Paul Mayer, who succumbed to cancer last November, had a knack for noticing a moral crisis. He might have learned it from his German-Jewish parents, who whisked him from Frankfurt to New York just before Kristallnacht. He grew up to become a Catholic and a Benedictine priest, only to leave the cloister when he heard the call to march with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma. From there he organized against war in Vietnam, poverty in New Jersey’s slums and nuclear weapons around the world. But the final three chapters of his memoir, now informally circulating among friends, are about climate change.
“We must now fall in love with the earth again,” he prophesied, “and form the most powerful movement for social, political and cultural change in planetary history.” Nor was he alone in recognizing this; Popes Benedict and Francis have both denounced world leaders’ failure to confront the climate crisis. Francis is currently writing an encyclical on the topic.
Mayer would be proud to see what is happening this week. In advance of the Sept. 23 UN Climate Summit, people from across the globe are gathering in the streets of New York as part of what is being billed as “the largest climate march in history” on Sept. 21. (Don’t miss this film on its planning and rationale.) The organizers are making sure to emphasize the leadership of poor and vulnerable communities, which are often on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and which will be at the head of the march. The U.S. bishops expressed just this imperative in their landmark 2001 statement, which insisted, “Action to mitigate global climate change must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice.”
Despite the bishops’ past clarity on climate justice and Pope Francis’ commitment to it, the Catholic hierarchy has been close to silent on this critical event. The march’s list of sponsors includes more than 1,000 labor unions, academic institutions, environmental groups and religious communities, but the Catholic Climate Covenant, the U.S.C.C.B.-affiliated “catalyst, convener and clearinghouse” on all things climate, is not one of them. “We as an organization decided early on not to participate in the march,” says Dan Misleh, C.C.C.’s executive director, citing resource limitations as well as concerns that some other sponsors might hold positions in tension with Catholic teaching.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s office, however, is reportedly sharing an announcement about the march with New York City parishes, and Dolan has posted on his blog, "It would be wonderful if there were a strong Catholic presence at the march, to indicate our prayerful support of God’s creation."
Catholics from as far as Florida and Argentina are coming to New York to do just that. Organizations with Catholic ties such as the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Thomas Merton Center and Manhattanville College are on the list of sponsors, as is the Franciscan Action Network, which has been hosting weekly organizing calls for the past two months in preparation. “We expect to have a very large contingent of Catholics,” says Executive Director Patrick Carolan.
There will be a full schedule of activities for Catholics coming to New York this weekend—before, during and after the march.
- Beginning on Sept. 19, Union Theological Seminary will host Religions for the Earth, a two-day conference featuring many leading scholars and activists working at the intersection of faith and the environment.
- The New York Jesuits are hosting “An Ignatian Gathering on Climate Change” on Saturday evening, the eve of the march, at 5:30 p.m. at Xavier High School.
- On the morning of Sept. 21, St. Columba Church is holding a special Mass for Catholic marchers at 9 a.m.
- The faith contingent of the march will be assembling at 58th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. A prayer service will begin at around 11 a.m., and faith groups are expected to start marching at around 12:30 p.m. The march to 34th Street should last several hours.
- After the march, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine will hold a multifaith service at 6 p.m.
- As the business day begins on Monday, Sept. 22, marchers dressed in blue will “flood” the Financial District to call attention to the economic forces perpetuating climate change and undermining the world’s response to it. There will be speakers soon after at 9 a.m., followed by a mass sit-in beginning at around noon.
- To debrief and discuss next steps, Franciscan Action Network is holding a panel discussion on “Caring for God’s Creation” at the church of St. Francis of Assisi on Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.
For more climate-related activities in the city this week, see the full list of events on the march website.
For those unable to come to New York, there are climate-related events taking place all over the world in support. Churches everywhere will be ringing their bells at 1 p.m. on Sept. 21. Catholics may also choose to join a petition created by 350.org, one of the main instigators of the march, calling on the Vatican to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.
The march organizers’ tendency for bombast notwithstanding, this one event will not “change everything.” But it is an opportunity to help create a turning point—to shift our culture’s values toward stewardship and reverence for creation, to exorcise the demonic urge to exploit the planet and the poor for the short-term benefit of a few. In concert with 2,000 years of tradition and the passionate witness of our pope, this is a vital moment to fill the streets for the sake of generations to come.