The Blue Hole in the morning sunlight. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.
The Blue Hole in the morning sunlight. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.

The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word welcome the Pope’s call to embrace our moral responsibility to care for the earth. Referencing his namesake St. Francis in the opening lines of his Encyclical on Care for our Common Home, the Pope likens the earth, “our common home,” to “a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Men and women religious have a long history of standing with those most in need. Today that includes “the earth herself” and all those who suffer the consequences of environmental degradation.

“We wholeheartedly support Pope Francis’ encyclical on care of the earth,” said Sister Tere Maya, Congregational Leader for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio. “We recognize the urgent need to address the human-initiated causes of climate change. This is a matter of faith in God who calls us to love, respect, and walk humbly with all of creation.”

Pope Francis. Public domain image.
Pope Francis. Public domain image.

The Pope reminds us of our biblical call to live in right relationship with the earth, and with each other. “When we choose lives of simplicity, humility and love, we honor God’s presence in our world. When we take the land entrusted to our care and restore it to ecological health, we honor God’s creation and our moral obligation to tend it lovingly. When we live in community and grow ministries that build community, we honor God’s call for right relationship within and among us and the earth,” said Sister Tere.

I believe the Pope’s Encyclical is a call to action that none of us can afford to ignore. While it is true that many of the world’s poor are disproportionately suffering the slings and arrows of climate change, it is also true that climate change catastrophes know no neighborhoods. They aren’t choosey and the rich are liable to be devastated alongside the poor. We all need to sit up, take notice, learn to live with less, and remember that this is our ‘common home,’ as the Pope calls it, and we are each other’s brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis is calling on people the world over to change our hearts and transform our relationships with each other and with all creation, and to do so with a sense of real urgency. “It’s time to do our moral inventory,” said Sister Tere. “We need to look hard at how we’re answering the call.”

I’ve worked in this position for the Sisters for over five years now, and I’ve seen how they are greening themselves. It’s an –ing thing, an evolving process. But the Sisters have already made substantial, tangible commitments to earth care in the establishment and ongoing restoration of the Headwaters Sanctuary, and in their ministries to the poor in earth ravaged communities like Ciudad Juarez and Chimbote, Peru.

The Headwaters Sanctuary, which the nuns established in 2008, is a 53-acre nature sanctuary on the Sisters’ heritage land in the headwaters of the San Antonio River. It includes the historic Blue Hole, once the 6th largest spring in Texas, described long ago as a fountain spring, named Yanaguana by the indigenous Coahuiltecans meaning up-flowing waters of the Spirit, and believed to be “the source” of the San Antonio River. “The Sanctuary is sacred space,” said Sister Tere, “and it’s an important part of our shared heritage, as a congregation and as a community.”

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While the Sisters still own this land through their Headwaters ministry, the deeply historic Headwaters Sanctuary is a gift to us all. It is indeed part of our shared San Antonio heritage. And it is open to the public for use appropriate to a nature sanctuary.

Our work in the Headwaters Sanctuary only begins to answer the call to earth care. Even so, we invite folks to act with us to protect, restore and enjoy this very special place. Everything that has been done in the Sanctuary so far has come at the hands of volunteers, people who want to work the land, spend time in nature, meet new people and become part of a community, i.e., to serve the cause of earth care.

Superior and her fellow Sisters enjoying the San Antonio River at its headwaters circa 1910. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.
Superior and her fellow Sisters enjoying the San Antonio River at its headwaters circa 1910. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.
Superior and her fellow Sisters enjoying the San Antonio River at its headwaters circa 2010. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.
Sisters enjoying the San Antonio River at its headwaters circa 2010. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.

The Incarnate Word Sisters can’t solve the environmental ills of the world, much as we might like them to, but they’re doing what they can where they live, and they’re all the time learning new ways to live more lightly on the earth. This greening of the congregation is something to grow, nurture, and emulate, and Pope’ Francis’s Encyclical offers great inspiration and a powerful exhortation to all of us – to act as if the earth herself was our sister.

As this article was prepared for publication, the Blue Hole spring reappeared after more than five years. We’re considering it a word of encouragement from the earth, to go along with the Pope’s.

*Featured/top image: The Blue Hole in the morning sunlight. Photo courtesy Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc.

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Helen Ballew

Helen Ballew is the executive director of the Headwaters at Incarnate Word, Inc., the Sisters’ nonprofit earth care ministry that takes care of the Headwaters Sanctuary at the historic “Head of the...