God calls us to take care of the planet and creation

July 1, 2022

Laura Kaiser, president and chief executive of SSM Health speaks at the Catholic Health Assembly in Indianapolis today following her installation as the 2022-2023 chair of the CHA Board of Trustees.

2022-2023 Chairperson
CHA Board of Trustees
President and chief executive
SSM Health, St. Louis

The interconnectedness of nature and humanity has existed since the dawn of creation. The scriptures make this clear:

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you." — Job 12: 7-10

God calls each of us to watch and listen to his extraordinary creation. By doing so, we can learn a lot to inform the work we do as mission-driven, Catholic health care ministries. It is clear the health of people depends on the health of the community and the health of the planet. If we really listen to the natural environment around us, I believe we will each be compelled to action.

As board chair of CHA, my hope is to increase awareness and dialogue around the importance of preserving our Earth — from cleaning up and protecting local neighborhoods to meeting global challenges such as climate change. It is a critical component of our Catholic calling to care for God's creation and one another, especially the least among us.

Our senses tell us the planet is struggling — and so does the science. As one example, Ocean Conservancy has estimated that at our current rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Seven years ago, Pope Francis authored his encyclical, Laudato Sí, indicating: "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."

We also know that climate change disproportionately affects underserved communities. Human damage to the environment such as air pollution and rising temperatures, more frequent natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires, and rising insect populations — all lead to an increase in human health issues. The effects include greater prevalence and severity of allergies and asthma, stress and mental health issues, and insect-borne diseases and death.

Like many in Catholic health care, SSM Health's focus on environmental sustainability is an integral part of our heritage. Following in the footsteps of our founding congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, we have a long-standing commitment to caring for creation and nurturing healthy communities. Our work includes advocating for clean air and water, and neighborhoods in which it is safe to work, play and exercise — as well as limiting our health system's direct negative environmental impact.

However, we are called to go beyond rudimentary environmental efforts if we are to lift all people, as our faith demands. If we truly wish to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to lean in together and work toward a world where living in a poor neighborhood does not diminish one's lifespan by a decade.

Our efforts in this area must be comprehensive and multifaceted, and I am confident this is something we all can do as Catholic health care providers. As health systems, we can accelerate the reduction of our carbon footprint, energy consumption and medical waste, while investing in eco-friendly funds and embracing green building practices.

There is a reason God calls us to community. Our impact is much greater when we work together. By inviting employees, providers, vendors, government leaders and others to join in our efforts, we can create immediate and lasting impact for the good of the planet. I would like to see CHA and our member ministries play a leading role.

In the 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi was known for preaching to animals, brokering a peace between a rampaging wolf and a fearful village, and composing his famed canticle about "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon" and "Mother Earth." It is tempting today to dismiss some Franciscan tales as myth or exaggeration, but the state of our planet makes it clear that we should embrace his example of actively listening to and caring for the earth.

We know that if the planet is unhealthy, none of us will be healthy. The problems confronting us seem daunting, but with collaboration and commitment, we can be inspired by what we can accomplish together. Or, as Saint Francis said: "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."

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