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Franciscan Faces
Earth to Jacek… Thank You

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM (top, arms outstretched), with a contingent of mostly young adults at a Franciscan Justice Leadership Conference, among the many social and climate justice events in which he leads participants throughout the year.

Plunging into icy ocean waters in the dead of winter, spending the night in a jail cell after standing shoulder-to-shoulder with indigenous farmers in peaceful protest against the construction of an oil pipeline, marching on the Capitol – Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, will do just about anything to shine the spotlight on social and environmental injustices, and advocate for the care of all God’s creation. In a way, Earth Day (less than a week away), the annual global event that raises awareness and support for the protection of the environment, is like a religious holiday for Jacek.

“If we are going to accomplish anything, climate justice cannot come only from political, social and economic decisions. The issue is fundamentally moral and religious,” said Jacek, assistant director of Siena College’s Laudato Si‘ Center for Integral Ecology, whose mission is to increase the level of engagement in advocacy, sustainability, ecological conversion, and climate justice among the Siena campus population, surrounding region, and other Franciscan college communities around the country. 

“Our focus is responding to the call of the Church – the call of Jesus and St. Francis to hear the cry of the poor and respond with societal and individual transformation and justice,” said Jacek. “When Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor, we think of our neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan. The person assaulted and left half dying on the side of the road is everyone who is poor and marginalized, but it’s also representative of our Earth and the creatures that are being wiped out, and the generations whose future is being destroyed.”

Jacek added, “It is our responsibility to respond to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. In his Laudato Si‘ encyclical, Pope Francis implores us to take this holistic integral ecology approach. We need to be the voice for our ecosystems. The choices we make – who we elect to political office, our civic participation – is extremely consequential.”

Recalling his own ecological conversion, Jacek was a friar in formation in 2000 when an interfaith organization caught his attention. The group rediscovered the role of God’s creation and advocated for change in lifestyles and public policies.

A photo taken by Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

“They were asking critical questions and doing some courageous  things in the  context of their respective faith traditions. That challenged me to look deeper into my own Catholic Franciscan tradition. I wanted to be an instrument of healing,” said Jacek, who along with a contingent of Siena College students participated in a pre-Earth Day event last weekend, attending a leadership training symposium in New York City sponsored by The Climate Reality Project (founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore), which advocates for global solutions to the climate crisis.

Jacek’s attraction to climate justice may have happened years earlier. His family left Poland when the country was under communist control, living as refugees in Italy for 15 months before migrating to the United States and settling in New Britain, Connecticut, when he was 18 years old. Jacek helped support his family as a squeegee attendant at a dangerously busy intersection in Rome. When he looks back on this “humbling experience,” in some ways, Jacek says, it prepared (and “probably even pushed”) him to be a voice for people who suffer injustices of climate change and political persecution.

“I was these people. I lived on the margins, my family fled our homeland, and we were refugees. Cleaning car windshields for a few dollars, I was at the mercy of others. It planted the seeds of championing climate and social justice. I was living Franciscan values before knowing I would become a friar,” he said.

Although Jacek was studying to be a priest at a diocesan seminary in Connecticut, he redirected to the Franciscans with the prospect of greater ministerial options and working with the poor. Now a friar for 27 years, his passion for social and climate justice intensified when he spent part of his friar formation in cultural immersion in Peru and Mexico. He later made multiple trips to Brazil, witnessing firsthand the horrific effects of deforestation, when he served in the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation ministry.

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, and a Siena College student deliver a message at last weekend’s symposium in New York City sponsored by The Climate Reality Project.

“Forest fires, droughts and floods is the Earth crying out to us for help. These extreme conditions – and deforestation, soil contamination and polluted oceans – are the direct result of industrial agriculture, timber logging, mining and other destructive industry. The lives of those living on the margins are further compromised because they are in the direct path of this destruction,” said Jacek, who learned of the realities of a climate-changed environment from accounts shared by Guatemalan refugees when he spent time in 2020 at a migrant center at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“They told me the Earth no longer provides for them. They didn’t have enough to feed their  children because they couldn’t cultivate crops in contaminated soil. The suffering Earth is more pronounced 

in Central and South America, Africa and Asia – the major force of migration is climate change,” asserted Jacek, who added, “Paying attention to the cry of the poor means not only helping them with charity and the Gospel message, but asking the questions: Why are they being forced to migrate? Why aren’t we focusing on restorative justice?”

At Siena, and places like St. Bonaventure University and other institutions, Jacek said young people are asking these questions because they are concerned about their future and the well-being of marginalized populations around the world.

Motivated by Jacek Orzechowski, OFM (to the right of the statue) – stationed at the time at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland – parishioners attended a rally for renewable energy.
The installation of solar panels on the roof of Immaculate Conception Church and Immaculata School in Durham, North Carolina, was among several initiatives that Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, and parishioners implemented as a way of reducing the campus’ carbon footprint.

Jacek and Michael Perry, OFM, director of Siena’s Center for Integral Ecology, are planning a symposium on integral ecology and sustainability for later this year, already securing U.N. Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres as keynote speaker. In addition to the installation of solar panels and geothermal systems at campus buildings, the friars are collaborating with faculty members to integrate environmental justice into course curriculum. Students are involved in projects to decrease the campus’ carbon footprint and increase sustainability by working with such departments as food services.  

“Environmental justice is a form of evangelization. The good news

comes in many forms. It extends to our efforts in caring for and protecting our common home. Our neighbor is the earth and all its creatures. St. Francis showed us that responding to the poor is relationship between human beings and our environment. Climate justice is a ministry of healing and a wonderful opportunity for Franciscans and Franciscan-hearted people to help revitalize our Church at a time when so many young people are disenchanted with and skeptical of organized religion,” Jacek said.

“Earth Day is special, but it should be 365 days. Individually, our efforts are significant – and, no matter how small, they can have enormous consequences,” he added.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

Photos courtesy of Jacek Orzechowski, OFM.

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