Running barefoot through the bush was an experience that ignited in Bernard Holland a lifelong love of nature.
Now his dream is that young Catholics can tap into and act on their own similar experiences of connection, in a way that inspires them to respond to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home.
Mr Holland, who had been Catholic Earthcare Australia director until recently taking on the role of acting chief executive officer of Caritas Australia, is promoting the Youth Eco-Summit 2019, a first for the Church in Australia.
The summit will be held in Sydney on August 30 and involve about 300 Year 11 students from Catholic schools around the city, and from Parramatta, Broken Bay, Wollongong, Maitland-Newcastle and Bathurst dioceses.
Catholic Earthcare Australia, which operates under the Caritas Australia umbrella, is spearheading the event.
The summit will be designed and led by student leaders nominated by schools in the various dioceses.
Mr Holland said Caritas had made a strategic choice “to engage the youth of the Church in areas where they’re obviously more engaged”.
“So we know we do justice education really well … but this is the first foray into matching ‘the cry of the poor’ with ‘the cry of the Earth’,” he said.
Clare Vernon, who is the Youth Eco-Summit co-ordinator with Catholic Earthcare, said there had been a good early response with 10 leaders nominated already and 23 schools registered.
She said the aim was to have two Year 11 students nominated from each school, and the target was to have about 300 students attending.
Ms Vernon said the aim, in light of Laudato Si’, was “to enable young people to take action on the environmental, sustainability, climate change and social justice issues that matter to them”.
“We’ll focus on the issues that matter to the cohort; and we’ll frame the summit around the principle of ‘see, judge and act’,” she said.
“Students will take the pledge to continue making a difference on the issues that matter, and will be given the opportunity to join an advisory council for Catholic Earthcare Australia on young people and the environment.
“This inaugural summit will provide the framework (both written – as a manual and practical demonstration) of the benefits and success of hosting a youth summit.
“We look forward to sharing our learnings and method with the wider Catholic schools community across Australia, and enabling dioceses and independent school communities to host their own eco-summits in 2020.”
Mr Holland said “people who are doing really good work are doing it in isolated pockets – this classroom here, that school there, that hospital here – and we want to try and join them together on one platform and so we’re developing a web-based portal to do that”.
“The sharing event enables us to demonstrate that we can grow what is essentially some student leaders in each school; they not only go back into their school and lead the ecological committee for that school the next year, or the social justice committee, but they realise they’re not the only ones doing this – that Mary-Jo and Joe and Billy-Bob in the other schools are doing the same,” he said.
“We’re trying to develop a spiderweb of contacts and networks, and we know when we have fertile networks they will grow their own initiatives, providing we have a platform that they can share on.
“And, all of a sudden, you have not just an idea in a school but you have a whole-of-system movement, and that’s what creates real change, and long-lasting change.
“This is all about building networks, and the youth summit is about growing a network of young people…”
Mr Holland said the first step in developing spiritual and practical responses to Laudato Si’ the first step was “engagement with the heart”.
“One thread is your understanding your connection to nature – being able to refer back to an ecological experience that anchored you inextricably to your care for nature,” he said.
“For each of us the story’s going to be different.
“For me (it was) bushwalking all the time as a kid.
“I lived in the bush basically – bare feet, up Mt Coot-tha (Brisbane) … I was running up the top of Mt Coot-tha through the bush.
“And I was always having engagement with nature … and sailing and swimming and creeks and rivers.
“So that’s always been my background but, for others (it will be different).”
For more details on the Youth Eco-Summit go to the Catholic Earthcare Australia website at http://catholicearthcare.org.au/2019/05/inspiring-laudato-si-youth-eco-summit-2019/
With thanks to the Catholic Leader and Peter Bugden, where this article originally appeared.