May 4, 2023

Verbatim: Excerpt from 'Generation Laudato Si'


This essay is taken from Generation Laudato Si’: Catholic Youth on Living Out an Ecological Spirituality, edited by Rebecca Rathbone and Simon Appolloni, published this year by Novalis. It is by Nolan Scharper, who is studying for a master’s in environment and sustainability at the University of Toronto. Since graduating from Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016, he has worked with the New York Restoration Project, at the Canadian Ecology Centre in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park near Mattawa, Ont., and as an educational programmer at Toronto’s Brickworks.

In 2016, a little over a year after the release of Laudato Si’, I thought I had left the Catholic Church far behind. I was 22 years old, had just moved to New York City and viewed Catholicism with a mix of anger and confusion. I could not, I thought, untangle my faith from the history of colonialism and imperialism that are woven into the legacy of the Church.

In New York, I started working for an environmental non-profit called the New York Restoration Project. They put me to work in Highbridge Park — a long, thin sliver of wild land that cuts through the steel and concrete flesh of Manhattan for almost 50 blocks, from 155th Street in Harlem to just below 201st Street in Inwood, one of the northernmost neighbourhoods in Manhattan, where the island descends into the ocean.

Highbridge Park sits on the heights, the lofty ridges that adorn northern Manhattan, affording awesome views of the Harlem River and the Bronx.

Yet, just like the city on which it perches like a brooding sentinel, Highbridge intertwines both the sacred and the profane into seemingly inextricable knots. It is a place where people come to do what in other places is taboo — whether that is to worship spirits, both beneficent and malevolent, to sacrifice animals, to shoot up, to live when there is nowhere else to go, to hide stolen goods and even to murder and bury the bodies of their victims.

People perform such acts in Highbridge because it is not a typical forest. It is a place that is infested with one of nature’s most enigmatic parasites: vines.

In Highbridge, vines grew rampant, seeming to choke every tree they could wrap themselves around and thereby consume the forest. I remember seeing vines as thick as pythons encircle trunks like fingers around a helpless throat. Because of their density, the vines obscured what was happening in the forest to the outside observer, allowing people privacy and sanctity to engage in both sacred and profane rituals and activities. My job, along with my crew, was to unwind these vines, trace them back to their roots and then dig them out. After doing so, we would plant native trees in an effort to restore balance to the forest.

As I did this work of physical untangling, I felt the old cynical prejudices strangling my faith begin to uncoil. Miraculously, I began to pray again — something I had not done seriously in years — at first alone, then with others of my crew.

“Around these community actions” Pope Francis articulates in Laudato Si’, “relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges.” Ecological and spiritual restoration are not separate endeavours. They are interwoven into this “new social fabric,” threading together the mending of Mother Earth with the healing of the human soul.

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