Roberto Chiotti is a member of the Bishop’s Committee on Creation Care and is an advisor to Net Zero Churches, an Anglican-led organization in Canada that aims to help churches reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from their buildings to zero.
My mother was born in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and English father. She was raised in what was known there as the Church of England faith, although we also have Confucian and Buddhist ancestors. My father was born in Italy and raised as a Roman Catholic. After joining the Italian navy, he was assigned as an admiral’s aide and eventually served as chief of staff of the Italian embassy in Shanghai. They emigrated to Toronto from Shanghai after the Communist takeover, and I was conceived enroute. Growing up as a young child in North York, I would walk to our nearest church in the neighbourhood, which happened to be Presbyterian. That is where I learned my basic Bible teachings, creed and Christian values. We had a close family friend who was a cantor at an inner-city Anglican church (the name of the church escapes me) and our family would attend Christmas Eve services there frequently. Since my brothers and I were enrolled in the public school system, it was not until I became a teenager that I finally went to study my Catholic catechism, receive my first communion, and was confirmed.
Later, as an older teenager growing up during the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, etc., I chose to reject authority, including organized religion, in favour of what I believed was a sound personal ethical and moral compass. It was another decade before I realized this was not working for me and chose to re-visit my Catholic faith. By then, Vatican II had transformed the catechesis and liturgy in ways that were much more in alignment with my own interests. At about the same time, I met my wife Kimberly, who had been raised in the United Church and who seemed to be on a similar faith journey. Together, we began attending St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto, and eventually she chose to be confirmed in the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil in 1987. The following year, we were married at the cathedral.
After helping to serve a Christmas meal at an inner-city drop-in centre for ex-psychiatric patients, I began volunteering there on a regular basis and met a client who suggested my wife and I continue our theological studies at St. Michael’s College, TST (Toronto School of Theology). We signed up in 1989 and began taking one evening course per term. One of our professors inspired us to begin attending the Basilian-staffed St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the Newman Centre on campus, where he would preach occasionally. There we found ourselves part of a diverse and loving community. The liturgies were beautiful and often pushed traditional boundaries in ways that we found empowering and life-giving. In 1998, I finally graduated with my master of theological studies degree. By then, my wife Kimberly had transferred to OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), where she completed a master’s degree of education in psychology, counselling, after which she established a psychotherapy practice specializing in grief, depression, and anxiety.
Unfortunately, at some point, a new pastor was brought into the Newman Centre whose approach caused a great exodus of longstanding parishioners. Some of us ended up at an alternative Christian faith group called “Ruah.” Eventually, Kimberly and I migrated back to our Catholic roots and joined Our Lady of Lourdes parish, staffed by the Jesuits. We were volunteering at Casey House AIDS hospice at the time, and the Jesuits had a ministry to Catholic residents of the hospice and offered a monthly healing mass at the church, which we often attended.
Since 2006, we have been registered parishioners at St. Gabriel’s parish in Toronto, staffed by the Passionists. It is beyond our own parish boundaries but attracts me as the only church structure that has been designed to embody the eco-theological principles of Passionist priest and cultural historian, the Rev. Thomas Berry, C.P., author of seminal works such as The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work. As the architect of the church, I also have a more intimate connection and deeply rooted love for the place. It was during my graduate studies in theology and ecology at St. Michael’s College that I was introduced to Berry’s teachings by Fr. Stephen Dunn, C.P., who was both founder and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Mike’s. Both Steve and Tom served as mentors for me over the years.
St. Gabriel’s represents my unofficial graduate thesis, a way to give tangible, meaningful expression to what Steve and Tom taught me about how to be in right relationship to the earth. The design and orientation of the building towards the south garden reminds us that when we gather to worship, we do so within the greater context of creation. At the time it was consecrated in 2006, it was Canada’s first church to achieve LEED Gold Certification and the first LEED Gold building in Toronto, garnering the city’s coveted Green Design Award in 2007. From the beginning, every design decision was considered through the lens of eco-theology and as such, the completed building represents a form of catechesis, in and of itself, inviting us to contemplation and transformation. Our firm, Larkin Architect Limited, also recently completed a new church for the parish of St. Benedict’s in Milton, Ont., designed to be the first net-zero carbon emissions church in Canada. It combines geothermal heating/cooling with a super-insulated building envelope and a 95 Kw array of solar photo voltaic panels mounted on carports in the parking lot.
I currently serve on my parish’s Building Management Committee, in charge of the planning and ongoing management of the church building and its property. One of our roles was to re-envision St. Gabriel’s one-acre garden, which initially had been planted to reflect the area’s pre-settlement ecosystem. Over the years, it had become home to many invasive species that were choking out the original plant material. Subsequently, it soon became known as the “Garden of Weeden.” Subsequently, it has been re-constructed using Hugelkultur, an all-natural method, to grow food for local pollinator species and the Good Shepherd homeless shelter. We have a separate garden ministry of dedicated volunteers who tend to this wonderful, thriving resource.
I also conduct several tours and lectures at or about the church throughout the year, providing insights on how the design responds to eco-theology. St. Gabriel’s has also been featured in Toronto Doors Open more than once. I am also currently serving as a facilitator for a parish-wide synodal discernment process that has established a three-fold vision for how the parish engages the world around us, which includes care for creation.
Another profound influence in my life was the decision for us to partner with our friends Kevin Shortt and Jack Bond to purchase a property in Northumberland County and build a straw bale, off-the grid house together. Living there and caring for the land together as an intentional community helps to keep me grounded, centred and oriented for the work I do.
I am currently serving as a founding member of the Diocese of Toronto’s Bishop’s Committee on Creation Care and its liturgy and education subcommittees which, over the past two years, have provided many resources for parishes in the diocese such as Lenten, Advent and Season of Creation reflections, suggestions for how to gather out of doors for worship during COVID-19, and other initiatives that reflect our mandate. In 2020, I was appointed by the diocese to the Board of Management for Epiphany and St. Mark, Parkdale, with the added assignment of exploring ways to redevelop its property to provide much needed affordable housing for the surrounding community while partnering with other local parishes and social service organizations to expand its ministries and outreach capabilities.
I am also an advisor to a nationwide Anglican initiative founded by Mark Gibson called Net Zero Churches that seeks to assist parishes across Canada to achieve Net-Zero carbon emissions as a faith-based response to the climate crisis. I am also willing to assist local parishes in the Diocese of Toronto who are seeking ways to achieve this goal and find other ways to reduce their ecological footprint. I believe that the climate crisis is the most threatening existential issue facing humanity today and is therefore deserving of all the attention and efforts we can muster. Ultimately, we cannot not have a healthy, thriving human and more than human community on a planet that is unhealthy.
My hope is that we will all become re-enchanted with the beauty of creation. Beauty stops us in our tracks, we fall in love with what we find beautiful, and we want to care for what we love. Five years from now, I pray that we have met our Paris Protocol commitments and prevented a rise in global temperatures beyond the threshold of 1.5 degrees.
I am not a biblical scholar, preferring instead to focus on the scripture that is creation, which for me represents the primary expression of the divine presence.