Eastern Kentucky with American chestnut trees. Partnering with the University of Kentucky, they found a greenhouse that had cultivated a more resilient species of chestnut tree.
“That was my first time working with Father John, but if the opportunity arises again, I will be there,” Peggy said. “It has been eye opening to see how everything is interconnected, not only to each other, but to the entire universe. We are all linked, and every action we take has an impact on the world around us.”
The group ate lunch by Creation Falls, stopped by Natural Bridge in the Red River Gorge and saw eight of Kentucky’s 24 species of violets.