How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change
By David Owen
The New Yorker
February 1, 2021
Molly Burhans wants the Catholic Church to put its assets—which include farms, forests, oil wells, and millions of acres of land—to better use. But, first, she has to map them.
In the summer of 2016, Molly Burhans, a twenty-six-year-old cartographer and environmentalist from Connecticut, spoke at a Catholic conference in Nairobi, and she took advantage of her modest travel stipend to book her return trip through Rome. When she arrived, she got a room in the cheapest youth hostel she could find, and began sending e-mails to Vatican officials, asking if they’d be willing to meet with her. She wanted to discuss a project she’d been working on for months: documenting the global landholdings of the Catholic Church. To her surprise, she received an appointment in the office of the Secretariat of State.
On the day of the meeting, she couldn’t find the entrance that she’d been told to use. She hadn’t bought a sim card for her phone, so she couldn’t call for help, and, in a panic, she ran almost all the way around Vatican City. The day was hot, and she was sweating. At last, she spotted a monk, and she asked him for directions. He gave her a funny look: the entrance was a few steps away. A pair of Swiss Guards, in their blue, red, and yellow striped uniforms, led her to an elevator. She took it to the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, and walked down a long marble hallway. On the wall to her right were windows draped with gauzy curtains; to her left were enormous fresco maps, commissioned in the early sixteenth century, depicting the world as it was known then.