By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2016
ATHENS—As birds chirped in Rosella’s Garden at the Catholic Center of the University of Georgia April 5, scientists, students and members of the interfaith community gathered to celebrate a formal response to a special letter.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and recently retired UGA environmental scientist Susan Varlamoff led the celebration of the official Action Plan for the Archdiocese of Atlanta on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”
Papal encyclicals are letters typically written to specific groups such as bishops or residents of a certain part of the world, the archbishop said. This encyclical, encouraging responsible care of the earth, is different.
“Pope Francis wrote a letter. It’s a letter to whom it may concern, because in truth, it concerns all of us,” said the archbishop. “It is addressed to all of us because we share one Earth and it’s entrusted to us because we don’t have any alternatives.”
When one receives a letter, it’s customary to write, call or text back saying, “We got it. Thank you,” said Archbishop Gregory.
The archdiocese’s plan, published last November, is this acknowledgement and expression of gratitude.
Archbishop Gregory said Varlamoff visited his office as a woman of faith and a professional scientist. She felt the encyclical was too important to be shelved.
The archbishop asked her to develop an action plan for parishes, schools and families to implement environmentally sound practices. Varlamoff assembled a group of scientist friends from UGA to help. The result is a 48-page document, in English and Spanish.
“I could not be more grateful for the assistance we have received, all of us, from the professional staff of the University of Georgia,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The archbishop announced that he forwarded a copy of the plan to Pope Francis by way of Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“I tried not to be too proud, but I was proud,” he said.
The correspondence demonstrates to the Holy Father that the wonderful people of Georgia are grateful for his letter and that “we take it seriously,” said the archbishop.
Archbishop Gregory reflected on the words, “And God saw that it was good” from the Book of Genesis.
“Your creation is very good and you have entrusted it to us, and we will try to be more efficient, more effective, more generous and more zealous in caring for this very good planet,” he said.
Conservation requires the cooperative work of scientists, farmers and concerned citizens.
“All of our responses taken together are an act of prayer and an act of worship,” he said. “When we respect God’s creation, it is an act of praise. We say thank you for creating this earth. Thank you for creating us. We also say in our plan, we’ll try and do a better job.”
“We can all do something”
Varlamoff called it an honor and privilege to work on the plan.
“We all recognize that Pope Francis is a great global, moral voice on climate change and environmental protection, and we wanted to somehow participate and respond to his plea to the people of the planet to care for our common home,” she said. “So what we have done is provide small and advanced ways for every church, temple, mosque, synagogue and the faithful to care for God’s creation. If you look at the plan, we can all do something.”
Offering concrete steps to take, the guide covers parish activities, transportation, recycling, sustainable landscapes, political action and other areas.
Pope Francis has demonstrated the power of the pulpit, said Varlamoff.
“It is for this reason we created the action plan to be used by all religious leaders of all faiths to change the hearts and minds of their faithful to make environmental protection a way of life by taking simple actions every day,” she said.
Varlamoff told the crowd, seated under the garden’s shade trees, that the action plan is the first of its kind.
Father John Coughlin, director of the UGA Catholic Center, wore his Georgia ball cap for the occasion.
As a Franciscan, Father Coughlin said this movement being picked up by the archdiocese is important, and he hopes it will spread.
He noted that St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the order, was a “relational kind of guy.”
“Most people know him as somebody who had a special relationship not only with God and people, but also animals and the earth,” said the priest. “So it’s important to my Franciscan brothers and sisters what’s happening now with this beautiful spirit of spreading the good news of relating well to Mother Earth by taking care of her, because she takes care of us.”
Father Coughlin said “Laudato Si’” has impacted the students at the Catholic Center.
“They’ve been working to make this a more ecologically friendly place. We’ve got composting started here. We put together a ‘Laudato Si’’ team,” he said.
After reading the archdiocesan plan, the priest realized how much they already do at the center but also gained new tips. He believes the center’s future is “very bright and very green.”
“Wait, we can use that!”
Rebecca Hammel, assistant superintendent for Catholic schools, welcomed groups from Monsignor Donovan High School and St. Joseph School in Athens.
Hammel said teachers and administrators recently conducted a complete overhaul of the science standards for kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the archdiocese.
“At the core of our teaching is that God created the world and all that is in it, and we are called to collectively share and care for these gifts responsibly,” said Hammel. “So the delivery of Pope Francis’ encyclical could not have been better timed for the curriculum work we were doing.”
Catholic schools are joining the effort by being designated green schools, implementing smart technology to control energy, and using repurposed materials.
“Several schools have cultivated school gardens that are bearing fruit and also vegetables and herbs,” she noted.
The schools are happy to join efforts “to bring ‘Laudato Si’’ to life in our community,” said Hammel.
Darien Shimkets, eighth-grade student at St. Joseph School, had already asked his teacher for a copy of the action plan.
“At home we recycle, we try to conserve water,” said Shimkets. “We grow lettuce and carrots.”
Classmate Gabrielle Holmes said students work to monitor and care for the creek on school property. “We have a river cleanup coming up,” said Holmes.
Some of the students said they were interested in science as a career.
“I’m trying to educate myself about what Pope Francis is saying and educate my family,” said Amanda Childs.
Theresa Napoli, green school coordinator for St. Joseph, said the designation is obtained through the county.
Younger students compost, and teachers develop lesson plans incorporating green concepts into classroom work. They submit the lesson plans to the county.
A first-grade teacher, Napoli has always been interested in environmental matters, but added it’s nice to “live that passion through the children.”
Napoli had a parent recently tell her that as she tried to throw things away, her children said, “Wait, we can use that!”
The event featured Georgia honey and local organic vegetables for sale.
Farmer Ed Janosik of Sundance Family Farm in Danielsville, a Catholic Center member, brought organic carrots, radishes, chard, asparagus, celery and other produce to sell.
Janosik studied zoology at the University of Georgia. “Now I’m growing vegetables,” he quipped.
The pope’s April prayer intention is for small farmers. Janosik said the pope is making good points in “Laudato Si’,” including the importance of buying organic and locally grown foods. “It’s not only good for business but the way things should be,” said Janosik.
He brings produce to the Athens farmers market and fields questions from buyers. His produce starts from seed. “We start all our plants. We hatch our own chickens,” he said.
The “civil rights issue of our time”
Kat Doyle, director of archdiocesan Justice and Peace Ministries, will be lead ambassador in taking the plan to parishes.
“We work with a large number of parishes who have community gardens,” said Doyle. “Some have rain barrel-style water collection systems and organic raised beds. Others are using companion planting and cross-pollination techniques.”
Doyle added that some parishes are holding farmers markets or exploring the idea. Many partner with food pantries to provide produce to neighbors in need.
Justice and Peace Ministries has provided grants to neighborhood alliances to educate urban schoolchildren about gardening.
Doyle said this month the “Plant a ‘Laudato Si’’ Tree” campaign will be introduced. A tree will be planted at the Chancery in Smyrna on Thursday, April 21, at 11:30 a.m.
“It’s an effort to raise awareness about the ‘Laudato Si’’ action plan and create momentum toward more advanced activities that we can all do,” she said.
The most requested social justice presentation, said Doyle, is “What You Buy Matters,” a commentary on how buyer decisions affect every aspect of the planet.
“We believe that this speaks about the level of interest in and desire for a resource such as the UGA action plan,” said Doyle.
She pledged to share this resource with other faith congregations. Having just celebrated 50 years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, work has already started with Atlanta temples to partner on environmental efforts.
Dr. Gerald Durley, Baptist minister and board member of National Interfaith Power and Light, inspired center guests to act with an impassioned speech. The retired pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church of Atlanta and civil rights veteran, he said the archdiocesan plan would touch people throughout the South.
Interfaith Power and Light, through state affiliates, helps churches save resources through energy audits.
“This action plan is a positive response to what each of us can do to reverse the devastation we are deliberately and consciously inflicting upon the earth, the air, the water, the plants, the insects, the animals. We’ve gotten tired now of destroying the earth, so we’ve decided to destroy each other,” said Durley.
He called environmental efforts the “civil rights issue of our time.”
“Everyone has a right to clean air. Everyone has a right to toxic free water and to live in harmony with God’s total creation,” said Durley. “Pope Francis reminds us that nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves.”
He often hears questions such as “What can we do? It’s too far beyond us” or “Who cares about the polar bears?”
Durley said the issue of reversing damage requires unity.
“What a difference we can make, and God will be pleased,” he said.
He ended by addressing young people.
“This planet is for you. And all of us together, we are going to make it clean,” said Durley. “Our time is now. Our course is just.”
Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta sent email blasts to all contacts about Durley’s participation in the “Laudato Si’” event. Durley’s connection to Ebenezer dates to the civil rights movement.
Since the April 5 event, Ebenezer has announced plans to roll out the archdiocese’s action plan to its congregation at a 10 a.m. service Sunday, April 24. The service is a continuation of an ecumenical partnership between Ebenezer and the archdiocese. Archbishop Gregory will visit the church at a later date to outline details of the plan.
Following the Catholic Center presentations, guests enjoyed a reception featuring Georgia grown foods. Catholic students joined Archbishop Gregory on the front lawn for a blessing and planting of a flowering cherry tree. The archbishop explained to the students why the adults organized and took part in the “Laudato Si’” event.
“You have to remember, we do so for you, so that you will have the legacy God wants you to have,” he said.
To download a copy in English or Spanish of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s “Laudato Si’” Action Plan, developed by UGA scientists, visit www.archatl.com/catholic-life/refreshatl/.