Bishop John Sherrington – The Continuing Call to Ecological Conversion: Reducing our Carbon Footprint in the Diocese of Westminster

Earth-rise. Photo: NASA

Source: RCDOW

Opening talk given by Bishop John Sherrington at the ‘Towards Decarbonisation Seminar’ for parish teams on 18th February 2023

Today’s meeting is the next stage in our reflection on how to reduce the carbon footprint of the diocese and to live more fully the Church’s teaching on the care of our common home. 

The evocative photograph that illustrates this article shows ‘earthrise’. It is the first photograph taken by an astronaut of the earth rising in front of the moon. It dates from the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968. I remember the excitement of these pictures arriving from space as a young boy. The photograph evokes wonder and awe as we look at our beautiful world and see the patterns of cloud, sea, and land. 

Economics and Development

In 1967 St Paul VI published Populorum Progressio on the development of peoples. He argued for the need to place persons at the heart of development rather than economics. He developed the term authentic human development (PP 14) which becomes a focus for Catholic Social Teaching.

Questions of development and economics were the subject of much debate in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember discussions at school about wind and solar power, tidal energy, and questions about future nuclear expansion. On my bookshelves I found Barbara Ward and René Dubos’ book Only One Earth – the Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet published in 1972. It was a set of papers commissioned by the UN on the human environment. These papers argue the dangers of a world dominated by a prevailing attitude to technology which fails to respect people and the good of the planet. 

I am sure that many of you will be familiar with Ernst Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973) which challenged the economic theories of the 1970s that argued that progress was always an improvement. Fifty years later we recognise the prophetic vision of these authors. 

At the end of the same decade in 1979, St Francis of Assisi was named as the patron of ecology by St John Paul II. 

Integral Ecology

Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (2015) gives us the most recent systematic reflection on the care of our common home. He is inspired by his namesake St Francis of Assisi who celebrated and sang of the beauty of creation in his Canticle of Brother Sun. The encyclical opens with this inspiration:

LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In these words of his beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. He sings, “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. (LS 1)

The Pope writes of the need to build an integral ecology, one that includes all aspects of the human and social development including the care of the gift of creation. He reminds us that we cannot discuss care of our common home without respect for the dignity of every human person. St Francis inspires justice towards our neighbour.

St Francis was concerned for both God’s creation and for the poor and outcast – remember he shared his rich clothes with a beggar. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (LS 10)

All is Gift

St Francis helps us appreciate that creation is a gift. All is Gift. A growth in gratitude for the gifts we have received could help us focus this season of Lent. We seek to appreciate the gifts we have been given by God and offer thanks and praise to him.

What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). (LS 12)

The Book of Genesis, as well as psalms 8 and 104, sing of the glory of God’s creation. Man and woman are the apex of God’s creation, created in his image and likeness. They are called to be stewards and care for this wonderful gift of our common home imitating the delight and mercy of the Creator. 

St John Paul II captures this sense:

Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude. (Letter of St John Paul II to Artists, 1999)

Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this in the introduction to his poem God’s Grandeur, which begins,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Further, we are reminded by Pope Francis that, ‘Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.’ (LS 12)

The only worthy response to this gift of our common home is gratitude which leads to generosity. 

The Holy Trinity and Created Reality

The starting point for a Christian theological reflection is God the Trinity; God who is Three Persons in One God. The divine Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, exist in relationships of love with one another. The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father. St Augustine describes the Holy Spirit as the ‘kiss of love’ who proceeds from the Father and the Son, as we pray in the Creed. St Bonaventure offers further insight to understanding these relationships. The Pope refers to his theology in the encyclical:

St Bonaventure teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key. (LS 239) 

We are invited to see how God has left his mark on all of creation. The created world, according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. A central theme of the encyclical is that ‘Everything is interconnected’. The Father creates the heavens and the earth; the Son redeems all creation from the effects of sin; the Holy Spirit draws all of creation towards ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1) and ‘makes all things new’ (Rev 21:5). This dynamic reveals, albeit imperfectly, the Trinitarian structure of created reality and its relationship with the Creator. This is clearly seen in David Attenborough’s nature programmes, e.g. Blue Planet, Frozen Planet, which are all about relationships.

The Effects of Sin

Almost from the beginning, God’s creation is scarred by sin. The Book of Genesis shows how the harmony of God’s creation is broken by the Fall; the relationship between Adam and Eve, with God and with the earth. The relationships are broken because they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and desired to be like gods. Injustice and violence interrupt the harmony and enter the world with their effects still visible in our world today. 

Hopkins in God’s Grandeur captures this state of alienation with creation,

Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
     And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

I was privileged to visit the parish in Quezon City, Philippines, where the city dump of Payatas is located, when I was teaching at a Vincentian seminary. I observed four trucks a minute delivering the city’s waste. The dump, home to many people who scavenged to survive, was open from dawn to dusk. I accompanied the local priest to celebrate a month’s mind Mass for a 14 year old who had been killed when he was struck by a dumper truck. In simplicity we celebrated the Mass, Christ’s redemption of mankind, and prayed for the repose of his soul.

As a response, we are invited to listen and hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (LS 49).

Reconciliation in Christ

We have hope because God in his love sent his Son to redeem the world. The familiar words of St Paul deepen our hope,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5) 

Christ reconciles all things to God overcoming the sins of injustice and violence. All is to be reconciled to the Father who desires ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1) and who ‘makes all things new’ (Rev 21:5). The Holy Spirit brings about a new creation. The final lines of Hopkins’ poem promise the consolation and presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the world. 

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

We are called to be ambassadors for Christ proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We are invited to cooperate in the work of redemption: 

“Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”. Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.

(LS 92)

Pope Francis describes how we mature as Christians by entering deeply into this web of relationships and helping to build the solidarity which exists with all of creation,

The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity. (LS 240)

Growing in gratitude

Pope Francis calls for the ecological conversion of Christians ‘whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtues; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience’ (LS 217). 

As we grow in gratitude, thanksgiving and praise for the gifts we have received, so we become ‘poor in spirit. Freed from selfishness and a desire for possessions, we grow in the virtue of humility and simplicity. Laudato si’ captures this spirit,

It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures (LS 222). 

We seek growth in justice towards our neighbour and God, temperance or moderation of our desires, prudent choices which lead to our maturity as Christians and the courage to live the vision and understanding of an integral ecology. As Pope Francis tells us, 

There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle… All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity. (LS 211)

Our Conversion

Today we reflect on the choices to be made in parishes about heating, lighting and other ways to reduce energy consumption and the carbon footprint of the diocese. 

The life of St Francis inspires our conversion and repentance of our sins, faults and failures in relation to God’s beautiful creation (LS 218).

Finally, let us reflect again on Hopkins’ poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Bishop John Sherrington

This is the second in a series of occasional reflections on the call to ecological conversion by Bishop Sherrington. The first is available to read here.


The Diocese of Westminster has committed to do its utmost to become carbon neutral by 2030 in its parishes and curial buildings. It has also expressed its commitment to working with schools to encourage them to follow the same path. As Pope Francis explains in Laudato Si’, caring for God’s created world and cooperating with the Holy Spirit in this work of creation is everyone’s responsibility, not least that of the faithful.

Follow the link to view the 2021 carbon footprint report, watch Cardinal Vincent’s video and read the accompanying documents below to find out more:

Diocese of Westminster: The Road to Carbon Neutrality

Southern Dioceses Environment Network