Last year Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for our common home) and placed protecting the planet and its people as a top priority of Catholic social teaching. Catholic Earthcare Australia, the ecological agency of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference founded in 2002, applauded the Pope’s work. To aid his efforts, Catholic Earthcare recently created a workshop to engage youth with Laudato Si’ and inspire them to take action. Tess Corkish is the Youth Engagement Officer at Catholic Earthcare and leads the Laudato Si’ youth workshops.
At 22 years old and seven years into environmental activism and advocacy, Tess Corkish considers herself a bit of a veteran. Back in 2009, she subscribed to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s email list and says she hasn’t looked back. She’s advocated for the environment in secular and faith based groups, but personally for Tess there is no separation between her faith and her activism. Now as the Youth Engagement Officer at Catholic Earthcare Australia and leader of the Laudato Si’ Youth Engagement Program, Tess says her career in environmentalism, specifically with a faith focus, isn’t a job; it’s a vocation.
A name and a vocation
As a child, Tess accompanied her politically engaged parents to rallies and marches. She credits her mother, currently a parish secretary just finishing up her Masters in theology, and her father, who researches renewable energy at the University of NSW, for fostering in her a faith that takes action.
‘My faith is intertwined and impossible to be separated from this sense of justice. It’s about creating an equal and just world’, she explains.
While preparing for the sacrament of confirmation Tess just didn’t choose a name she liked, she wanted a saint that meant something to her. When she came across the story of St Francis, she felt drawn to his vocation, his life – and even his name. Although it was unusual for a girl to choose a male saint’s name, Tess felt God’s guidance in her choice. It wasn’t until she started working with Catholic Earthcare that she discovered St Francis was the patron saint of ecology.
‘It’s one of those things that make me realise that what I do it’s not about choice, it’s not about discerning my career in life, it’s about a vocation’, she says. ‘It’s a call. It’s the call that I have from God and the Holy Spirit to do this work.’
How old will you be in 2050?
In Laudato Si’, Tess explains, Pope Francis says western young people live in a bubble. There is a disconnect between the climate impact we see in the news: floods, droughts and super storms and how this affects people in those communities and one day those watching safely at home.
During her workshops, Tess emphasises that young people have the most to lose if nothing is done about climate change.
‘I talk about what we could be seeing as soon as 2050. I ask how old they will be then. I’m going to be 57. This is my mother’s age. I know I’m going to see this future. Most politicians that make the laws aren’t actually going to be around to see this impact. We have a much greater stake than them’, she argues.
Some students also brush off Tess’s urgency, suggesting that technology will solve climate change and any environmental crisis of the future. To respond, she turns to Laudato Si’.
‘Pope Francis says to focus on technology is hubris. We can’t create a solution to the disruptive cycle by disrupting the cycle anymore. We need to listen to the needs and the call of creation,’ stresses Tess.
In her workshops, Tess speaks on how young people can make a difference. She tells them how they can get involved in climate activism and discusses everyday things they can change to reduce Australia’s carbon footprint, such as eating less meat and buying locally. Since about 24 per cent of Australia’s carbon footprint comes from food, it’s a good place to start. She’s even thinking of creating an environmentally minded cookbook helping those who want to eat less meat. At the end, she tells them now that she’s popped their bubble, to go out and pop other people’s bubbles.
‘Voices can be so important and so persuasive in changing people’s minds. To have conversations, to influence the ideas and behaviours of the adults and the young people around them, that’s how we create what Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si’.’
Tess says if she can inspire one student to action, she’s done her job.
This winter, in addition to leading workshops at World Youth Day in Poland, Tess will spend three weeks in the Solomon Islands as a recipient of the 2016 Santa Sabina Ex-student Fellowship. She’ll work with Dominican nuns there, but also talk to those on the frontlines of climate change and bring back their stories to share with young people at home.
‘With climate change, those that have least created the problem will be worst affected. That’s just the epitome of what’s wrong’, says Tess.
‘My role as someone who lives in Australia, with a voice and the freedom to speak, is about amplifying the voices of those who are most affected.’
To invite Tess to lead a workshop at your school or if you are a student and want to get involved with the work at Catholic Earthcare Australia contact her at email@example.com. Learn more about the Laudato Si’ Youth Engagement Program at catholicearthcare.org.au/project/youth-workshops/
View the reflection questions and activities for 'Popping the bubble: Waking up to climate change' here