Ascension Parish in Oak Park for years has been home to a community garden that, in cooperation with other gardeners from the parish, donates more than a ton of food to the pantry at St. Martin de Porres Parish in the Austin neighborhood. At St. Mary of Vernon Parish in Vernon Hills, the 17-acre parish campus includes a prayer labyrinth and reflection trail with benches for people to stop and pray. Parishioners are planning to add outdoor Stations of the Cross as well. At St. Leonard Parish in Berwyn, the Pastoral Migratoria is starting a new garden that will be a place for immigrant families to gather outdoors and spend time working and in contemplation. All of them are examples of Laudato Si’ gardens, a new designation created by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Laudato Si’ Encyclical Working Group. “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” is Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical calling on all of humanity to recognize the need to care for creation, which is threatened by human activity. Gardens can help connect people to God and to creation, said Angela Swain, director of the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity for the archdiocese, and can help shift the idea of caring for creation from being something political or scientific to something deeply spiritual. “Creation is a holy gift from God,” Swain said. “The gardens become a sign of our interconnectedness that we all share as part of God’s loving plan. We’re not owners of creation, we’re not God — but we are caretakers of creation.” “Laudato Si’” focuses on the interconnectedness of people with God and with creation, Swain said, and gardens demonstrate that connection in a tangible way. “We’re planting seeds, literally and figuratively in the minds and hearts of our communities, especially for the younger people of our church,” she said. “The hope is they will see themselves as being planted in good soil. Just as that seed we plant is planted and watered and cared for, we are cared for by God.” The message should resonate with people of all ages, said Bishop Kevin Birmingham, director of the archdiocese’s department of Parish Vitality and Mission. “Children in schools, especially, they do learn through their senses,” Bishop Birmingham said. “Creating a space that will awaken those senses even as gardens mature … the gardens become a visual reminder of our maturing into a deeper connection with God’s care. And as gardens mature, they still get cultivated. We can always return to that space. It never goes away. It always stays with us.” Organizers hope to apply the Laudato Si’ garden designation to outdoor growing spaces in a third of parishes, schools and religious communities this year. “It is an ambitious goal,” said Michael Terrien, a Benedictine oblate who leads the Laudato Si’ working group. “But there are so many gardens already.” The committee’s first webinar in March drew 50 people, said Van Bensett, who is leading the group’s garden committee. “It seems like almost every parish has a Mary garden,” Bensett said. “We’re working on identifying the gardens that already exist, and then developing new ones to be designated Laudato Si’ gardens.” The designation comes with a plaque that encourages visitors to reflect on Catholic social teaching and to pray. Organizations that seek to have Laudato Si’ gardens — whether existing gardens or newly developed growing spaces — will hold dedication ceremonies and are asked to use the gardens for prayer and other events throughout the liturgical year. “A Laudato Si’ garden is about intention,” Terrien said. “It’s about, how do we begin to direct our attention to God’s creation in a way that it’s a conversion of heart so that we can begin to see that everything is connected. … So often we have a very anthropocentric orientation of being in the world, even in religion. How do we turn away from ourselves and turn towards God and see the magnificence of God in all of creation? We all begin to see the world and each other in a different way.” Parishes and other organizations whose Creation Care Teams start Laudato Si’ gardens can also take advantage of resources, including materials and advice, from community partners including DePaul University, the Field Museum and Open Lands, Terrien said. “There’s a whole program that can provide the technical skills, the information, the seeds, the trees,” Terrien said, Gina Orlando, who leads the Honoring Our Mother Earth ministry at Ascension, is hoping to install two of the Laudato Si’ garden plaques at the parish, which boasts several different gardens, including a native plant garden maintained by the parish school, Mary gardens, pollinator gardens and a large community garden, which is its own parish ministry. “We’re trying to educate parishioners to do more gardening themselves, in an organized way,” said Orlando. “We’re educating them around the fact that growing your own food is a wonderful way to enhance your health and reduce carbon. As the soil gets healthier, it can again grab more carbon from the atmosphere.” John Owens coordinates the community garden at Ascension and said gardening offers a glimpse of divine creativity. “It’s about as close as you get to appreciating the creativity of the world,” Owens said. “I was looking at these itty-bitty basil seeds in my palm, and I know that if I plant them three to a pot, in a couple of weeks, most of them are going to come up. … This transmutation from a lifeless seed to this abundant, productive living thing is astonishing.” All kinds of gardens can help people connect to creation, Terrien said. “The idea is for each parish and each order and each school to develop the garden in a way that makes for sense for them,” he said, “Some might say, we’re going to have some native plants, but we’re also going to grow vegetables. In other places, it could be a spiritual refuge, where you have prayers in the garden, you could have liturgies in the garden.” Gary Schiappacasse, leader of the parish landscaping ministry at St. Mary of Vernon, sees the parish grounds as sacred. He got involved 17 years ago when his son cleared a section of the property of invasive buckthorn as an Eagle Scout project. Now he works with professional landscapers and volunteers to make the campus a welcoming, prayerful place. “St. Mary of Vernon is a living church,” he said. “It’s alive, it’s there, it’s open 24/7. You can pick your time, and be there with God in nature.” For information about developing or designating a Laudato Si’ garden, contact Van Bensett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-265-5805 or visit pvm.archchicago.org/human-dignity-solidarity/care-for-creation-ministry/laudato-si-gardens.