SANTA MONICA, Calif. — On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of over 50 teenagers ranging from ages 13-18 gathered in a conference hall at St. Monica Catholic Church.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Johnstone stood at the front of the crowd and read out a prayer: “Loving lord, we pray that people everywhere become more caring towards the environment in which they live; and that politicians, planners and developers seriously consider environmental concerns.”

What You Need To Know

  • The St. Monica Green team hosted a climate summit for LA Youth, particularly LA Catholics to help them learn more about climate activism

  • The event explored themes like sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture and carbon neutrality

  • Pope Francis has called upon Catholics and all people to take better care of the planet in his encyclical Laudato Si

  • A representative from the Vatican is set to attend the upcoming UN Climate Summit, COP26, in Glasgow

It was the opening convocation for the first Youth Climate Summit organized by the St. Monica Green Team, an environmental group comprised of St. Monica congregants. Johnstone was one of the organizers. Students, primarily from St. Monica’s affiliate high school and other Catholic schools around Los Angeles, had been invited to attend.

The day consisted of lectures about fast fashion and conversations about the importance of sustainable agriculture. Participants discussed how they could help reduce their own carbon footprint.

Johnstone is a practicing Catholic whose whole family attends St. Monica, and she decided to help run the summit to bring two of her passions together: climate activism and religion.

"A lot of time, destruction of the environment is justified because people say, 'The Bible says we were put on earth to control.' But that’s really not what it says. As Pope Francis details, if you go all the way back to Genesis, it says we ought to care for creation as God’s stewards," Johnstone said.

Both the St. Monica Green Team and Johnstone often pointed to Pope Francis’s encyclical (or essay) "Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home" throughout the day to explain why climate activism and protecting the environment are so important. First published in 2015, it's a call for not only Catholics, but everyone to take better care of the planet. In it, he points to clear scientific evidence that the climate is warming and most impacting the poor.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet,” he writes. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Meredith McCarthy, Johnstone’s adult counterpart during the climate summit, explained that Pope Francis’ encyclical gave her renewed confidence in her faith.

"'Laudato Si' opened the door for me to return to my faith in a completely new way, and that was exciting for me personally," McCarthy said.

McCarthy, a congregant at St. Monica and director at Heal the Bay, added that climate change in the church has historically been politicized, particularly around issues involving reproductive rights.

“The assumption is that if I am pro-environment, I am pro-choice, and if I am a pro-life, I am anti-environment, or I couldn’t possibly vote for someone who is an environmentalist because they would of course be pro-choice," McCarthy said.

McCarthy explains that Pope Francis is changing the dialog around environmentalism in the church.

“The Pope very specifically says it’s time for an ecological conversion,” McCarthy added.

In early October, Pope Francis invited different religious and faith leaders from around the world to the Vatican for a conference in preparation for the upcoming UN Climate Summit, "Faith and Science: Towards COP26." The faith leaders in turn called on political leaders and governments to help limit the global temperature rise. A representative from the Vatican is set to attend COP26, which begins on Oct. 31.

At the end of the Youth Climate Summit in Santa Monica, Johnstone was still energized.

“I find God the most in the spark of activism, especially seeing young people come together," Johnstone said. "That’s religion to me. I see faith in that, in unity of people over something so powerful.”

As a young Catholic, Johnstone is optimistic about her faith and devotion to the planet.

"I hope people can start to see them as partners, as two movements with similar, and sometimes even the same, goal," Johnstone said.