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Atlanta church leads action on Pope Francis’ environmental edict

Saint John NEAUMANN Catholic Church
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The pope's call to protect the environment, Laudato Si', has touched Protestants as well as Catholics.

When Pope Francis released his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, it came with a call for the people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.” Now, after four years, the pontiff is seeing results and one Atlanta church is being praised for leading the effort.

When Susan Varlamoff, a retired director of UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Office of Environmental Sciences and parishioner at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Lilburn, first learned about Laudato Si‘, she was excited, to say the least. Pope Francis wrote of the dangers of air and water pollution, the disappearance of wildlife, and climate change; all the while urging everyone, Catholics or not, to take part in the dialogue.

Varlamoff drew upon her extensive knowledge of environmental science and, with a little help from her colleagues at UGA, she wrote up a Laudato Si’ action plan for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. This response to the pope’s call to action offers suggestions to parishes and parishioners in order to make their operation and daily lives more eco-friendly.

Speaking to Wabe.org about the action plan, Varlamoff proudly said:

“The pope came out with his message. We responded.” She added, “Through the power of the pulpit, the pastor speaking to their people, we feel we can create tremendous momentum.”

St. John Neumann Church has since ceased the use of Styrofoam cups, they have been through an energy audit, and they have even switched all their lights to LEDs, which is expected to save them thousands of dollars as well as energy. Their pastor regularly reminds the congregation of the action plan, which has in turn drawn crowds to help out on weekend gardening endeavors on church grounds.

Today, the Archdiocese of Atlanta is recognized as leading the response to Laudato Si’, but there are other dioceses who are making an effort to do their part. Wabe.org recognizes several such dioceses:

The Diocese of Stockton has long focused on environmental justice, and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has a climate change task force. The Catholic bishops of California released a pastoral statement on the fourth anniversary of Laudato Si, calling on Catholic institutions, public officials and business leaders, among others, to take action on climate change and other environmental issues.

The influence of Laudato Si’ is slowly spreading through the Catholic faith, but it has not stopped there. Pope Francis’ words have inspired Protestants as well.

In Georgia, the Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley calls the encyclical “profound,” and describes it as “a guiding light.” He went on to praise the effort as a fight removed all other social justice movements, as protecting the Earth is an idea that people from all backgrounds can unite around.

Marisa Vertrees, organizing director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, reminded Wabe that, “overall, the U.S. church still has a long way to go.” She said that the majority of Catholics have left Laudato Si’ unread and many of the Church’s extensive property holdings have yet to come around to the changes.

With nearly 70.5 million Catholics in America, we have a great capacity to enact social and ecological policy change. Kat Doyle, director of Justice and Peace Ministries at the archdiocese of Atlanta, noted:

“1.2 million Catholics in North Georgia,” she says. “Just think if every one of those 1.2 million Catholics just quit using bottled water one day.”

However, Doyle reminds readers that these initiatives are taken on the part of individual churches, based on budgets from the collection plate and not grants from the Vatican. With little funding and few volunteers, it is likely that this movement will continue to grow at a slow pace.

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