Vie de l'église

‘The Diary Keepers’ provides a glimpse into Dutch life under Nazi occupation

The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

Nina Siegal

544 pages; Ecco


During my return to Poland from a February assignment in Ukraine, I jotted down the names of Polish cities I passed through on a train from Kyiv to Warsaw: Deblin, Lublin and Otwock, for example. 

I later looked them up online and found that the histories of each are punctuated by stories of roundups, murders and deportations during World War II — not to mention betrayals by non-Jewish Poles turning in their Jewish neighbors to authorities.

Similar yet lesser-known histories haunt other countries, but the reckoning in those locales has been slower to come. That fact partly undergirds Nina Siegal’s The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It.

Siegal, a New York-born journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, presents readers with translated excerpts from journals penned principally by seven Dutch diarists, tracking their lives as the five-year (1940-45) German occupation unfolded. The diaries are part of a collection of thousands of journals gathered by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam.

This moving and often riveting book is a revelation, providing a glimpse into life under Nazi occupation. At once epic and intimate, it merits comparison to Marcel Ophuls’ classic 1969 documentary about life in occupied France,  « The Sorrow and the Pity, » which recently had a revival in New York City. 

Personal depictions of war are both timely and urgent, for war tells us something about the human condition.

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Siegal’s diarists include a Dutch general store owner who joined the resistance and helped hide and protect Jewish citizens, two Dutch Nazi sympathizers and a Jewish journalist who meticulously recorded the day-to-day life in a transit camp where Dutch Jews were held before being sent off to their deaths in locales like Auschwitz. (Siegal made a conscious choice not to include excerpts from worthy but already-published and well-known diaries, such as that of Anne Frank.)

Interspersed with these narratives are Siegal’s able historical context for the journals and her own personal reflections. Siegal herself is a « second-generation » Holocaust survivor, who wondered why talk of her Czech grandfather’s life before immigrating to the United States was often met with uneasy silence.

The personal is important here — but so is the greater, wider context of wartime (and postwar) Dutch history.

There is not any single answer as to why German forces rather easily occupied the Netherlands despite initial courageous resistance by Jews and non-Jews, including urban workers. One answer may be that the city of Rotterdam was largely leveled by German bombing, and the Dutch capitulated out of fears of further destruction, a view argued in an arresting 35-minute colorized video of the occupation’s early days available on YouTube

Of course, there was the very real fear factor. The war was not merely a military conflict, Siegal notes, but its « ideological violence played out in urban centers, in public squares, on public transportation, and inside businesses and homes. Often, it was characterized by civilian betrayals among neighbors, even within families. » 

Another key element was the complicity of Dutch authorities and what one observer describes as « the ferocious hunt for Jews. » A Dutch historian told Siegal that a majority of the Amsterdam police participated in roundups. Postwar testimony indicated that « not even ten percent of the country’s Jews would have been captured » without the involvement of the Dutch police.

The numbers are certainly damning: Nearly three-quarters of the Dutch Jewish population perished in the Holocaust — one of the highest percentages in all of Europe, edging close to Poland’s astonishing 90%.

This fact goes against what for years was the accepted postwar narrative in Holland: that the Dutch bravely resisted the German occupiers and helped Jewish neighbors, like Anne Frank’s family. 

That uneasiness — a kind of cultural dissonance — is something that Jewish residents in the Netherlands feel keenly. 

« Something was deeply troubling about Jewish life in the Netherlands, » Siegal writes.

A fellow New Yorker living in Amsterdam agreed, telling Siegal: « They say that the Dutch Jews are still in hiding. » (Siegal, though, commends recent Dutch efforts to grapple with the past, such as establishing a striking Holocaust memorial in Amsterdam.)

Some gentiles did display courage, as attested by the diary entries of general store owner Elisabeth van Lohuizen in the town of Epe. Van Lohuizen was aware of the risks she and friends and family were taking in hiding Jewish residents. But she remained steadfast, drawing from her own Liberal Dutch Reformed Calvinist faith for sustenance. (She and her family were later honored in Israel as « Righteous Among the Nations. ») 

Van Lohuizen wrote in July 1942 of the deportations to Poland: « Why, oh why, do they bring such tremendous suffering to this group of God’s children? » Later that month she wrote that Jewish lives « are just as valuable as ours; we must help, and not be afraid. » 

Such empathy is in marked contrast to other diarists. One is Douwe Bakker, a zealous anti-Semite and an ambitious Amsterdam police detective intent on pleasing his German overseers. In speaking of early violent Jewish resistance, Bakker wrote of « hundreds of mad Jews » and « the horde of Jewish beasts. »  

But for me what lingers in the memory is not Bakker’s mocking and bigoted bravado but the entries of Inge Jansen, the pseudonym for a Dutch socialite married to a physician eager to ingratiate himself with the Nazi medical establishment. Her entries — recording a life of social engagements, teas and a kind of hazy wartime languor — hint of the sad vacuity and emptiness of a life spent among the German occupiers.

By contrast, the moral center of the book, aside from the entries of van Lohuizen, is the painfully etched testimony of Philip Mechanicus, a Jewish journalist who chronicled life at the Westerbork transit camp in northeastern Holland. 

Mechanicus’ wife, who was not Jewish, survived the war. Mechanicus did not. Forced to leave Westerbork in March 1944, he eventually perished at Auschwitz.

His diaries were once available in English in a single volume, though they have long been out of print. So we owe thanks to Siegal for reviving attention to Mechanicus’ achievement: the brave witness of a gifted journalist who wrote movingly and gracefully about probing existential concerns as well as the small details of camp life.

« Whoever has the courage to look life in the eyes must also have the courage to face death, » Mechanicus wrote in July 1943. 

Later in the year, he said it was his calling « to record the daily goings on here for those in the future who will want to have a picture of what happened here. That’s why I have a duty to continue writing. »

Hope against hope. Mechanicus’s death and his disappearance from Siegal’s narrative, about three-quarters through a 500+-page book, is achingly felt.

That says something about the diary form; the way in which a reader can discover both the trivialities and grandeur of a life without layers of accrual. But as Siegal wisely argues, diarists always engage in some filtering. « Diaries should be read as a first draft of memory, » she notes.

A diarist, Siegal adds, has only « begun the process of selecting moments to record, and thereby, remember. These moments have been plucked like leaves from a relentless, rushing current. »

Private Notebooks: 1914-1916

Ludwig Wittgenstein, translated by Marjorie Perloff

240 pages; Liveright


Of course, the calamity that began in the Netherlands in 1940 began decades before World War II — rooted in the war that preceded it. 

Here it is useful to step back a bit: The recently published English translation of the wartime notebooks of the eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who served in the Austrian army in World War I, chronicles how a sensitive soul survived the war’s brutalities.

Much of Wittgenstein’s journal, translated by scholar Marjorie Perloff, deals with mundane day-to-day matters, as well as veiled references to the young scholar’s homosexuality. But Wittgenstein’s reflections on being an infantryman on the Russian front grapple with the persistent themes posed by the experience of war.

Though he came from a prominent Jewish family, Wittgenstein was baptized and raised Catholic, and there are many references to the intersection of war and faith. « We’re being shelled, » he wrote in July 1916. « And at every shot, my soul contracts. » 

« All Quiet on the Western Front »

Directed by Edward Berger


Similar terrors are graphically portrayed in the recent adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front. The film recently won the Oscar for best international feature film and can be streamed on Netflix, a fine way to understand the brutalized and nihilistic landscape that set the stage for what unfolded in Europe in the 1930s. 

Though the film has been criticized for taking liberties with Remarque’s original narrative, its depictions of trench warfare — violent but, to my eyes, not gratuitous — probably cannot be equaled.

Such depictions are both timely and urgent. Who would have thought that on the same continent as the World War I Western Front, trench warfare is once again, in the year 2023, a reality — this time in Ukraine. Then and now, war sadly tells us something about the human condition.

« It is so strange to be a human being, » van Lohuizen wrote in November 1944. « Your friends gone, and they are suffering under such terrible circumstances, and yet you continue to live. »

« Sometimes, I just can’t see any light, yet you must continue to hope and believe, in order not to sink into despair. »

Vie de l'église

Pope Francis taps ‘bishop of the peripheries’ to lead his hometown of Buenos Aires

 Pope Francis on May 26 named Bishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva — a relatively unknown 55-year-old prelate from a tiny diocese at the bottom of Argentina — to lead his hometown of Buenos Aires.

García Cuerva, who has a long history in prison ministry and working with marginalized populations, has been the bishop of Rio Gallegos, Argentina, since 2019. He will succeed Cardinal Mario Aurelio Poli, who the pope appointed to fill his own shoes as archbishop of Buenos Aires, following Francis’ election to the papacy in 2013. 

Poli, 75, will remain eligible to participate in a papal conclave until his 80th birthday.  

García Cuerva is now set to lead the country’s largest Catholic diocese, home to some 2.7 million Catholics, for potentially more than two decades.

Born in Rio Gallegos, in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz, García Cuerva moved to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires for his university studies. Soon thereafter, he pursued a vocation to the Catholic priesthood following missionary work in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. 

In 1997, García Cuerva was ordained a priest of Buenos Aires Archdiocese and holds degrees in civil law, canon law and theology. Prior to returning to lead his hometown diocese in 2019, he served as an auxiliary bishop in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina. 

Cuerva currently serves as the director Episcopal Conference of Latin America’s Prison Ministry without Borders program, is a previous member of the National Commission on Drug Dependence of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina and was the vice president of Caritas Argentina from 2012-2017.  

In July 2021, Pope Francis appointed him as a member of the influential Dicastery for Bishops, the Vatican department responsible for advising the pope on the selection of bishops around the world. 

Following that appointment, in a 2021 interview, he described what characteristics he would look for in potential candidates in his new role. 

« Pope Francis, in a simple but very graphic way, presents the profile of the bishop that the church needs when he says that he wants a church that is going out, a poor church for the poor, bishops who are close to the people, bishops who are close to Jesus in prayer, and close to the priests who are their first neighbors, shepherds with the smell of sheep, close to the suffering of our people, » said García Cuerva. 

In his first speech following his election as pope in 2013, Francis joked that: « You all know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him. »

By selecting García Cuerva, a self-described « bishop of the peripheries » who hails from Argentina’s remote southern province of Santa Cruz, it seems the pope has followed a similar course for his hometown. 

In a similar move earlier this year, Francis — who has now been pope for ten years — made an equally surprising pick in naming the 51-year old Bishop Frank Leo to succeed Cardinal Thomas Collins as Archbishop of Toronto. The selection of the youthful Leo to lead Canada’s largest Catholic diocese was widely-viewed as a legacy appointment in North America.

The 86-year-old Francis will also have the opportunity to radically reshape the U.S. hierarchy in the next two years, with 13 archdioceses and over 20 dioceses needing new bishops by 2025. 

In addition to taking over the reins of the massive diocese of Buenos Aires, García Cuerva may find himself with the extra responsibility of overseeing a much anticipated homecoming of Francis next year.  

On May 25, just one day prior to García Cuerva’s appointment, Francis told a group of young people that he hopes to make his first ever return to Argentina since being elected pope in 2013.

« My idea is to go next year, » said the pope. « We’ll see if we can. »

Vie de l'église

Smartphones and social media are not the problem. Unplugging and banning are not the solution.

With every major societal change and technological innovation comes growing pains, and something as paradigm-defining as the advent of social media is no exception.

Think about it — not only do you have the near entirety of human knowledge contained within a small rectangle that fits in your pocket — but now you can connect with the majority of every currently living human being in the world, at the tap of a screen. Of course, such a prospect is overwhelming.

In light of that, one could almost understand why some people, particularly a small but vocal minority of young adults who do not know a world without the internet, might want to cut the cord and swear off social media.

However, I was deeply disturbed to read about a new scholarship at the conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, that encourages the practice of unplugging, to the tune of $5,000.

It’s not that idea of unplugging that disturbs me, nor is it the notion of needing a break from the constant bombardment of advertisements, political hot takes and disingenuous influencers. Instead, I am dumbfounded that an institute for higher learning would actively encourage its students to accept fear over knowledge, to run away and hide from the world, and to cede social media to the problematic forces of greed and narcissism that currently inhabit it.

I do not doubt the problematic aspects of smartphones and social media brought up by the students: Constant notifications make it hard to focus on the present moment, algorithms force us into thought bubbles of confirmation bias, and social media anonymity can tempt even the best of us into saying unkind things online.

Shouldn’t a college, particularly a Catholic school, prepare its students to use these tools sustainably and faithfully, rather than encourage them to retreat back into the metaphorical cave?

Taking a sabbatical from smartphones could be a helpful way for the students at Franciscan University to focus on their studies and be more present to the short, fleeting years of college. But it can also be a coping mechanism of avoidance, encouraging students to hide away from or, worse, demonize the realities of the digital world.

Unless every student in the program is going into cloistered religious life, sooner or later, they will be confronted with the realities of digital media. When they do, they may find that they are unprepared for life in the modern age.

Instead of offering an « Unplugged Scholarship, » wouldn’t it be more effective to offer digital media classes, teaching students how these platforms work, what some of their more sinister or ulterior motives are and how to navigate them? What about a class on how these platforms are being used for good, for community, for inclusivity; and how Catholics can be the definitive models for that behavior?

It seems trendy to blame social media for the major problems of society — the rising rate of mental illness in young people, the increase of violence and the proliferation of hate groups, to name a few. No doubt social media has contributed to shedding light on these real and pressing challenges.

Even our government has selected social media to be the boogeyman du jour. Four senators introduced a bipartisan bill on April 26 that would, among other things, prohibit kids under 13 being on social media, require parental consent, and prohibit algorithms for kids age 13-17.

This is not going to work — and not just because teenagers know their way around the internet better than you or I. This isn’t going to work in the long term because it’s an abrogation of personal responsibility on every level. An outright ban doesn’t encourage parents to teach, model or practice sustainable social media use. A ban doesn’t hold big tech accountable for their platforms and put the onus on multibillion dollar corporations to change. Banning children doesn’t prevent the expansion of hate speech.

A ban doesn’t solve the problems ailing social media, it exacerbates them and it sets our kids up for failure. If no meaningful change comes to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or YouTube, kids will arrive on them at 17 unprepared, uneducated and vulnerable.

What’s worse, the proposed law is effectively an acknowledgement that social media is an inherently bad thing, and it removes it as a tool to reach people, peacefully organize, form community and interact with the world. 

Digital media is a gift from God. It offers opportunities for encounter, accompaniment and evangelization. It allows us the opportunity to get outside of our comfort zone and confront the lived realities of others in different cultural or economic settings. It allows us to help someone experiencing tragedy, or celebrate another’s triumph. It offers opportunities for connection and communion.

Blaming social media or smartphones for society’s or the church’s problems is akin to blaming an MRI machine for a cancer diagnosis or a flashlight for shedding light on our challenges. It is an easy way to diffuse responsibility to a faceless entity, shift blame to the whistleblower and not look in the mirror and say, « I am part of the problem. »

Social media is not responsible for the vitriol of Catholic Twitter — Catholic tweeters are. Streaming Mass on Facebook is not the reason people aren’t going to Mass — uninspired liturgy, poor homilies and unwelcoming clergy are. Smartphones are not the only reason teenagers are experiencing an increase in anxiety — crippling societal angst about a half dozen issues like climate change, gun control and income inequality are responsible.

Social media and smartphones are not the problem — the way we behave on them is. It’s time we took ownership of that, took a step back and learned how to use these tremendous gifts in service of our common mission as Catholics and fellow humans.

Social media is a vocation that not everyone is called to, but that conclusion can only be arrived after careful discernment. Instead of running away from social media, and unplugging from smartphones entirely, as the students are being encouraged to do at Franciscan University, we need to learn how to live with and effectively use these tools.

Vie de l'église

Laudato Trees planting program enlists Catholic properties to help increase DC’s canopy

Editor’s note: This story is part of « Growing a Green Church, » an ongoing series focused on churches’ efforts to steward their buildings and land effectively in the context of a changing climate. The project is produced in collaboration with The Christian Century, Episcopal News Service, Faithfully Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, and Sojourners, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network and funding from the Fetzer Institute. Find more stories in the series here.

As the school year sets at St. Thomas More Academy in southeastern Washington, D.C., students spring into action for a day of tree-tending.

Eighth graders at the Catholic elementary school swap books and computers for shovels, rakes and hoses and head outside to tend to the more than six dozen growing trees around their campus. They remove old mulch, add some new, and water each of the trees.

The experience is now an annual service project for the eighth grade class, said principal Gerald Smith. « For us to get out and learn about the trees. » And also to connect science with faith and the Christian duty to care for all of creation. 

The trees, too, have added beauty and shade to a part of the nation’s capital with limited green spaces.

« Our students have taken a lot of pride in that work around building a care for our campus, » he said. « So I think that it has really done wonders for us, to extend the learning from inside of the school building to outside as well. »

The roughly 80 trees taking root at St. Thomas More are the result of a collaboration among several D.C.-area organizations. Together, the groups have planted tens of thousands of trees as they’ve embarked on a mission to increase the district’s tree cover at a time when development poses a continuing threat to existing green spaces.

One of the groups, Laudato Trees — a play on the name of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical « Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home » — has sought out Catholic locations to plant American beeches and chestnut oaks alongside other native and well-adapted species, seeing potential in the church’s expansive property footprint in the nation’s capital. 

The trees are free to the institutions, with the costs covered through local partnering nonprofits, including Casey Trees and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.

In 2021, Laudato Trees formed as a volunteer team of five lay Catholics looking to use tree planting as a way to more deeply ingrain Laudato Si’ and church teachings around environmental justice across the Washington Archdiocese. While not an official archdiocesan program, the Laudato Trees group has the support of the local church, and several of its members are part of the archdiocesan Care for Creation Committee.

« Pope Francis talks about an ecological conversion. And I see this as a step on that path for a parish to take. It’s easy, it doesn’t require capital, it’s highly visible, and the parishes tend to get excited about it, » said Philip Downey, a founder of Laudato Trees and member of the archdiocesan creation care committee, as well as the one at his home parish, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Growth in the DC church

The Laudato Trees team links prospective planting sites with arborists and tree-growing organizations. Within D.C. boundaries, that has come through Casey Trees, which has an endowment to grow trees in the district on private land at no cost to landowners. 

For church properties in the Maryland counties within the archdiocese, Laudato Trees has worked with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, whose Trees for Sacred Places program has planted more than 20,0000 trees. Through grant funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the program covers the costs, which can range upward of $100 per tree.

To date, Laudato Trees has planted 583 trees at approximately 29 Catholic-owned properties, and has coordinated planting roughly 240 more trees at 15 additional sites later this year. That puts it in striking distance of its goal to add 1,000 trees in the district and five-county region of the archdiocese, which is home to 139 parishes, 90 schools and dozens more church ministries and organizations.

Said Downey, « We just started calling parishes and it was a pretty simple pitch: Hey, we’re the Laudato Trees team, and would you like some free trees planted in your parish property? »

So far, the Laudato Trees team has reached out to 80 parishes, a dozen schools and 43 other Catholic organizations. It usually starts with an email, then a follow-up phone call to explain the program and gauge interest. Downey describes it as « a process of persistence. »

When a parish or church group is open to the idea, an arborist visits the site to make recommendations on where, how many and which types of trees to plant. Once the parish or organization approves the plan, a planting day is scheduled and the trees — typically 6 feet tall — often are planted with the assistance of parishioners and students. 

Casey Trees encourages growing medium- and large-sized trees in order to maximize the environmental and social benefits. The number of trees a property can plant varies widely, said Vince Drader, Casey Trees director of communications and development. Churches typically take 10-30 trees, while larger properties like Mount Olivet Cemetery planted more than 1,000.

In March, students at Elizabeth Seton High School, in Bladensburg, Maryland, took part in tree planting as part of a service day. Each of the 20 trees was « adopted » by a student’s family, who committed to caring for the tree until it is fully grown. 

Daughter of Charity Sr. Mary Frances Hildenberger, a member of the advancement team at Seton, told EarthBeat that the day was part of a wider focus at the school on integral ecology — both in adding it into curricula and in taking part in the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform.

« Yes, I do believe that the tree planting has led to a growing awareness of environmental concerns and the reality that everything is interconnected, » she told EarthBeat.

It was reading Laudato Si’ that brought Downey back to the Catholic Church. In his return, the now-retired urban planner and developer thought about all the land owned by faith-based institutions in the archdiocese and the issues he saw with how it was being used, especially in light of human-driven climate change: « not enough trees, large lawns, huge parking lots used once a week, stormwater runoff issues, no solar panels. »

He wondered, « Is there anything we can do here that would essentially motivate parishes to try and take action? »

He decided to start with trees.

Trees do more than spruce up a city’s appearance. They also bring benefits for community health and the local environment. Studies have found the positive health benefits of trees include reducing stress, boosting immune systems, improving mental health and even reducing crime.

Trees filter the air, absorb heat-trapping carbon pollution from the atmosphere, capture rainwater and help mitigate flooding, and provide habitats for animal species. 

Trees also cool temperatures — an especially critical trait in cities where the urban heat island effect exacerbates health issues as paved roads and concrete buildings retain and radiate large levels of heat. Often, that heat is felt disproportionately in different areas of a city, as is the case in D.C., where temperatures in its northeast can be as much as 16 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the rest of the city, according to findings from a 2018 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Identifying ways to keep cities cool, with 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, becomes increasingly important as climate change drives temperatures higher. Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University whose research team pioneered the NOAA heat island mapping studies, said they have shown areas with greater canopy coverage have reduced temperatures. 

As more and more cities plan to expand green spaces, location as much as quantity matters in how effective trees are.

« If our goal is to reduce temperatures, there are really strategic places and strategic placements of trees that would allow it to really provide the greatest benefit, » Shandas told EarthBeat.

Challenges to developing DC tree canopy

The nation’s capital has a deep-rooted history with trees. Tourists and locals flock each spring to the Tidal Basin for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, and as far back as the 1800s, Washington, D.C., garnered the nickname « the City of Trees » for the thousands that lined its streets. As of 1950, tree canopy covered half of the district’s map.

But by 2001, tree canopy coverage had dropped to roughly 35%. A 1999 article in The Washington Post highlighted the problem and caught the eye of Betty Brown Casey, a longtime resident who formed Casey Trees two years later with the goal of reversing the trend by growing large canopy and native trees throughout the district.

On Earth Day this year, Casey Trees planted its 50,000th tree in Ward 8’s Fort Stanton Park. It planted more than 5,000 in 2022 and is on track to eclipse 6,000 trees in 2023, all toward its overall goal of 40% tree canopy cover in Washington by 2032, and 8,600 newly planted trees annually. 

The District of Columbia, which today counts upward of 2 million trees, has set its own canopy goal of 10,500 trees planted each year, and the Maryland Legislature in 2021 passed a bill calling for the planting and maintaining of 5 million trees by 2031, with at least 500,000 sited in underserved urban communities.

While it looks to plant at all Catholic properties, Laudato Trees and its partners have used the city’s heat island map to identify places where new trees can have the greatest impact. That’s in part what led it to St. Thomas More Academy.

The principal, Smith, said that southeast D.C. lacks many green spaces. « So for providing access for shaded spaces, but also access to these green spaces for not just leisure, but to bring beauty to the area, was very, very important to us, » he told EarthBeat.

Like heat, trees in the capital are also unevenly distributed, with greater canopy coverage in the western and northwestern parts of the city, according to a 2017 U.S. Forest Service study. Wealthy areas had greater canopy coverage, and while impoverished neighborhoods saw higher rates of new plantings, they also experienced more tree loss.

Studies on the effectiveness of tree planting on reducing the heat island effect are still emerging, Shandas said, but attention has picked up as more cities and leaders have turned to trees as a cooling response to extreme heat. 

Results take time, up to 10-20 years, for the real effects of tree planting on temperature to be measured, he explained. From his own studies using satellite imagery, infrared cameras and air temperature sensors, he has found that trees planted near sidewalks or buildings can cool temperatures roughly 1 degree each year as they grow.

« This is all just really emerging work, but we know from the computational models, from historical analysis of tree planting, that many of these cities have had clear results as a consequence of planting trees in their properties, » Shandas said. 

In Brookland — nicknamed « Little Rome » as the home to Catholic University of America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and numerous other Catholic churches and monasteries — temperatures can be as much as 10-15 F hotter than in the Rock Creek Park, an affluent neighborhood in northwest D.C.

Over the past four years, the Washington Retreat House in Brookland has planted 50 trees on its property, through city programs that provide discounts on water bills, as well as with the Laudato Trees program.

« It does give a witness to other people, I think, if they know that it’s not just a landscaping project but it is something to help provide for those who will come after us to support the common good, » said Adorer of the Precious Blood Sr. Sara Dwyer, director of the Franciscan retreat house.

Dwyer told EarthBeat that mitigating the urban heat island effect was one of the motivations of adding trees to the property. Green spaces are important not just for health and environmental reasons, she said, « but also for this peace of mind to help people stay grounded and aware of Earth. » 

But maintaining those spaces is becoming increasingly challenging in Brookland, she added, as trees are torn down and replaced with new housing units and office buildings.

Casey Trees’ 2022 Tree Report Card found that 1% of tree canopy, or 565 acres, was lost in D.C. between 2015 and 2020. That occurred despite the city exceeding its planting goal of 10,500 new trees last year by planting 12,111 trees.

« Really, the biggest challenge to trees in the city is the constant threat of development, » Drader said.

The population in D.C. grew 17% from April 2010 to July 2019, a rate faster than any other state or U.S. territory, according to U.S. Census data. After a small dip during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the population is again trending upward

Following the population growth are investment dollars, with the Washington region leading the nation in overall investment, per a February analysis by the Urban Institute.

Along with development, city settings pose other obstacles to tree growth. On site visits, arborists with Casey Trees assess the location of power lines and utility lines above and below ground to avoid growing limbs and roots causing future problems. Special care is also needed to not disturb building foundations or cemeteries, some of which date back to colonial times. Traffic must also be factored into tree spotting.

« But those pale in comparison to the trees and land being lost to construction and development, » Drader said.

Ongoing commitment to creation care

Buy-in and maintenance can also be challenges, Drader said. The team at Casey Trees completes a tree care agreement with each of their sites that provides instructions on watering — young trees require 1.5 inches of rainfall or 25 gallons of water weekly during their first three years of life — and other steps to help the trees grow to full maturity. Weekly watering alerts are sent throughout the summer, and Casey Trees leads programs to teach about the importance of trees and how to care for them.

For the places it plants, Casey Trees provides three years of maintenance, including pruning and, if necessary, replacement. For parishes and Catholic properties outside D.C. in Maryland, maintenance is the sole responsibility of the property.

A benefit of working with faith-based organizations is there often is a group ready to take the lead on tree care, Drader said. From the Catholic groups he has approached, Downey has found tree plantings can open conversations about other ways their properties can be used — whether through solar power, energy efficiency or permeable parking lots — to benefit the environment.

« It’s a whole new level of consciousness that I think Pope Francis is talking about when he talks about ecological conversion, » Downey said. « So the question is, ‘Okay, if that’s our mandate, how can we be the best stewards of all this land? How can the land essentially help heal our ecological systems?’ « 

At Thomas More Academy, the trees have raised attention around church teaching on creation care, Smith said. The faculty are exploring ways to incorporate them, as well as a new bioretention system, into the curriculum. One idea is to add plaques to identify the trees and provide additional information.

Ian Mitchell, director of the Washington Archdiocese’s office for social concerns, said that Laudato Trees offers a great example of how everyday Catholics can take the lead in implementing the archdiocese’s Laudato Si’ Action Plan.

« It’s a good partnership. It’s a good example of Catholics using their initiative to come to the service of both the church and our city and our region, » he said.

Partnerships with nonprofits like Casey Trees and Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake have been crucial to the success of Laudato Trees, Downey added. Groups like Trees Atlanta, Sacramento Tree Foundation and the Cleveland Tree Coalition operate with similar missions across the country. 

The Laudato Trees team continues to reach out to new Catholic parishes and organizations, as well as follow up with past ones and engage conversations with other denominations, including synagogues and Methodist and Baptist churches. Already, it has arranged 29 tree plantings with other religious traditions and has another 100 in the queue. As they do more outreach in Maryland, Downey said they’ll have to identify new sources of funding along with arborists. 

The onetime urban planner, who earlier this year received the Canopy Award for Volunteer Service from Casey Trees, anticipates the Laudato Trees team will hit their 1,000 trees goal by the end of the year. And from there, they plan to keep growing.

« And then we’ll see how many more we can do. »

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Vie de l'église

Why parish pro-life efforts need to focus closer to home

When I was pregnant, I lost count of the number of times I would lumber through a parking lot or out of a store, only to be cut off by someone rushing to pass me or whizz by me in their car, pregnant belly be damned. (The Venn diagram of « cars who almost hit a pregnant lady » and « cars with an overly political pro-life bumper sticker » was almost a circle.) It even happened at Mass at various parishes, where I almost got bowled over in the post-Mass rush out.

It’s true to say that there is a lack of pro-life culture in our society, but not in the polarized way you might think: I have simply found that few people think about what it means to be pro-life beyond the issue of abortion, and what it looks like to welcome life in all of its forms. 

What do we do to ensure that pregnant women and families are celebrated and accommodated for? How do we avoid the deification of procreation, knowing that other women might be suffering in silence, and honor the woman herself not just as a vessel for childbearing? These questions resonated in my heart throughout my pregnancy and thereafter, but I know it is not as simple as a list of action items: It is a choice of culture. 

I worried that our daughter’s experiences of Mass would be a horror story in the same vein. Too many times in my personal and professional life, I had heard or experienced the ways the church — which we had both served for our entire careers — turns people away in the most significant gateway moments.

All of our fears were put to rest by a parish committed to being truly and holistically pro-life and pro-family. When we reached out to our pastor, a good friend of ours, to say we would be bringing Rosie to Mass on Palm Sunday (one of the craziest days of the liturgical year!), he offered the use of his residence to arrive early and feed the baby in a comfortable and quiet setting away from prying eyes and distractions. He encouraged us to make ourselves comfortable and take our time acclimating her. The four clergy who reside there welcomed us with open arms and cries of delight to meet the baby, taking turns holding her so we could get settled. 

All around our pew during Mass, people waved at Rosie or approached us to compliment her. I admit that I often found myself bracing for a conflict, because of how common it is to have (perhaps well-meaning, perhaps not) parishioners, often much older than me, make snide comments about noisy children or about young people showing up to Mass. Thanks be to God, we were spared this! 

This is not just a love letter to my parish or a celebration of our friend who is a priest, tempting though that is. What is the most disconcerting part of what should be a happy testimony is the reality that this experience is all too rare.

It made me reflect about how many parishes trot out their « pro-life » materials in October, and around the March for Life, but do not truly express a celebration for life in its daily, messy, lived-in form? How many anecdotes have we heard of priests making comments about children’s sounds, or relegating families to a cry room, where ancient dirty toys and flimsy folding chairs hardly create a prayerful atmosphere for a family with children to worship? I fully believe parents should not abdicate responsibility for their children at Mass, but even the best soothing and discipline can fail in the face of a child still learning to moderate their feelings and volume. 

How often are young adults who slide into a pew greeted with tone-deaf comments about the lack of young people in church, but no space is made for them at the proverbial table to engage and lead? Can’t be surprised, then, when they don’t come back for Mass, let alone to be married or to baptize their children. 

I would challenge a pastor or parish staff claiming hospitality as their parish’s cardinal virtue to invite someone they trust to attend Mass anonymously at the parish as a case study: What is the lived experience, and is it truly hospitable? 

A few weeks after Rosie’s attendance at Mass for Palm Sunday and Easter, my husband and I returned to our parish (sans baby, who spent a fun night with her grandparents) to celebrate our pastor’s elevation to monsignor. Settling into the pew without a diaper bag, car seat, and dozens of burp cloths, I was able to look closely at the readings, music and paraphernalia in the pew advertising the happenings of the parish. In every pew, a card from Loyola Press had been added, entitled « All Are Welcome: How to Be A Church of Open Doors. » It identified that newcomers and people with various needs and abilities might join your parish, with some suggestions of how to be more inclusive and accommodating so that all could participate in worship together.

I found myself choking up, thinking about the value of feeling welcome. Whether your child has special needs and you wish to bring them to worship, or whether you have fallen on hard times and need to feel the closeness of community, your parish should be the first place that opens its arms to you. This is what it means to be truly pro-life and pro-family, not some billboard hawking a political stance, but a way of being that transcends the polarized.  

While our good experience is due in no small part to our professional and personal relationships, and discerning spirits in choosing the « right » parish for the job, all Catholic families of every makeup deserve the same. We need, and deserve, a church where there are fewer horror stories of the experiences of pregnant women and young families, and more celebrations of moments that express that all are truly welcome.

Vie de l'église

Anger management and guns

The statistics are numbing. The United States suffered 202 mass shootings — four or more persons killed or injured by firearms — during the first six months of 2023. Texas has had 17 mass shootings and 214 gun violence deaths so far this year. Most estimates count more weapons than people throughout the country.

Some folks blame mental health issues for every shooting. But what mental health condition? Paranoid psychosis? Sociopathic behavior? Depression? Bipolar disorder?

Perhaps the crucial ingredient is anger. Anger, at whom or at what, is for the psychiatrists to determine. But anger is clearly at the root of it all.

Anger-plus-gun equals tragedy.

So, what causes anger?

Yes, some people, with or without drugs, are detached from reality. Their anger erupts without warning.

More people, it seems, are infected with anger by an imagined reality that threatens their understanding of safety. While not every gun owner is paranoid, not every gun owner is not paranoid.

Selling anger and fear is big business. We saw what happened when QAnon exploded on the internet. Add Truth Social, Fox News and Newsmax to smaller outlets, like The Tennessee Star and NewBostonPost, and you have an electronic cauldron ready to boil over. Who, after all, can forget Jan. 6?

Anger-plus-fear-plus-guns destroys too many lives. Whether for random shootings or the horror of war, individuals or entire nations are picking up guns to solve their real or imagined disputes.

Pope Francis seems to be the only stable voice in the discussion. The normalization of guns, he told The Associated Press after a gunman killed 11 people in Monterey Park, California, in January, has led to a « habit » of resorting to guns for every difficulty. « Instead of making the effort to help us live, » said the pontiff, « we make the effort to help us kill. »

That habit is ruining civilized society and societies everywhere in the world. Normal conversation, let alone international negotiation, is virtually impossible.

In the United States, people have a particular fondness for guns, born of distortions of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. These distortions are proposed principally by the National Rifle Association and echoed by the politicians the organization supports financially.

The problem stretches far beyond rifles and pistols for sport. The AR-15 semiautomatic rifle is the mass shooter’s weapon of choice. Want one? Today, you can find some 250 AR-15-style rifles for sale on the internet by an online retailer based in Texas. Prices range from $449 to $1,749; financing available.

The NRA calls the AR-15 « America’s Rifle. » The name of the NRA’s official journal is « American Rifleman. »

Granted, some people in some states have reasons for guns — say, to shoot the menacing moose in the garden or as a real means of protection on a frozen tundra or a rural farm.

But many, if not most, states and certainly most cities should not suffer individuals wandering around with guns in their belts, and certainly not with AR-15s.

New York’s historical relationship with the NRA is perhaps instructive. In the late 19th century, the state’s Legislature and the NRA joined to acquire some 70 acres of farmland along a rail line in Queens to create a firing range. The property, the old Creed farm, was the site of international competitions until 1891. Neighbors complained so much, the NRA relocated to New Jersey, and the property eventually reverted to the state of New York.

The train stop for the property had cemented the name of the place: Creed’s moor, or Creedmoor. Soon a state hospital took over the property.

The irony is unmistakable. Today, that former NRA firing range is the campus of the largest hospital in New York, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.

Vie de l'église

I am with you always

“Why do you stand here looking up at the sky?” (Acts 1:11).

The Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

It has been said that life is like a sentence; we do not know its full meaning until the last word has been said. This gives us some perspective on the central theme of today’s Scripture readings. Only when Jesus has departed from history do his disciples begin to understand his mission as it is transferred to them.  His Ascension begins their retreat as they await the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Jesus’ physical absence from history thrusts the mystery of his continued presence through the Holy Spirit into the faith community. We are now the body of Christ, the church in the world. The Eucharist we celebrate on this Lord’s Day is the memorial that « re-members » Jesus as the head of the body, united to us as incorporated into him by baptism. 

The Acts of the Apostles visualizes Jesus’ departure as a literal ascension like that of Elijah the Prophet, taken up into the sky in a fiery chariot. And just as Elisha, his successor, received his mantle and a double portion of his spirit, so Jesus’ disciples receive the mind of the risen Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the disciples being sent to evangelize the world.

At a Catholic Worker retreat years ago, Franciscan Sister Jan Cebula offered this thought on the readings for the Ascension. “Most young people leave home to grow up. But in the case of the church, it is Jesus who has to leave so we will grow up.” Unless he departs, we will focus all our expectations on him.

This is what the angels warn the disciples standing there looking up at the sky when Jesus disappeared. Why do you stand here? He has gone ahead of you into the world. You will find him there, especially among the poor, the crucified of history. He is counting on you to be his hands, his face, his voice, his healing and forgiving presence to a wounded world. Be the one you are waiting for. Now is your time. Receive the Holy Spirit. Don’t be afraid. Be the church. Be Christ to the world!

If Jesus is the last word of history, we are the question that drives his message through time toward its fulfillment: What difference does it make that we are baptized in Christ and animated by his Holy Spirit? Is our mission to create shrines where we gaze upward and await his return? No. Living the question is the meaning of our discipleship and the focus of our prayers. The tension between the kingdom that is both here and not yet is the arena in which we will fulfill our mission to transform the world.

Our retreat begins today. We are invited to pray with all our being, personal and communal:  « Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. »

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