Faculty mobilize to meet pope's call to care for our common home

Author: Kristian Olsen

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An interdisciplinary group of 20 faculty gathered at Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles, Michigan, for three days of conversation and action-planning oriented around Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical on climate change and inequality. The faculty represented 17 different departments and all seven colleges and schools at Notre Dame.

The event, held June 2-4, was the first installment of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study’s Zahm Retreat, a new summer program that brings together a diverse group of faculty to confront an issue of ethical importance, seek inspiration from the Catholic intellectual tradition, build lasting research connections and make plans for continued action. The retreat is named after Rev. John A. Zahm, C.S.C. (1851-1921), the influential faculty member and administrator who bolstered the research reputation of the University and worked to bridge the divide between disciplines, particularly between the sciences and religion.

This year’s retreat was co-hosted by the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative and focused on Pope Francis’ charge, articulated in Laudato Si’, to care for our common home and fight for the just treatment of all its inhabitants. In the encyclical, the pope makes an appeal for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The retreat anticipates the upcoming Notre Dame Forum and its theme “Care for Our Common Home: Just Transition to a Sustainable Future.” The 2021-22 forum will include a year-long roster of events, discussions, seminars and keynote addresses to inspire conversation and action on sustainability issues.

“The faculty of Catholic research universities face a unique challenge: How do we concretely demonstrate — in our research, in our teaching and in our day-to-day intellectual life — the common good that underlies all of our increasingly specialized work?” said Meghan Sullivan, director of the NDIAS and the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy.

“To tackle the world’s hardest problems, we need creative solutions of the sort that can happen only when scholars from across the disciplines come together and help each other look at issues in new ways. Our Zahm Retreat provides an ideal platform for Notre Dame faculty from every corner of campus to do just that. And given the theme of this year’s Notre Dame Forum, Laudato Si’ was the perfect topic for our inaugural meeting,” Sullivan said.

The first day of the retreat included a focused discussion of the text of Laudato Si’ and a sustained conversation about the role universities can and should have in finding a solution to the climate crisis. On the second day, faculty explored how the themes of the encyclical apply to their individual fields of research and how they might collaborate to make progress on unanswered questions. During the final day, participants workshopped new ideas and initiatives to be implemented around campus and across the wider community.

“Having the first Zahm Retreat in the inspired natural setting of Fernwood Botanical Garden provided the ideal platform for the group to generate exciting plans for the coming year and beyond,” said Jennifer Tank, director of the ND-ECI and the Ludmilla F., Stephen J. and Robert T. Galla Professor of Biological Sciences.

“I was amazed by the combined breadth and passion of the ideas, as our faculty colleagues planned new, interdisciplinary courses on sustainability; organized Laudato Si’ reading groups for students, faculty and staff; and discussed areas of synergy around research and scholarship. As we continue to meet and organize after the conclusion of the retreat, I am confident that continued engagement and interaction will make a real impact on the Notre Dame community and beyond,” Tank said.

In addition to the concrete proposals the retreat generated, a primary aim of the event was to build relationships between faculty from disparate departments and to foster research collaborations. 

“One of the greatest joys of working at a university, particularly one like Notre Dame, is that I am surrounded by amazing people who work on some of the most fascinating and diverse topics one can imagine,” said Diogo Bolster, professor of engineering and the Henry Massman Department Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences.

“While I am an engineer by training, I relish the opportunity to interact with experts in other disciplines, and the Zahm Retreat gave me the privilege to meet colleagues from departments across campus with whom I don’t often have the opportunity to engage. As we embark on a year at Notre Dame that will be framed by issues of sustainability, I look forward to continuing to meet and work with collaborators, including students and faculty, who have a serious commitment to caring for our climate and all of us who live in it,” Bolster said.

Those interested in taking part in further conversation and planning inspired by Laudato Si’ can sign up for the Laudato Si’ email list. A full list of those who participated in the Zahm Retreat and the photo gallery can be found here.