By John L. Allen Jr.
ROME (Crux) – Amid what hasn’t exactly been the best run for Pope Francis lately, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio brought the pontiff a bit of happy news last week: His ecological vision in “Laudato Si’” is flowering in America in the form of three new “green” affordable housing projects for seniors in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Moreover, those projects are a joint endeavor between Catholics and Buddhists, an idea of the late French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who died in July and to whom the pope was especially close.
Bishop DiMarzio briefed the pope on the project on Wednesday after his regular general audience, and he said it’s clear the Cardinal Tauran connection lit a spark.
“When I explained that this was [Cardinal] Tauran’s idea, he reached into his pocket and took out [Cardinal] Tauran’s memorial card,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “I don’t think he even knew who we were, so it’s not like he had it with him just for us.”
“It was wonderful,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “It was obvious that made him happy.”
Bishop DiMarzio spoke to The Tablet in Rome at the North American College, the residence for American seminarians in the Eternal City. He met Pope Francis along with a group of other people working on the project from the U.S. and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which Cardinal Tauran headed.
Called “Green Affordable Housing Dialogue of Fraternity Projects,” the new facilities being launched in Brooklyn and Queens, Chicago and Los Angeles, aim to serve vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and formerly homeless. The three cities represent the Catholic Church and Buddhist communities on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast.
For its part, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens is preparing to develop a more than 100-unit affordable senior housing residence with social services that will include a senior center on the ground floor. The new building will be a state-of-the art green building designed for seniors with “Aging in Place” features and sustainable technologies, including rooftop gardens, solar panels and the use of environmentally sustainable materials.
Shifting Demographics, Senior Focus
The focus on seniors, said Father Patrick Keating, deputy chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, is a response to the shifting demographics of the diocese. “By 2030 in New York City, the 60+ population is expected to rise to 1.84 million,” he said, “which is a 47 percent increase since 2000.”
Moreover, Father Keating said, “there’s been massive gentrification” in Brooklyn and Queens, which now often sees low-income seniors face a choice of, “Do I pay for medicine or housing?”
According to Bishop DiMarzio, the initiative began back in 2015 when a delegation of Buddhists visited Cardinal Tauran’s Vatican department to say they’d like to do something together to implement the vision of “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical laying out an environmental agenda premised on “an integral ecology and the full development of humanity.”
The Council for Interreligious Dialogue put out a call to dioceses around the world that might be interested, and Bishop DiMarzio said it was a natural fit for him since there’s a Chinese population in Brooklyn and Queens of roughly half a million people, many of them Buddhists.
In Chicago, the “dialogue of friendship” project is being organized by Mercy Housing, and in Los Angeles by Mercy and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Representatives of those groups were also on hand in Rome for the encounter with the pope.
While the new buildings aren’t yet under construction, Father Keating said sites are being chosen and designs developed. There will actually be two sites in Brooklyn and Queens, he said, with the first likely to break ground later this year and be ready to open in 2020.
The total price tag for both sites, Father Keating said, likely will be around $100 million, which will be mostly self-funded. The diocese will not be launching a fundraising appeal to cover it, he said.
Although the Buddhist community will not be contributing any funding, Bishop DiMarzio said, they plan to be on-site to work with seniors the who move in, among other things teaching Kai Chi Do and yoga.
The day of the meeting with Pope Francis, Bishop DiMarzio and his group visited the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for a two-hour working meeting. They spoke with Spanish Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the number two official and Cardinal Tauran’s former right-hand man. “[Bishop] Ayuso said that [Cardinal] Tauran saw it in terms of a table with four legs,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “There’s dialogue, spirituality and theology, prayer, and finally service.”
“Doing service projects together was Tauran’s great dream,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “In the States, it happens a lot ecumenically, but it’s more complicated in an inter-religious setting.”
The 74-year-old bishop said he represented this project to the pope largely because of Cardinal Tauran’s death in July. The cardinal was in Hartford, Conn., undergoing treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
As it turned out, Bishop DiMarzio was already scheduled to be in Rome for an annual meeting of the Neocatechumenal Way, a Catholic movement to which he’s close, and was asked by the Council for Interreligious Dialogue to fill in.
Bishop DiMarzio said the projects as part of the “Dialogue of Friendship effort” may be just the beginning. “I think the idea is that if we can model this in the U.S., where working together inter-religiously is possible, it could influence others,” he said.
In the meantime, the Brooklyn prelate said he’ll be looking for other opportunities to make Cardinal Tauran’s vision real in his own backyard. “Because of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious context, anything we can do like this is great,” he said. “We’ve got 150,000 Muslims in Brooklyn and Queens, and I’d love to do something with them.”
The pope, he said, is clearly on board. As he finished up with the group, Bishop DiMarzio explained, the pontiff sized them up and delivered a rare spontaneous line in English: “Thank you for your work.”