By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 19, 2017
ATLANTA—Worshipers gathering at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4, prayed for the strength to teach others to share and care for God’s creation.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, joined by scientists, environmental stewards and college students, celebrated the second annual Green Mass at the Shrine. The Mass honors all who work in environmental sustainability and those who love and care for the earth.
The archbishop said that the feast of St. Francis is a time to reflect upon the “grandeur and goodness of God’s creation, and its fragility.”
The Lord made frequent and pointed use of the elements of earth—from foxes and birds to mustard seeds and ears of corn—to teach about the Kingdom of God, said Archbishop Gregory in his homily.
“The world was a cornucopia of examples that he regularly used to help us learn about the preciousness of God’s creation and to reveal how the things of nature constantly point to the goodness of God himself,” he said.
St. Francis of Assisi followed that same tradition, noted the archbishop.
“Francis helped his colleagues understand that we are all related to creation and dependent upon its preservation,” he said.
There is a great responsibility, said Archbishop Gregory, to safeguard creation for future generations.
“Pope Francis has made the preservation of nature an important dimension of his teaching, and Pope emeritus Benedict before him drew attention to the issue of energy conservation as a moral and religious responsibility,” he said.
The archbishop said he suspects cost savings were not the primary reason for Pope Benedict’s move to install solar panels on some Vatican buildings.
The world and the creatures that Jesus and Francis used to teach others are at risk, said Archbishop Gregory.
“What is also at risk are the lives of so many poor people who depend upon the gift of nature with such reliance that renders them vulnerable to the ravages of profit and corporate exploitation,” he said.
Actions to protect creation
Susan Varlamoff, retired environmental scientist from the University of Georgia, attended the Mass. Varlamoff and former university colleagues authored the Laudato Si’ Action Plan for the Archdiocese of Atlanta at the request of the archbishop. Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical of the same name inspired the plan.
The 48-page plan, available in English and Spanish, describes a range of actions that people and parishes can take to respect and sustain God’s creation.
Varlamoff and other Catholics joined the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. in April to call for moral and prayerful action to protect creation. She carried a banner featuring the cover of Atlanta’s Laudato Si’ plan for the march, also carrying it during the Oct. 4 Green Mass processional.
She has not slowed down in retirement and fields a lot of questions about the archdiocese’s plan.
“They’re reaching out to me,” said Varlamoff of the inquirers.
She said one can “Google” Laudato Si’ and Atlanta to gauge the amount of interest.
“There’s like 48,000 hits, pages … Australia, San Francisco, Boston. It’s all over,” she said.
A greater focus on green
Closer to home, Atlanta’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Church has adopted many of the solutions outlined in the Atlanta action plan with about 35 people involved in efforts to focus on recycling.
“It’s called the Laudato Si’ Action Team. We have a school garden,” said parishioner Nikki VanDerGrinten, who leads the group.
VanDerGrinten, who attended the Green Mass, said one of the team’s projects involved switching from foam lunch trays at the school, for a greener option.
Representatives of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience also attended the Mass, including J.R. Seydel, the office’s director of sustainability, and Mario Cambardella, its urban agriculture director.
Through a partnership with “100 Resilient Cities” pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, Atlanta is working to navigate challenges for the city’s resilience or sustainability.
Varlamoff said the archdiocese is working with the City of Atlanta on its “Resilient Cities” program.
Endeavors include reducing energy use at city hall, decreasing water use at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and planning for a future focus on greenhouse emissions reductions, providing green space, and restoring the city’s tree canopy.
Cambardella works in the area of urban farms and as a Catholic is pleased with the church’s actions locally.
“I just love that the church is looking at this. It’s really just a magnificent force for good,” he said.
He and Varlamoff explained that urban gardens or farms help create a sense of community and give older generations an opportunity to teach younger people about growing produce and using it in cooking. Gardens bring vitality to neighborhoods and help keep crime down—and spending time outdoors helps the spirit, they said.
Cambardella made a trip to visit the region where St. Francis worked and believes the saint used “gardening to serve God.”
At the Mass, Archbishop Gregory prayed for Franciscans everywhere.
The medieval Francis and the papal one “remind us of our responsibility both to nature and to neighbor on this festive day that praises God for the ‘little poor man from Assisi,’” he said.