Victor Martinez, a sixth grader at St. Andrew Nativity School in Northeast Portland, participates in the climate march. Teachers at the middle school incorporated discussions of climate change into their curriculum to prepare students for the event. (Courtesy St. Andrew Nativity School)
Victor Martinez, a sixth grader at St. Andrew Nativity School in Northeast Portland, participates in the climate march. Teachers at the middle school incorporated discussions of climate change into their curriculum to prepare students for the event. (Courtesy St. Andrew Nativity School)
Spurred by a mix of anger, hope, fear and faith, students from Portland-area Catholic schools marched with thousands of their peers Sept. 20 to draw attention to climate change, promote activism and demand adults in power take meaningful steps to protect the planet.

“The principle of stewardship instructs us all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to take care of our Earth, as it is the most beautiful and precious gift God created for us,” said Marissa Pasaye-Elias, a senior at De La Salle North Catholic High School.

There were contingents of students of varying sizes from a majority of Catholic high schools in the Portland Archdiocese. Students were allowed to leave school with parental permission.

St. Andrew Nativity, a Catholic middle school in Northeast Portland, coordinated a bus trip to the protest, and teachers incorporated climate change into their curriculum to prepare youths for the event.

The all-girls St. Mary’s Academy had the largest showing of Catholic school students at the strike. With 191 young women participating, nearly 30% of the student body was present.

“We must acknowledge that communities, homes and people are being destroyed by the severity of climate change, and if we do not begin taking immediate action, the future of our Earth and civilization will be ill-fated,” said Lily Hanson, a St. Mary’s senior.

Holy Names Sister Carol Higgins, a theology teacher at St. Mary’s, said her order has made the climate crisis a priority, and a number of her fellow sisters joined in the climate march.

St. Mary’s is sponsored by Holy Names Sisters and so “is also committed to this critical work,” said Sister Carol. “The theology department, specifically, has made care of creation and the challenges of climate change a major theme of our work with students by highlighting Catholic teachings such as ‘Luadato Si,’” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment that drew from previous popes’ teachings.

“As a Catholic school, our discussions are framed in hope and positive action,” Sister Carol said. “How can we make a difference? What steps are within our power? We need to continue to reflect on our personal and cooperative practices to ensure that we are making sustainable choices, not just easy choices. Our students have great passion and are positive about the future — they inspire us.”

After demonstrating outside City Hall, students walked over the Hawthorn Bridge to conclude the event with a festival outside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

At its height, the march stretched nearly a mile. Students chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!” and carried signs with statements such as:

“Our house is on fire.”

“There is no planet B.”

“You’ll die of old age. I’ll die of climate change.”

The Portland protest was among a wave of climate strikes around the globe preceding the United Nations Climate Action Summit Sept. 23 in New York City. The strikes are part of the Fridays for Future movement begun last year by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager and climate activist.

Thunberg met the pope briefly during a general audience last spring.

In a video message sent to summit participants, Pope Francis said that while the 2015 Paris climate agreement raised awareness of the “need for a collective response,” the commitments made by countries “are still very weak and are far from achieving the objectives set.”

“It is necessary,” he said, “to ask whether there is a real political will to allocate greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations, who suffer the most.”

The pope previously suggested Catholics join the ecumenical “Season of Creation” initiative, which ran from Sept. 1 through Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The initiative includes prayer and practical action to clean up the environment.

He has also invited world leaders, educators and young people to come to the Vatican next spring to launch a global alliance for building a new, more humane future.

In Portland, Catholic high school students’ participation in the recent protest generally was praised by administrators and was held in conjunction with spiritually centered events.

Paul Hogan, principal of Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland, said he believes the student-driven advocacy was in line with church teaching and the spirit of a Jesuit institution. The day of the climate strike, Jesuit students gathered for a Mass of the Holy Spirit, where they prayed for the Earth and leaders who impact its health. About 100 then left for the protest.

“We are so proud of our students’ desire to speak out at such moments, especially as the topic impacts their future,” said Tim Joy, principal of De La Salle. The high school held an extended common prayer that focused on caring for God’s creation.

Brian Devine, vice principal of student life at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, said the school community was “excited that students are embracing opportunities to engage in the type of social justice activism that reflects the core values and principles of La Salle and the Catholic Church.”

“We’re proud of our students who participated and look forward to how they can enrich our community through their ongoing commitment to this critical issue,” said Devine.

Sophomore Emma Olson was among the dozens of La Salle students who joined in the march. She found the gathering both inspiring and heartbreaking. “There were these young elementary school kids who had a sign drawn in crayon that said that when they grow up the Earth might not be sufficient for them to live in.”

La Salle senior Abby Baines said humans are running out of time when it comes to sufficiently addressing climate change.

“In the Bible it talks about how we are supposed to be stewards of the Earth,” she said. “We play a huge role in solving the problems we made for ourselves. These problems are not going to magically reverse; we have to turn things around.”



Catholic News Service contributed to this report.