Priest opened the door for environmental dialogue

William Patenaude

Three years ago, the novel "The DaVinci Code" prompted me to write a commentary denouncing it, which The Providence Journal kindly printed. Always looking for new ideas and voices, the then-executive …

Three years ago, the novel "The DaVinci Code" prompted me to write a commentary denouncing it, which The Providence Journal kindly printed. Always looking for new ideas and voices, the then-executive editor of The Providence Visitor spotted the piece and began an inquiry of the author, based solely on the limited biographical information in the commentary's byline.

A true journalist, this editor quickly uncovered that besides working as a writer, I have a background in environmental engineering and advocacy. He then summoned me to a luncheon to make an offer I couldn't refuse: He wanted a regular column on the Catholic perspective of ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be up for the task.

Father Stanley T. Nakowicz's vision of bringing to the Visitor a local and global perspective on Catholic ecology was in response to the topic's increasing growth within the Catholic social justice movement, prompted most notably at that time by Pope John Paul II.

Three years later, his insertion of a Catholic voice into what is often a secular dialogue is paying off.

Last fall, Liberty Goodwin - a Quaker and local environmental advocate - wrote a lengthy letter to the editor praising the Visitor for its environmental news coverage and commentary. After the letter's publication, Goodwin e-mailed her published letter and the Visitor's link to environmental advocates and interested parties across southern New England. In the days that followed, I heard from people of many faiths, and from some non-practicing Catholics, who were happily surprised with the church's interest in environmental protection.

This prompted me to write about the opportunity to evangelize via Catholic ecology, and the inherent link between environmental protection and the issues of abortion and human embryonic stem-cell research. Versions of that column were published in these pages, as well as The Providence Journal and the national Catholic weekly, The Wanderer. None of this would have happened without the vision of Father Nakowicz, which he expressed so succinctly and confidently at our first luncheon meeting.

Always one to appreciate a little controversy, Father Nakowicz can even claim throwing a curve at The Boston Globe. A column two years ago about the Cape Wind offshore wind power project provided strong defense of the proposal, as well as some pointed criticism of its detractors. This prompted a Globe reporter to call and inquire just why the church would be interested in the issue. Father Nakowicz told her why - ecology is included in the church's profound respect for life - but apparently the Globe felt that perspective too radical for its readers, and they never followed up on the matter.

More recently, a column on the John Paul II Center for Theological and Environmental Studies at St. Joseph College in Maine made fast friends between the pages of the Visitor and an important effort dedicated to investigate and teach the dense ecological works of the late, great pontiff.

Clearly, Father Nakowicz's idea for a column on ecology continues to prompt an important dialogue between Catholics, as well as between people of many faiths, or no faith at all. So when news came to me last fall that Father Nakowicz was stepping down from The Providence Visitor, I was saddened. Father Nakowicz's inclusion of ecology in the diocesan newspaper has provided a vehicle for many outside the church to find in it common ground. It has been a tool to educate ourselves and to evangelize our neighbors.

Given all this, I know many are joining me in thanking Father Nakowicz for his great efforts and foresight. His work in adding to environmental dialogues the voice of the church - the church he has always sought to serve and to build - is just one example of the great marks this priest has left on so many. May God bless him always and provide him many more opportunities to use his great skills to help those under his pastoral care, as well as all those in our diocese and our state.

Last, Father Nakowicz, please know that your kindness to me will always be remembered, and that the invitation for lunch will always be open.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)