By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Jesuit Scholastic Philip Nahlik, SJ, found special joy this summer in helping to plan the Ignatian Eco-Educator Summit at Bellwether Farm outside Cleveland. The brainchild of Brenna Davis, director of integral ecology for the Ignatian Solidarity Network, the summit was an opportunity for Jesuit educators from 15 Jesuit and other Catholic schools to network and share ideas about their work related to ecological justice and sustainability in their schools.
It meshed perfectly with Nahlik’s interests, education and skillset: He has a Ph.D. in chemistry and teaches both chemistry and visual arts at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s contributed to an online textbook on ecology, and he enjoys supporting other educators and creating networks.
He was enthusiastic about working on the Eco-Educators Summit because it gave him an opportunity to meet other Ignatian educators and help them network with one another. The Society of Jesus’ fourth Universal Apostolic Preference calls for Jesuits to “collaborate, with Gospel depth, for the protection and renewal of God’s creation.” This kind of collaboration is central to Nahlik’s thought process: “How do we support educators? What can we do better?” he asks.
Nahlik is the epitome of the phrase “Jesuit educated.” After graduating from St. Louis University High School, he completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with minors in visual communication, pastoral leadership, Catholic studies and math at Loyola University Chicago. As an undergrad, he contributed to Healing Earth, an online environmental science textbook compiled by scholars committed to educating others to protect and mend the planet. The institute that coordinated Healing Earth became the School for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago, so Nahlik stayed at Loyola to continue his work with Healing Earth as part of his doctorate. The department brings a spiritual lens to the science of ecology, an approach that resonated with the chemistry major who considers himself a sociologist. For his thesis, he looked at Jesuit high schools and their approach to teaching environmental science.
He had completed a master’s degree in chemistry and begun work toward a doctorate when he discerned his vocation as a Jesuit and entered the Society of Jesus in 2017. Two years later, as a Jesuit in first studies – the second stage of Jesuit formation – Nahlik was back at Loyola Chicago, living with Jesuits from around the world. Many of them shared his passion for the environment.
“There was a huge ‘green team’ in the Loyola University Jesuit community,” Nahlik said. “We conducted the first carbon audit of a Jesuit community and created a plan for what we could improve – from our food consumption, to replacing drafty windows, even replacing community cars with electric vehicles. Our eco-audit inspired other communities.”
Nahlik’s enthusiasm and commitment to the environment were rewarded in a typical Jesuit manner: he was given more work. The provincial gave him two new assignments, one as a Laudato Si’ Action Plan Promoter and one on the province’s new Care for Our Common Home Commission. The committee’s work has included inviting each community to appoint an ecology representative and conduct an eco-audit of their own. This is where Nahlik’s science background came in, he says.
“I created structure,” he said. “I spoke to the superiors and outlined the assumptions and the steps necessary to carry out their community’s eco-audit. There’s been a lot of goodwill generated across the province. It comes back to Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation: Our goal is not necessarily to use less, but to use our resources more efficiently to serve God’s mission.”
Back in his Rockhurst classroom, Nahlik hopes his students are learning more than chemistry.
“I hope I am teaching them to be okay with ambiguity and how to make responsible decisions with incomplete data,” he said. He also wants his students to recognize the intersection of science and faith.
“There’s a trend right now toward eco-pessimism, where people think the planet is too damaged, and we can’t effect real change. Young people especially feel it,” he said. “That is a unique place where Christianity can contribute insight. God desires for us to maintain the planet and steward Creation. That’s the gift we offer; the scientific world doesn’t provide that kind of context. As Jesuits, we give people permission to have those kinds of conversations about what’s truly important.”
In his visual arts classes, Nahlik focuses on nature drawings, because, he says, they are an easy way for people to begin to get in touch with Creation.
“Start with the natural world, because everyone can have an appreciation for it,” he said. “Wonder is a fundamental perspective. It is an easy way for many people to connect with God. You can build from there.”
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