Irish bishops have set dioceses and parishes around Ireland with the ambitious goal of returning 30% of church grounds to nature by 2030.
Bishop Martin Hayes, the co-ordinating bishop for Laudato Si' in the Irish Church, said the initiative is a response to a COP15 gathering in Montreal in December last year when participants agreed to "return 30% of land and sea to nature by 2030".
The initiative is also a response to the impending loss of biodiversity and to Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home, which encourages every person on the planet to "listen to the cry of the Earth".
Bishop Hayes explained that the project was launched last March, with Irish bishops publishing resources to implement it in July.
"When we talk about Church grounds, we talk about the green area around each parish church which is usually a public space," Hayes told the Catholic News Agency.
A 2022 survey conducted by the Association of Catholic Priests counted 1,355 parishes and more than 2,650 churches or mass centers across the 26 dioceses of Ireland.
Jane Mellett, the Laudato Si’ officer with the Irish Catholic organization Tròcaire, noted that almost every church in Ireland has green space.
"They could look at their car park, at window-boxes, to plant pollinator flowers not necessarily through grassland but in other ways," Mellett told the Catholic News Agency.
Ciara Murphy, an environment policy advocate with the Jesuits in Dublin, described the goal as a "very important initiative", adding that Irish bishops had displayed "very good leadership" by proposing it.
She said churches can consider returning front lawns and parts of graveyards to nature as part of the initiative.
"We can make them more biodiversity-friendly by trying to reduce pesticides or herbicides in the areas… It may even be as simple as putting a rainwater planter at the end of the gutter, or taking up a space in front of the church to plant some pollinator plants," she told the Catholic News Agency.
Irish bishops have provided a "grounds checklist" to help churches and parishes assess their properties and explore how they can return parts of the land to nature. The guide outlines simple and practical steps to make church grounds "a haven for pollinators and biodiversity", including tips encouraging parishes to use pollinator-friendly bulbs.
Other tips include installing a "bee hotel", creating a tree nursery, and sowing shrubs and flower beds.
The guide also advises parishes to explore alternative energy sources and organize a recycling system.
Bishop Hayes told the Irish Catholic that every parish in Ireland "will be encouraged to identify parishioners with a passion for gardening as well as local expertise in gardening to initially map the areas that could nurture the cultivation of wildflowers essential to pollinators".
He added that the initiative is a "strong recommendation" and not a requirement.
Murphy said there are lots of examples around Ireland where parishes have already made changes, noting that one church has started to gift people with a tree to plant in their home during christenings and weddings.
Mellett added that the National Biodiversity Data Centre is "very happy" about the initiative.
"They said it will make a massive difference to local biodiversity around the country," Mellett said. "Raising awareness is no longer an issue for us; it’s on our news every day. What people want to hear is what they can do and how they can come together to do it."