John Dorner, here with his wife Anna in their suburban Ottawa home, is co-ordinator of the Ottawa-Cornwall archdiocese’s Creation Care Ministry. Photo by Michael Swan

Environmental revolutionary: John Dorner quietly lit path for care of creation

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  • September 4, 2021

The revolution will not happen on TV, on Twitter or on TikTok. A transformed Church cannot be effected by a meme. So John Dorner isn’t watching his newsfeed, waiting for a revolution to hold the Church accountable for caring for creation. He is acting. He has reached that point in life where he can see the change that must outlive him.

Since 2007, a year after his retirement from the Ottawa Catholic District School Board, Dorner has been quietly building a revolution in the Church. With his help and encouragement, it is becoming not just easier but urgent for Catholic parishes and individual Catholics to act on the environment and climate change. From a desk in the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall, Dorner has lit a path for Catholics in Canada.

As co-ordinator of Creation Care Ministry for the archdiocese, Dorner has never drawn a salary or directed staff. But working with other dioceses across Ontario, as an advisor to the ecumenical organization Faith and the Common Good, and as part of the advisory board of the Mouvement Laudato Si’ Movement – Canada (formerly the Global Catholic Climate Movement – Canada), Dorner has helped set the stage for a major shift in the culture of the Church.

“What I’m trying to do is, within the Church, build a culture of life in all of its manifestations,” Dorner said.

Dorner’s daughter Jennifer acknowledges that her father is an unlikely revolutionary. She knows her father to be a man of faith, hope and conviction, but also a quiet, patient and modest man.

“You know we (Dorners) are not loud-mouthed by any means. Kind of more quiet,” said Jennifer. “My kids have learned from him to speak out when they see injustice. I’ve also inherited that, and my sister. It’s something we’ve seen my father do and I think my kids have also seen that. He does seek truth and justice, and shares his ideas.”

This legacy of change has come into sharper focus for Dorner as he faces stage four prostate cancer with metastatic bone lesions — many, many lesions. There is no cure, but doctors have set Dorner up on a program of therapy that has made him more comfortable and kept him active.

Dorner traces his understanding of what it means to live a life in Christ to his grandmother Elizabeth.

“I recall my grandmother taking me for walks as we fed the farm animals,” Dorner said.

On those walks in Kent County, outside Windsor, a young Dorner was taught about the Christian life based on Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

“It was that sense grounding me,” said Dorner. “How she would perceive my relationship with nature, God as creator, God’s sense of responsibility and seeing how important I was in creation… My grandmother especially, she taught me very much about life, about God’s creation and the need to protect it — how God protected it. We had a responsibility toward that.”

As Dorner completed a PhD and qualified both as an educational and clinical psychologist, he launched his teaching career with the Greater Victoria School District. There he confirmed his vocation as a teacher, something that had been with him since he was the kid in Mr. Hoy’s classes in Windsor — always the one asked to help out tutoring struggling students.

“As time went on, even the most difficult and aggressive students in the classroom were my friends,” Dorner recalled.

In Victoria, Dorner was never just the board’s psychologist called in to troubleshoot difficult cases. He was a classroom teacher. In that role in the 1970s, he met Chief Dan George, whom he invited into his classes to speak to the children.

“That seemed to be a real, pivotal moment for him,” said Jennifer. “It was a defining moment in that I think Chief Dan George really talked a lot about the role of people, not just in relation to our own lives, but to future generations.”

The more Dorner learned from George and other Indigenous people, the more that view of human beings embedded in God’s creation clarified in Dorner’s heart and mind.

“It was already there in terms of my inner sense,” said Dorner. “The reason for that was because of my involvement and engagement with the Coast Salish people, where everything was seen as interrelated — how we have an impact on all life on the planet, all life throughout and within our lives, on the earth around us as well. So everything that we did also has a reciprocal effect.”

Through a long teaching career and as principal of a string of Catholic schools in Ottawa, Dorner carried those lessons with him. Then in 2015 Laudato Si’ exploded in his mind as a tidal wave of affirmation.

“When I read Laudato Si’ I was jumping for joy. I was literally jumping for joy,” Dorner said.

His wife Anna recalls him charging around the house after her, reading paragraphs of the encyclical out loud.

“I was ecstatic. I would say, ‘Anna, listen to this,’ ” Dorner said.

He knows Pope Francis’ phrase “integral ecology” comes off as slightly bureaucratic, but the idea behind that phrase is key to really living a Catholic, as well as catholic, life, Dorner said.

“Whatever I do has an impact on everything around me, and everything around me has an impact on me. That’s integral,” he said.

At bishops’ plenary meetings and individual meetings with bishops and priests, Dorner has over the last six years been building an institutional commitment in the Canadian Church to the full teaching of Laudato Si’.

“Many priests do not see this as a priority. That’s a fact,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t see it as important. But as a priority? No, not necessarily. That’s the challenge.”

But things are moving in the global Church and in the globe itself. In May the Vatican released the Laudato Si’ Platform, a seven-year plan to get every diocese, parish and religious community acting on care for creation. From Nov. 1 to 12, global leaders — including Pope Francis — will meet in Glasgow to decide how to avert further disaster.

As world leaders wrap up their meeting, Ontario’s bishops will hold their own plenary meetings, where they will hear from Dorner and his allies in the Hamilton and London dioceses, outlining a plan to get started on the Laudato Si’ Platform.

“I believe the establishment of a seven-year plan is important,” Dorner said. “It doesn’t mean that every parish or diocese has to be on board in year one or two. It’s something we can grow with. What’s important is that the dioceses and the parishes are working on this, for them to serve as examples to others.”

The hardest thing in education is to ease a child who is struggling onto a new path, to help that child to change. That was Dorner’s job. Dorner’s colleagues saw him patiently persisting in this work and would think of the patience of Job. Eventually, they gave him a carving of Job by Ottawa artist Fr. Herman Falke. It is a prized possession in the Dorners’ suburban home in Ottawa.

Change in the Church will require that same patience and that same unyielding faith.

“Through my whole life there was this sense of care for creation. And also this sense that God loves us,” he said. “It was not just to hear as a child, but to hear as an adult that what really matters in life is to appreciate our being — that we are loved by God and we can share that love we experience with others. How do we do that? There are so many ways. The sense of integral ecology is a big part of it.”

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