Vie de l'église

The US bishops are meeting in June. Synodality is not on the agenda.

In two weeks, the U.S. bishops’ conference will hold its spring plenary in Orlando, Florida. One never knows what to expect from these June meetings. Many bishops do not attend the spring meeting, and the schedule is much less intense than the schedule for the November plenary. Orlando has many distractions. I doubt some bishops would visit Disney World, but more than a few would be right at home on Space Mountain.

The press release announcing the meeting lists several updates the bishops will receive, including the Eucharistic Congress and World Youth Day in Portugal this August. The most controversial item is likely a revision of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, but I worry more about the plan for the ongoing formation of priests, which I am told is a disaster.

The bishops will discuss a « National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, » which is a topic of great urgency given the recent Pew Research Center survey that showed a continued decline in the number of Latinos who identify as Catholic. And the press release says the bishops will discuss « the priorities that will shape the USCCB’s Strategic Plan for 2025-2028. » The current strategic plan is remarkable for its lack of engagement with the pontificate of Pope Francis: There is nothing about care for creation nor about the urgency of the worldwide migrant crisis. There is the continued confusion between evangelization and apologetics that is the hallmark of a kind of U.S. bishop epitomized by Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is mentioned, but they have been forced to cut back on their grants even while outside money funds the Eucharistic Congress.

Notice anything missing from the press release announcing next month’s meeting? There is not a single mention of the ongoing synod. Not one mention. The most consequential development in ecclesiology since the close of Vatican II, and no one who looked at the press release said to themselves: « Hey, wait a minute. What about synodality? »

In March, synodality was the focus of a gathering of bishops, theologians and other church leaders held at Boston College. Full disclosure: I was one of the organizers of the gathering. There was no shortage of questions about the process, no lack of interest in the topic. The most common refrain I heard from bishops at the conference’s conclusion was that they thought they had a better understanding of synodality as a result of the discussions. What is more, I believe that this synodal process is the only avenue that promises a possibility of addressing and eventually overcoming the polarizations that afflict the Catholic Church in this country.

To be fair, the bishops’ conference is not the only church group pursuing an agenda that has little to do with synodality. The program for June’s annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America will feature talks on many and varied topics. Parts of the program read like a ChatGPT caricature of wokeness, such as this description of one session: « there is a pressing need to explore the theological and pastoral insights that arise from attending to the interlocking layers of oppression and life-threatening experiences that queer persons of color (QPOC) face, especially with respect to issues of racism, hetero/sexism, and immigration status. » Or this: « Given racist, antisemitic mass shootings, and the January 6 insurrection, it is clear that political violence is a demonstrable reality disproportionately effecting [sic] minoritized communities in the U.S., negatively impacting the freedom of vulnerable people, and degrading democratic values and institutions. »

There is one selected session that deals with synodality, and it looks interesting. There is also a paper that deals with synodality in a session on ecumenism. So, the theologians are doing better than the U.S. bishops. Still, it is remarkable how distant the Catholic Theological Society of America program is from the life of the actual church: You would not know, for example, this year is the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election and of his programmatic apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. How is that possible? This most exhilarating and fascinating of pontificates is not worthy of consideration? 

Many, many people this past year have emailed me or spoken with me at an event about the synodal process. Not one, not a single one, has said they found it disappointing or depressing. Not one has said they did not want the synodal process to continue. Some have expressed impatience and others have expressed different varieties of uncertainty about it, to be sure, but none has said they found it to be a dead end.

Dear bishops: As you gather in Orlando, please convince your own organization to refocus its attention on synodality and how the synodal process can continue the process of receiving Vatican II. The extant alternatives are the inward-looking focus of the current strategic plan, or the culture of grievance the theological community produces. Synodality is the only path forward for the church. It is time to take it.

Vie de l'église

Removal of 4 teachers at New Hampshire Catholic school pushes community into LGBTQ culture war

Students beamed and parents snapped innumerable photos as the class of 2023 graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School May 20 in Dover, New Hampshire. But rainbow ribbons pinned on many students’ gowns were a small sign of a large controversy roiling the 63-year-old Catholic school.

Four well-respected teachers — three with 20-plus years at St. Thomas — were told May 3 by the school president, Paul Marquis, that the school would not renew their contracts. Alumni, parents, teachers and students say the educators were targeted because they support or belong to the LGBTQ community.

School and diocesan leaders, including Bishop Peter Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, refute the claims.

On May 26, just before Memorial Day weekend, current St. Thomas families received emailed letters from the bishop and superintendent David Thibault that responded to claims of anti-LGBTQ actions at the school.

« Staffing decisions are hard on the entire community, but most importantly and specifically they are difficult for the individuals involved, » wrote Thibault. « I understand the entire community’s care and concern for them; however, I would like to reiterate that these non-renewals were not because of a teacher’s LGBTQ identity or any personal alignment or views. »

In his brief letter, Libasci said he echoed Thibault’s points.

Two of the ousted teachers spoke with NCR but requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation from school administrators. Both expressed heartbreak over the situation.

« We never asked to be part of the culture wars, » said one teacher. « We just wanted to keep doing our jobs. »

Several families have withdrawn their children from the school in recent weeks, outraged alumni have organized to protest the decisions, and at least three other teachers have resigned.

Parents also contend school administrators and representatives from the Diocese of Manchester attempted to control public perception of the situation by meeting with student leaders May 8. According to two St. Thomas teachers, one student left the meeting in tears.

Thibault told NCR in an email the discussion with students was intended to provide support and answer questions. He also said he was unable to share details regarding the teachers’ contracts out of respect for privacy and confidentiality, but made the same assertion he did in the May 26 letter — that the non-renewed contracts were not linked to LGBTQ identity or support.

« It has been disheartening to see information circulating within our community that is based on unfounded claims and further fueled by rumor and speculation, » the superintendent said.

Katie Fiermonti, who said her two sons transferred from St. Thomas last academic year due to the school’s « decidedly conservative turn, » called Thibault’s defense « flimsy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. »

« It’s textbook gaslighting, in my opinion, » she said.

‘We never asked to be part of the culture wars. We just wanted to keep doing our jobs.’
—Former St. Thomas Aquinas High School teacher

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To have four Catholic school teachers dismissed at the same time allegedly due to LGBTQ-related reasons would be unusual, said Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for LGBTQ Catholics. The organization also tracks how many students and educators have been pushed out of schools for reasons related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

There are at least 55 public instances of Catholic school workers being fired, forced to resign or having jobs threatened for LGBTQ-related reasons since 2007, according to the New Ways Ministry database.

« I don’t know of any other instances where there’s been a group like this that did not have their contract renewed, » Shine said.

Current and former students praised the four educators who were let go: Jen Duprat, Dave Couture, Ed Tinney and Kathrine Graham.

« It was incredibly disheartening to see these teachers who have genuinely loved their students be tossed to the wayside, » said Liam Lena, who graduated this month and will attend Boston College, a Jesuit school, in the fall.

Thibault, in the May 26 letter to families, wrote that « we love all our teachers. »

« We entrust to them the imparting of a Catholic worldview through their actions, teaching, and non-contradictions, regardless of their own personal feelings and beliefs, » he said. « This is how they support the mission of Catholic education and the mission of the Catholic Church for which we are grateful. »

Many in the St. Thomas community told NCR they have observed a shift at the school (about 65 miles north of Boston) since 2020, when longtime principal Kevin Collins retired, a new administrative structure was implemented, and James Broom became chairman of the board of trustees. Under the new model, the president — most recently Marquis — reports to the board.

‘A major donor’

Collins told NCR Broom has been « a major donor » to St. Thomas over the years.

In 2017, Broom founded Hope for Tomorrow Foundation to help transform another school, St. Patrick School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from a struggling diocesan school into St. Patrick Academy, an independent, lay-run Catholic school.

Broom sits on several boards, including for the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, which was founded by Dan Burke, former head of the conservative Catholic media conglomerate EWTN. The institute, according to its website, offers content that is « unapologetically Catholic, » though it is not « an accredited institution by worldly standards. »

Fergus Cullen, who describes himself as « conservative, » is a former chief financial officer at St. Thomas. He worked closely with Broom on a new turf field project for the high school.

« Jim Broom and his wife are generous people, » Cullen said. « But there’s no question that he was part of this cultural change, and it was intended to double down on a certain brand of Catholicism, » one that has a « narrow view of who is welcome. »

Broom did not respond to several requests for comment.

Jennifer MacNeil’s transgender daughter, Willow, graduated from St. Thomas in 2022 after four years at the school. MacNeil said Willow deeply felt the changes.

« All the little graces had gone away, and with it was a clear message that, ‘You are not welcome, you are deviant, and you are wrong,’  » MacNeil said. « And that’s not what we believe as Catholics. »

MacNeil said she and her husband recognized when Willow was very young that she might have « a gender identity not aligned with the gender assigned at birth. »

Before enrolling Willow at St. Thomas, MacNeil spoke to Collins, then principal. « He told us our child would be welcome, and we felt there was a balance there. She was still questioning, but I knew it allowed her time and safety, compassion and love. »

« We were aware that the church institution requires certain things, » and Willow followed the male dress code, MacNeil said. But some teachers called Willow by her chosen name and pronouns, and overall. she felt supported by those teachers, she said.

Those who helped Willow feel safe at the school, she added, were among the teachers whose contracts were not renewed.

In an interview with NCR, Collins said he attempted to balance a pastoral approach with church teaching on gender identity and sexuality, but that he didn’t feel pressured by the current « push by the diocese » to address concerns about gender identity.

That changed after Collins retired and the new administrative structure was announced, MacNeil said.

« It changed profoundly under the influence of James Broom, » she said. « Willow understood she needed to stay out of the limelight. It was head down and get out. »

In the May 26 letter, Thibault said that if a member of the school community « asserts a specific sexual identity or an identity that does not match his or her biological sex, we will continue to minister to and accompany those individuals as we always have. »

A broader cultural shift

A number of incidents this past academic year at St. Thomas illustrate the cultural shift that preceded the faculty decisions, according to parents and staff.

English teachers typically study a book over the summer, and last year they read Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

Inspired by the reading, one teacher began the year asking students for their pronouns. Soon after, Marquis, school president, sent an email to parents apologizing.

« At St. Thomas Aquinas, our Catholic mission does not bend or bow to evolving attitudes, trends, or norms, » reads the emailed letter, which was obtained by NCR.

« It is not our policy to ask any student to identify him/herself by gender, » Marquis wrote. « I am truly sorry for any discomfort our students may have experienced due to a deviation from this policy. »

He wrote that the situation « arose from a well-meaning professional’s attempt to create a welcoming environment. » But, he added, « it was misguided. »

After a theology teacher told students that God transcends gender, Marquis called members of the theology department into his office and told them they were to refer to God always as « Father » and « He » — never « She. » Marquis’ directive was confirmed by three teachers.

« God transcends the human distinction between the sexes,  » reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church. God « is neither man nor woman. »

This spring, Marquis directed students to remove the word « gay » from a song in the school’s spring production of « Legally Blonde. »

Multiple teachers also said they were told they would participate in training with the Person and Identity Project during the coming school year. They said Thibault, the diocesan superintendent, came to the school last fall unannounced and spoke nearly an hour about « gender ideology » and the virtues of the project.

The Person and Identity Project is an initiative of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Its stated aim is to assist the Catholic Church « in promoting the Catholic vision of the human person and responding to the challenges of gender ideology, » which it describes as an « erroneous system of beliefs » about the human person.

A mental health expert previously told NCR some of the initiative’s content is medically questionable. Its website contains information from the American College of Pediatricians, a non-mainstream medical organization labeled a « hate group » by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Superintendent Thibault, however, told NCR the school is not using the project as training or a curriculum. He said it is one of many resources the diocese offers, including Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia, and his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

NCR obtained copies of two letters from Marquis, informing two teachers their contracts would not be renewed. The letters, which are identical, give no reason for the termination. They conclude: « Please be assured of my prayers and my best wishes for you in your future endeavors. »

Students react

As word got out, students voiced their frustration with the administration and support for the affected teachers, posting flyers that read: « We love you for who you are / We thank you so much for your commitment to us. »

On the class of 2024’s Instagram page, students shared a message to the four educators.

« We feel helpless, » it reads. « We feel disappointed. But above all, we feel a need for justice. Though we are still processing and developing a plan of action, we wanted to reach out to tell you that we will not let this go. »

Staff removed the signs, and on May 8, juniors and seniors on the student advisory board were pulled out of class without notice and told to leave their phones in a locked room, said Liam Lena. He recounted the events based on a summary he’d written up with fellow seniors the night after the meeting, « to assure that we couldn’t be told that we remembered events incorrectly. »

Students met with Marquis, along with the school’s director of counseling, the communications director for the Manchester Diocese, and the diocesan director of marketing, enrollment and development.

« Thibault told NCR the groups « engaged in a dialogue about why the school is unable to discuss personal employment decisions, answered questions as to what staffing may look like next year, and why it was important to come together as a community. »

Marquis « claimed that none of the staffing decisions were made on the basis of LGBTQ support or alignment, » according to the students’ summary shared with NCR. And he « told us that we as student leaders needed to go and spread the message that the ‘rumors’ of the teachers being fired for their support were untrue. »

Rita Lena, Liam’s mother, said she was « completely taken aback that this meeting happened. »

Among the many « problematic » elements of the meeting was « the fact that when they didn’t get what they wanted, they tried to put the responsibility on the students, » said Lena, adding that Liam was « very upset, almost traumatized when he came home that day. »

« If you can’t be transparent with ‘supporting students,’ there is a problem, » she said.

Several older alumni told NCR they’ve drawn on the Catholic social teaching and ethics they learned at St. Thomas Aquinas as they have organized, contested the recent staffing changes and requested a third-party review of the recent employment decisions.

« We were taught to think critically, study hard, get involved in sports and extracurriculars, and to love each other, » said Justin Pike, a 1999 graduate who has helped organize the alumni’s response. « There’s been a seismic shift from what was before. »

A petition decrying the administration’s actions had gained nearly 1,600 signatures by May 27, and a Facebook group was 883 members strong.

MacNeil said families have a right to send their children to a school that aligns with their beliefs. « If the school let go of the teachers for the reasons alleged, the school should own it, the diocese should own it, » she said.

« Parents should know if St. Thomas Aquinas no longer fits with their faith and their values, so they can make an informed choice about where they send their children. »

Vie de l'église

Why Memorial Day civic gatherings are important for democracy

This morning, our town will hold its annual Memorial Day parade. Along Main Street, where the parade will march from the Congregational Church to the town hall, everyone had mowed their lawns and spruced up their hanging plants. The town crew set out American flags on each of the telephone polls that line the route the parade will take. We are ready to remember.

The public ceremony that concludes the parade is minimalist. Someone gives a patriotic speech. The town’s veterans are called upon to be recognized. The flag is lowered to half-mast and a trumpeter plays taps. Some of us will go to Mass at the local cemetery. After the public ceremony, most people turn to familial celebrations: a cookout, the first swim of the year in a pool or a pond, some firecrackers in the backyard at night.

These traditions are good things. At a time when the civic fabric of the nation is frayed so badly by profound polarization, it is good to recall that this holiday began in the wake of the Civil War and to mark the day with civic gatherings.

Our Democratic institutions are the normal means by which we Americans adjudicate our differences. The names on our town’s honor roll are those who fought in the wars of the 20th and 21st century: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each of these conflicts, the threat to democracy was an external one. Only in our time, is the gravest threat an internal one. 

Judge Amit Mehta gave the nation its finest Memorial Day present when he sentenced the founder of the Oath Keepers militia, Stewart Rhodes, to 18 years in prison for his participation in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. « You sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the republic and the very fabric of our democracy, » the judge told Rhodes when handing down the sentence.

My Memorial Day observance is one we can all undertake: I reread the Gettysburg Address. For a writer, this is always a profoundly humbling experience. Abraham Lincoln established himself in this short text as one of two leading prose stylists in the 19th century United States, Mark Twain being the other.

Lincoln was dedicating a cemetery at Gettysburg where, months earlier, a three-day battle had left thousands dead and wounded, and which proved to be the high-water mark of the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania. In a military sense, Gettysburg was the pivot of the entire war, as the battle of Stalingrad was on the Eastern Front in World War II or Midway in the Pacific. Before these battles, the Confederate, German and Japanese forces, respectively, had been mostly triumphant; afterward, they only lost battles.

The speech, also, marked a pivot. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln made it clear that the preservation of the Union was the sole war aim. In 1862, in a letter to Horace Greeley, the president famously wrote: « If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. » 

In the event, with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, he took the third option, freeing some slaves and not others. Freedom for all the slaves would only come with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, after the war had ended and Lincoln had become a martyr for the cause. As we 21st century Americans have come to learn, the struggle for freedom continues even unto our own time.

A little over one year later, as he mounted the rostrum at Gettysburg, the paper in his hands articulated a revised war aim: 

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Other phrases are the stuff of rhetorical genius. « New birth of freedom. » « The last full measure of devotion. » « Government of the people, by the people, for the people. »

Today, I will read that text. I shall probably do so several times. In between, I will go to the parade, weed the garden, light up the grill and cook some ribs. And I will think of how many people have given their lives in war that we Americans today should be as free as we are. I shall pray that the good Lord will visit confusion upon the enemies of freedom, especially enemies of our American democracy. 

And I will thank God that in the greatest crisis of American history, we found a leader like Abraham Lincoln, whose words matched his will and wisdom, and who left us the finest, purest statement of what America, at its best, is all about.

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Filipino Knights Promote a Culture of Life

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Vie de l'église

Tongues of fire

« Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit' » (John 20:23).

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-11l PS 104; 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13; Jn 20:19-23

How will we know if Pentecost has come to us? The readings for today’s solemnity describe the followers of Jesus as receiving the power to forgive one another and to reconcile others to God. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the essence of Pentecost.

The scene in the upper room is worth imagining. The disciples who gathered behind closed, locked doors were filled with fear and guilt. When Jesus was seized by the authorities, nearly all of them had run away. Judas, one of their own inner circle, had betrayed Jesus to death. Peter, their supposed leader, had denied he even knew Jesus.

What could they possibly say to one another? Surely Peter did not dare to offer any assurance, and their cowardice was only multiplied by the tension and anger they must have felt toward one another. Once it was safe to depart the city, they would scatter in every direction, never wanting to see each other again. 

Into this gloom and anguish the risen Jesus suddenly appears. His first words to his disciples are « Peace be with you. » Peace! Their Master is alive and greeting them with peace. He shows them his wounds. His pierced hands and feet, his open side, tell of his suffering and death. The disciples are stunned.

Jesus then breathes on them. The last gesture of his death on the cross becomes the first gesture of his gift of new life to them. They are like the inert, lifeless clay of Adam at the moment of creation. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, recreating them to be what they could not possibly have become before this moment. His holy breath enters and transforms them, enabling them to accept forgiveness for their failure and then turn and forgive one another. They ae no longer a distraught huddle of broken men, but now bold ambassadors of peace and reconciliation.

The Acts of the Apostles tells the same story. On Pentecost, the great festival of harvest and the giving of the Law, the Holy Spirit descends like wind and fire on the disciples. Strangers from every part of the great diaspora surround them, and the Apostles preach the Good News of Jesus in every language. The scattering of Babel that divided the world is healed. Unity is possible again as the Holy Spirit reconciles everyone in the name of Jesus.

The church is created at Pentecost to reconcile us to God and to heal the divisions among us that have led to conflict, misunderstanding, competition, fear and hatred. Evangelization is the ministry of reconciliation, within the church and to the world.

 How do we know if Pentecost has come to us? If we are filled with the desire to resolve conflict and bring people together around their common hopes and desires, the Spirit is with us. If we have the courage to be peacemakers in our own families and neighborhoods, the Spirit is with us. If we seek to disarm our culture of weapons and hate speech and can ourselves be witnesses to the power of listening and welcoming those with whom we disagree, the Spirit of Jesus is alive within us. This is what Pentecost is about. 

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Integrating Catholicism and Psychology

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‘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. »