“Did the Carmelite order worldwide address global issues in a unified effort?” was the question Sister of Mount Carmel Jane Remson of New Orleans raised almost two decades ago among her fellow religious when researching the congregation’s social justice ministries worldwide.
Sister Jane sought to coordinate and promote the Carmelites’ work in education, freedom of belief (opening dialogues with all religions), human rights projects (regarding food, personal safety including human trafficking) and sustained development (climate change, eradicating poverty with sustainable economic growth projects, addressing systemic issues and climate change).
To gain a voice on the world stage, Sister Jane and other Sisters of Mount Carmel formed the Carmelite NGO (non-governmental organization). The NGO gained affiliation with the United Nations (UN) and earned Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is a member of the UN’s National Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The UN is the “only institution in our world today that brings together in one place representatives from every country on earth (to arbitrate on a global platform),” Sister Jane said, “so it’s a place we feel the issues involving all our ministries come to one point. It gives us a place at the table to bring these needs of people before the world community.”
Future earth savers
Sister Jane aspired to bring the Carmelites’ global works of mercy closer to home and simultaneously nurture young adults to be good stewards of God’s creation. She had to look no further than Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si’”.
In 2015, a Carmelite NGO committee worked with teachers at Salpointe Catholic High School in Arizona, a Carmelite school, to begin developing a curriculum. A workshop broke down the encyclical, and then Salpointe teachers crafted lesson plans for use in all subjects by other high school teachers in grades 8-12. A 90-page study guide for college students and adults also was created.
“This program is an excellent cross-curriculum exploration of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the climate – so important for our young people’s holistic education today,” said Carmelite Father William J. Harry, prior provincial of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Province, in a recent Carmelite NGO newsletter.
Sister Jane said the curriculum gets students to think about why it is important as Roman Catholics to support efforts to reverse climate change and encourages them to read and study the encyclical in hopes of incorporating the pope’s message into their lives.
“It’s not just a religious belief; it has to go beyond that,” Sister Jane said. “That’s why we developed this curriculum. It brings ‘Laudato si’ into environmental science, theology, the humanities and social studies. What is the connection of me believing in climate change and wanting to work with it? How is it going to affect a poor person? How is it going to affect poverty with these sustainable development goals?
The curriculum has been out for 1 1/2 years, and Sister Jane has been impressed with how students are applying the encyclical to their own lives.
Projects that have emerged from the pilot at Salpointe High have involved recycling, replanting the desert and even tracking immigration across the desert from Mexico to Arizona.
“The school has really gone beyond some of these things – sustainable development goals, human rights and the right to personal freedom,” Sister Jane said. “They started keeping track of how many people they can find who are trying to cross the desert from Mexico into the United States because there is no wall. The students are seeing what is happening; they are connecting it to their local area.”
Teachers have flexibility
Sister Jane said the lesson plans give teachers flexibility “to insert (‘Laudato si’’) into subjects where it made sense.”
The curriculum was launched worldwide in November in Rome with 67 Carmelite representatives attending the Second Meeting of the Carmelite Secondary Schools Globally. It is available in English and Spanish and was written to be used in public, private and religious schools.
“We see it as not just a Catholic document,” she said. “We see it as a global document that requires us to have a paradigm shift in our thinking about religious responsibility.”
The archdiocese will be introduced to the curriculum in the spring. Sister Jane suggested exploration questions for local teachers: “Why is it so important for us in the Gulf region to protect the coastline and our marshlands? What would be the benefits to Louisiana and coastal Texas to ween ourselves from fossil fuels (drilling in the Gulf)? Get the students to start talking to people in coastal restoration, which our high schools do, to connect that as part of our religious belief – I have to care for this planet.”
Initiatives of the NGO
Sister Jane and other educators are pleased with the curriculum.
“Our goal is for teachers to use this as a tool to look at their own textbooks and see how we can use this here,” she said. “We wanted this to go beyond formal religious studies. It must permeate all aspects of life. … In addition to saving the planet, it’s about taking care of one another.”
Another Carmelite NGO initiative is a two-year pilot program called “Freedom of Belief” that began in 2017 at Loyola University New Orleans. It aims to educate students about the fundamental beliefs of world religions to develop tolerance and an open and respectful dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews, Sister Jane said.
“We only have one planet, and we only have one life,” Sister Jane said. “We have to use it to work for the good. Working for the good is not just doing good things, but also taking time to appreciate the goodness of the earth to us, and us to one another. … Hopefully, it will help us to slow down from our busy lives, cell phones and Facebook and appreciate what we have.”
Sister Jane thinks Pope Francis is putting a new face on Catholicism. It’s not just a religion of laws but of ministry.
“It’s not just following the law,” she said. “It’s the spirit of the law that leads us to our ministries of caring for one another.”
The Carmelite NGO also is developing a chat room on its website (http://www.carmel itengo.org) where people can collaborate to share what’s working in their ministry.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.