Responding to Needs, Caring for Creation

Posted: 4/10/2015

Father John Rausch leads Appalachian pilgrimage.Among Glenmarians’ many ministries are those related to care of God’s creation. And Fathers John Rausch and Neil Pezzulo are both involved with environmental issues, from mountaintop removal to fracking, as part of their work.

As Father John—whose longtime ministry is Appalachian justice education—emphasizes, “Glenmarians are not environmentalists or activists. But our mission calls us to respond to folks’ spiritual and material needs, including environmental concerns, in accord with Catholic social teaching.”

Father Neil, first vice president, Environmental Committee member and former mission pastor, cites a key added factor: residents of impoverished rural areas where Glenmary serves are especially vulnerable to environmental degradation because they’re more directly dependent on the land and water for their livelihood and lives. “We have to stand up for them.”

Father John stresses that “human beings don’t own the earth. As Psalm 24 says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds...’ Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Middle Ages that people must look after the earth. After the Industrial Revolution, though, many decided they could use science and technology to exploit the earth’s resources for economic gain.

“But in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, the environment ‘has been entrusted to us…with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion.’ This extends to future generations. We’re called to be stewards and live humbly in God’s web of life.”

Father Neil adds that “environmental issues are life issues. Without clean water and air, the earth and its people will die.”

Father John’s ministry area is Appalachia. He says that over the years, this region became a mineral and raw-material colony where corporate America has reaped enormous economic benefits. “Residents are left with pollution and blight that result from irresponsible use of natural resources.”

Coal is Appalachia’s most prominent resource. “It remains a problematic source of energy,” he says. “As technology has evolved, cheaper and more destructive means are used to mine coal. In the 1990s, the industry began mountaintop removal (MTR), using explosives to blast off mountain summits in order to reach coal far below. This method denudes mountains, makes the ground vulnerable to flooding, pollutes the water, and destroys the ecosystem. And MTR-area residents continue suffering with higher incidences of cancer, upper respiratory illnesses and other conditions.

In addition, he says, coal preparation plants use chemicals to wash coal, resulting in runoff containing cancer-causing agents and storage areas full of toxic waste.

He reaches out to people regarding environmental and related concerns through public prayer services at MTR sites; “pilgrimages” in Appalachia to heighten participants’ understanding; and writings, speeches and workshops.

One of his indelible memories is from a 2002 prayer service on a mountain overlooking McRoberts, Ky., which had experienced five floods in 18 months due to MTR. Water became undrinkable and flooding ruined homes. “An ecumenical group from the religious community responded with this service for the restoration of creation,” says Father John. “Afterwards, I gave each person some wildflower seeds to ‘take back’ the mountain. As one elderly resident planted her seeds, she said, ‘I’m sowing my community back.’ Care of creation took center stage in my reality that day.”

In Father Neil’s 12 years as a pastor in rural Arkansas, one of the state’s key environmental issues was hydraulic fracturing—also called fracking—for natural gas. He spoke to other people and groups about it, particularly other Arkansas Interfaith Power and Light members and diocesan priests, “but there was no organized opposition at the time.”

Hydraulic fracturing is the injection of sand, water and chemicals—including known carcinogens—at high pressure into horizontally drilled wells far below the surface. The shale layer then cracks, and natural gas or oil flows upward. Some waste fluid returns to the surface and is usually stored in open pits before disposal or reuse; the majority remains underground and can contaminate the water supply. Studies also show the potential for adverse effects on the land, air, wildlife and communities.

One typical Arkansas gas-fracking story Father Neil tells is about a farmer he visited regularly. Because the man needed money, he leased a corner of his small farm to a company for fracking after they promised it wouldn’t harm his family or land. But soon the water developed a foul odor; he and his wife became sick and had to start drinking bottled water; and his cattle—his livelihood—couldn’t be maintained and began to die. The couple still receive monthly lease checks, but they can’t use the land and can’t afford to leave.

After Father Neil was elected Glenmary first vice president in 2011 and moved to Cincinnati headquarters, he was invited by the “Don’t Frack Ohio” group to a 2012 event in Columbus. He was moved to accept and e-mail a response to this group that said in part: “I cannot sit back and not speak up about this horrible injustice happening in the rural and often poorer parts of our country. It violates…our common good. It openly destroys the environment and hurts people, mostly the poor.”

Father Neil was asked to speak at that event, and since then he’s worked with several Ohio organizations—including interfaith groups—opposing fracking and advocating for clean air, water and food.

“When I’m able to participate in programs or am invited to speak, I try to do so,” he says. “I want to show my support as a faithful Catholic Christian and disciple.”

This article first appeared in the April 2015 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.