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Laudato si’: Atlanta archdiocese’s sustainability efforts 5 years on

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by Jonah McKeown

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 04:58 pm MT (CNA).- Susan Varlamoff, a retired biologist and parishioner at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, was in 2015 serving as director of the Office of Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, when she heard that Pope Francis was working on an encyclical on the environment.

Varlamoff told CNA that working for a cleaner environment has been a personal mission for her for many years, in part because her family suffered the negative effects of living near a toxic landfill when she was a child.

“I’ve been on the forefront of this, doing so much in my own home, but to actually see the Catholic Church embrace this and the pope, who’s a trained chemist, come out with an environmental encyclical was absolutely thrilling,” she told CNA.

Varlamoff approached her archbishop at the time— Wilton Gregory, now Archbishop of Washington— to see if she could somehow offer her scientific expertise to the pope.

Gregory laughed and said the pope likely had all the scientific help he needed— but, he said, the archdiocese would need its own action plan.

Valamoff began collaborating with climate scientists and other professionals at the University of Georgia, along with several interreligious groups who also were working on addressing environmental issues, to begin the process of creating the action plan. Before they could do much, Laudato si’ was promulgated.

Valamoff said when she read the encyclical, it exceeded her expectations. It was clear to her that Pope Francis had received good input from his scientific advisors, she said.

“What I was surprised about the document was that it addressed many different environmental issues from biodiversity, energy, water, and then he talked about the unfair way that the environmental issues are affecting the poor. They’re taking a disproportionate share of the burden, of these environmental issues,” Varlamoff said.

Laudato si’ was released in May 2015. By November, Susan and her team presented a 48-page, peer-reviewed action plan to the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The plan suggests ten areas where Catholics in Atlanta can make changes to make their homes— or their parishes— more eco-friendly, from energy efficiency and recycling to sustainable landscaping and water conservation.

Each section includes a few concrete suggestions that vary in time commitment, cost, and resources. For example, if you want to conserve water, you can check your toilet for slow leaks. Or, if you want to do something bigger, you can install a drip irrigation system in your yard.

The archdiocese presented the plan in 2016, and sent a copy to every parish.

Now, four years on, there are at least 60 or 70 parishes throughout the archdiocese that have a sustainability ministry, Varlamoff said.

One of the first things Varlamoff did at her parish was to replace styrofoam and disposable dishes at events with actual dishes, which reduced waste after large events.

In addition, after an energy audit, the parish replaced all its light bulbs, and is transforming its campus by planting native plants and trees.

She said for the ministries to work well, each parish needs a point person.

“They need somebody to lead the effort, to inspire the people to do this work, and to bring together experts and interested people to move the parishioners and to move the pastor and facilities manager and parish council to do this work,” she said.

At the beginning of this year, the Atlanta archdiocese started the Laudato Si Initiative, meant to expand on what the parish teams were already doing under the action plan.

The archdiocese also hired two Laudato si’ coordinators, including a sustainability strategist, in February.

Leonard Robinson, the sustainability strategist, has some 45 years experience in the field and previously worked with several California governors at the California Environmental Protection Agency.

He said not every parish in Atlanta has embraced the call for greater sustainability, partly because it simply was something new for many of them.

“It’s a slight change, but it’s not the change people expect. A lot of the parishes said, ‘Okay, we’re overburdened. We’ve got all these ministries we’ve got doing this, this and this. We don’t have time for one more thing’,” Robinson told CNA.

“Well, I explained that this one more thing it’s not really a thing, we want to weave sustainability in all walks of Catholic life, education, ministry, and everything else. So if you’re open to it, you won’t even notice that it’s extra work. You might find in some cases there’s less, and you’ll have more resources to do other things.”

In some cases, the best way to approach parishes or individuals is not to even mention the phrases “climate change” or “sustainability.”

“Let’s say energy efficiency. Let’s say water conservation. Let’s say sustainable landscapes. Let’s say extra resources for other ministries, because you’re saving energy, and these things when you save them, it does save you money, but it’s not about money, it’s maximizing the things that you do to enforce other ministries.”

Robinson said the Laudato Si Action Plan was a great starting point, a “roadmap” for his work at the archdiocese.

“That was one of the attractions for my job. I don’t have to start from zero, I’ve got this roadmap. All I have to do is institute that and weave that into every part of Catholic life,” he said.

Varmaloff commented: “The Pope is so well respected as a moral leader in the world…why shouldn’t Catholic churches be demonstration sites for energy efficiency, water efficiency, growing food sustainably? Why not recycling? There’s no reason why the Catholic church can’t lead the way.”

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