The St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement (REFA) has been working for 40 years to promote the principles of Christian ecology and an attitude of respect for creation in accordance with Christian spirituality. We want to be the voice of environmentalists within the structures of the Catholic Church and a Christian voice among environmentalists. We are committed to protecting the natural environment locally and globally. We implement educational goals in specific projects, publications, events. This article presents a brief historical outline of the formation of the Movement’s Franciscan idea.
The genesis of REFA
Referring to the genesis of the issue, it is necessary to mention the situation in Poland in the eighties and, in particular, the huge damage to the natural environment done as a consequence of the economic activity at the time of the People’s Republic of Poland based on the reckless draining of natural resources and neglect of any standards. It was then, when both civic and Catholic circles began to be actively involved in various pro-environmental initiatives. The significance of the Catholic Church’s involvement was emphasized by the Pastoral Letter of Polish Bishops on the subject of environmental protection of the 5th of May 1989. Franciscans, following Pope John Paul II’s proclamation of St. Francis of Assisi patron of ecologists in 1979, felt particularly obliged to undertake action in this respect. Consequently, a number of ecological initiatives primarily related to the Franciscan spirituality were launched, for example, in Kraków, Katowice, Wrocław, Legnica, Poznań, Łódź, Gdańsk, Warsaw, Lublin and Jasło. Moreover, a number of Catholic ecological education centers were founded, among others, in Kraków, Lublin, Zawoja in the Beskids and Wisełka in Pomerania. Among those, REFA is probably the only one still continuing its activity. As regards tourist and other initiatives promoting all types of leisure activities in nature, the situation seems to be slightly better.
The St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement (REFA) was established in 1981 in Kraków as a direct reaction of the Franciscans to announcing on the 29th of November 1979 St. Francis of Assisi patron of environmentalists by Pope John Paul II. Another factor was associated with the socio-political atmosphere of Poland at that time, which led to revealing the real ecological threat in our country. The desire for ecological action thus appeared in a concrete way of implementing Franciscanism in the contemporary situation.
As a part of a very diverse and multi-faceted social Environmental Movement in Poland, according to the sociological criterion of style of action, we can be included among groups established with the aim to conduct long-term activities, addressing a variety of ecological problems and aiming at implementing fundamental social changes. We have always highlighted the importance of the so-called “small path” which lead from shaping individual pro-ecological attitudes to specific actions. This attitude was expressed by the slogan “Ecology begins in the heart” as well as by the Movement’s logo having in its center a heart carried by a spiritual son of St. Francis, who is permanently united with the world of creatures through a symbolic green leaf.
The St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement
In the pastoral program of the Church in Poland for 2008/2009 by the Commission for Christian Ministry of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, encouraged a broader introduction to catechetical, preacher, retreat and other pastoral ministry of broadly understood care for life, St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement was shown as a modern and evangelical example of concern for the life of nature.
“REFA combines the spiritual richness of Franciscan ecology (from the time of the Saint, through the natural traditions of Franciscans, to current ecological Franciscan thought), with contemporary Christian science of the natural environment, emphasizing in particular the teaching of the Catholic Church on the natural environment, ecology and nature conservation. Everything together is based on the Christian concept of the world and man created by God, redeemed by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit”.
The authors grasps the genesis of the Franciscan commitment to ecology as follows:
“St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement was created as a response to contemporary ecological threats, which is why the association addresses the signs of time and the need to protect nature both on a regional and national scale, together with other pro-ecological groups and associations that rest their activities on similar assumptions. In this context, the Movement seeks to act not only towards, for example, pro-ecological legislative changes in the whole society but also towards shaping human thinking and conscience. REFA’s actions – by definition – are part of the global nature protection program and they are addressing the biblical core of the human person, i.e. the human heart in which the effects of global ecological threats are experienced and in which the specific human response to these threats is shaped in the immediate environment”.
After discussing numerous specific activities of REFA and its circles, the following is summarized:
“Undoubtedly, the ideas of REFA are not a closed area for new inspirations and activities of a religious, social and ecological nature. The long-term projects and actions that have been undertaken throughout more than 25 years of REFA’s activity have shown the right direction of Christian care for nature. The Movement’s activity not only has a future but it is of great importance from the point of view of the socio-ecological involvement of the Church and from the point of view of the spiritual strengthening of ecological goals and aspirations of naturalists concentrated in pro-ecological associations and secular organizations. The common denominator of these ideas is the Franciscan opening to nature and spiritual dialogue with all creation to which St. Francis referred to as his brothers and sisters. It is only Christian and Franciscan theology of creation, but also ethics, protection and care for the natural environment which are in the center of human interest and the still relevant thought of the Saint of Assisi can become a means of getting to know the natural world and saving the endangered environment”.
REFA and Laudato si' encyclical
It is worth recalling all the activities undertaken many years before the publication of encyclical Laudato si’, highlighting the great effort of REFA activists engaged in promoting ecological education within the Church. This period of REFA’s activity sketched against the background of the entire Polish ecological movement was presented in the 2014 publication Przez ekologię do wolności (Through Ecology to Freedom).
Since the 18th of June 2015, i.e. the date of Laudato si’ publication, we have been actively involved in the promotion of the encyclical’s message, among others through our website swietostworzenia.pl (Festival of Creation), in social media, by organizing and taking part in various events and initiatives, as well as through our presence in traditional and social media. One of the latest outcomes of REFA’s commitment to promoting the message of the “green” encyclical is the Integral Ecology Leaders School. Having spoken in REFA for years about the issues of Christian ecology, we have realized that a real change in the world requires each of us to take responsibility for the quality of our lives and the surrounding natural environment. The world needs leaders who, by their commitment, will inspire others to act. The essence of our proposal is to recognize that the Earth is a common good of all humanity, and we, as Christians, are particularly responsible for its protection. Integral ecology shows how to reorganize spiritual, social and economic life to overcome the escalating socio-ecological crisis. Thanks to the School of Leaders, we are creating a network of committed Christians for whom protection of the entire creation and the ecology of everyday life constitute the highest priority. We also see this project as a direct response to the call of Pope Francis who on the 6th of July 2018, at a special conference in the Vatican entitled “Saving our common home and the future life on Earth”, spoke about the need to undertake an individual mission to save our planet as a common home for all humanity. The conference, which gathered over 300 environmental activists from around the world, was also attended by REFA representatives. St. Francis of Assisi Environmental Movement was among the 12 Catholic ecological initiatives that presented their activities during the conference.
REFA and other movements
It can be contended that during the 40 years of REFA’s activity, the perspective of Christian values in ecology has been introduced to public debate in Poland. The uniqueness of this perspective on ecology consists in the recognition of John Paul II’s words that “man’s major wealth is man himself together with the Earth”, and it is particularly important to emphasize this thought in dealing with the global socio-ecological crisis. We cooperate with Polish and foreign organizations, and REFA is a member of national and international networks such as: the Polish National Council of Catholic Movements (ORRK); More than Energy; Franciscans International; Franciscans for Justice, Peace and the Protection of Creation; Terra Mater; Global Catholic Climate Movement, Commission for Civic Dialogue (KDO) for the Environment at the City of Kraków.