Laudato Si' and the liturgical work ahead

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
Early morning sun rises through the fog in 2013 over the swollen Brisbane River in Australia. (CNS photo/Dan Peled, EPA)

Early morning sun rises through the fog in 2013 over the swollen Brisbane River in Australia. (CNS photo/Dan Peled, EPA)

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The first anniversary of Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” was celebrated globally with an international week of prayer, education, reflection and action. It was far from the usual treatment for a papal social encyclical. It is a tribute to Francis’ activist spirit and broad appeal -- and to the fact that ordinary people around the planet are painfully aware of the urgency of the issues he raises so accessibly, so forcefully, so well.

Francis also shows his pastoral experience and wisdom in insisting that the major social and cultural changes that must take place in a short period of time will require education and spiritual development, both personal and communal.

The liturgical resources for developing and expressing that kind of mature spiritual consciousness and growth, however, are difficult to find. Jesus’ contemplative reflections on God’s care for the birds of the air or the beauty of the wild flowers in the field are standard texts for ecologically-focused prayer times. And there are some beautiful psalms. But generally, the Catholic church lacks liturgical resources for nurturing the ecological transformation that Francis is calling for and that the human family so desperately needs. 

Some liturgical theologians in different Christian denominations are beginning to call for new materials, develop them and urge their quick approval for broad use. Catherine Vincie, a liturgical and sacramental theologian at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, is one notable and welcome voice in the Catholic community. But we cannot afford a glacial approval process if we hope to develop a healthy, broad-based ecological spirituality in time to reverse current destructive approaches to nature and prevent devastating global suffering.

More: "Eco-theologian Fr. Sean McDonagh: Don't let this 'Laudato Si'' moment pass" (March 9, 2016)

Until these materials can be developed and made widely available, the challenge given by Pope Francis to nurture this spirituality must be taken up by liturgical planners and celebrants locally. That can happen if they bring to their liturgical preparations a deliberately broad consciousness of the global ecological context of life and liturgy as Francis describes it. The weekly liturgical texts must be consciously read as addressing the social and ecological context of our lives in the midst of the whole human family and at the heart of the complex and interrelated systems of Earth, our common home.

Nurturing ‘Laudato Si’’ in Sunday readings

An example of this approach can be found in the texts for the Sunday liturgy on June 12, which opened weeklong anniversary celebrations for Laudato Si’. At first glance, the texts seemed to have nothing to do with the themes Francis laid out in the encyclical.

In the first reading (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13), the prophet Nathan berates King David for having Uriah the Hittite killed so he can take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. But when David admits he sinned, Nathan tells him God has forgiven him. In the gospel (Luke 7:36-8:3), Jesus is dining at the home of a Pharisee when “a sinful woman” enters, bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with ointment, giving Jesus an occasion to teach the Pharisee and to assure the woman that her sins are forgiven.

Texts for nurturing a spirituality of care for the human family and our common home?  Not obviously, for sure -- until, that is, they are heard in the context of what is happening to our planet and to the human community today. In that context, we are David, we are the sinful woman, we are the Pharisee.

We are David

Through Nathan, God reminds David, “I anointed you king of Israel. I rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you Saul’s house and wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more ….” God gave lavishly, but David could not look around without wanting more and taking it for himself.

So how are we are David? Isn’t God saying to us, too, “I gave you … I gave you … I gave you … and instead of gratitude you always want more, taking it from those around the world who have so little”? We can each fill in those blanks. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of humanity -- yet what we have is never enough; we insist we can’t afford to share with those who have so little. Millions of voters even want walls built to keep desperate, needy people out and protect what we have for ourselves. 

Our economic system itself is built on and driven by consumption, accumulation, competition and growth. We’re assured that if it doesn’t keep growing through more production, more consumption and more accumulation, the global economy will collapse, with suffering for everyone. And we can count on hearing endless promises of economic growth and increased wealth from our politicians and candidates as we head into the height of this year’s campaign season.

Still, our economic system and our culture of consumption are the very forces that have brought us to the ecological and social crises the planet now faces. They promise rapidly worsening destruction and suffering in the decades ahead.

We are David, the king with dominating power in the world, too. We are the superpower with the ability and commitment to steer the global economy along the paths we have created. In far too many global meetings, U.S. lobbyists and government negotiators shape global policies and institutions to serve corporate economic interests without concern for what those policies will do to the poor of the world and to Earth itself.

We are David. 

Ultimately, David’s sin was forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13), though there were consequences to pay. Pope Francis is insistent that God’s forgiving mercy is available to us, as well. But the consequences remain, and we must address them.

We are the sinful woman

Whoever pays any attention to the ecological issues of our time comes to liturgy knowing that our own day-to-day decisions, actions and lifestyles have gotten us to where we are.  Our choices, day in and day out, have already driven countless species into extinction and are destroying habitats, including our own. 

We are torn by the reality of it. Many of us want it to be otherwise, and we even weep at the destruction and suffering we’re starting to see in bleaching coral reefs, thousands of miles of dead ocean, more severe storms, floods and wildfires, and rising sea levels. But we feel trapped in the institutions, systems and patterns of our lives, not knowing how to change, afraid of what the costs might be, but also longing for freedom, courage and better ways.

We are the sinful woman.

We are the Pharisee

I have to admit -- and I’m sure I’m not alone -- that I take personal refuge in the assurance that at least I’m not a climate change denier. I do what I can on a small scale. I shop at the farmers market, buying local and organic. I don’t travel as much anymore.  I shut off lights that aren’t being used and cut back on my water use. I recycle and compost. I preach and write about the issues and urge the places where I live and work to consider going solar.

I don’t do anything like the damage done by corporate leaders who refuse to take responsibility for the environmental costs they are shifting onto communities, governments or future generations. And I look in judgment at the politicians who are shirking their moral and political responsibilities for the common good of their people because of their dependence on campaign contributions from people and corporations who put economic profit before community health and planetary wellbeing. Those are the people and the situations where conversion would make a real difference.

Yes, we are the Pharisee, too.

What is happening to Earth and to the vulnerable and excluded peoples among us is sin.  When species are pushed into extinction by our lifestyle choices, this is sin against God in creation. We use and abuse God’s self-expression in nature and human society, failing in reverence and gratitude.

We are invited to be Jesus

In the context of what is happening to Earth seen through these scriptures, we are David. We are the sinful woman. We are the Pharisee. But we are also invited to be Jesus.

Jesus enters the story with an open heart. He was open to Simon the Pharisee, who invited him and then did not show him any of the normal courtesies like water for his dusty feet or a warm greeting. Jesus was open to the other guests. He was open to the sinful woman who came in weeping, made a huge scene, dared to touch him, bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair and anointed them with ointment. It was only when he sensed Simon’s judgmental response that Jesus spoke up gently: “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

He then tells the parable of the creditor who forgives the debt of two people who can’t repay him. One is a small debt, the other a major debt. When Jesus asks which debtor would love the creditor more, Simon reluctantly gives the answer Jesus is obviously looking for: the one who was forgiven the larger debt.

Jesus then suggests a different way of contemplating what has just gone on. The so-judged “sinful woman” has acted with great, deep-hearted love. So in Jesus’s eyes, she is already forgiven for her many sins because “the one to whom little is forgiven loves little” (Luke 7:47), and she obviously loves deeply and much.

Aren’t we hearing Jesus the teacher explain here the heart of his good news to the world?  If you want to see as God sees, don’t look through the eyes of the law; look through the eyes of love. 

Through the eyes of the law, she is a sinner. Through the eyes of love, she is forgiven, holy.

Then Jesus turns to her and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” I am convinced that the other guests are wrong when they interpret this as Jesus forgiving sins. I don’t hear his words as what we today would call “absolution.” I hear them as his reassurance to her that she can trust:  “Your sins are forgiven” because you are so loving. Loving is the divine life present and active in her. She is alive with the Spirit of God.

New discovery and contemplation

It is that contemplative vision through the eyes of love that Jesus invites us to embrace in our presence and response to life. It is the contemplative, loving vision that Pope Francis invites us into in Laudato Si’. He wants us to contemplate the beauty and complexity of creation, to see how everything is interconnected, to see ourselves as in it and of it.

Francis wants us to discover new possibilities, to see and reverence its value and even its sacredness. He invites us into a classic contemplation from his Jesuit/Ignatian spirituality background: He invites us to open our eyes and our hearts to discover in creation the loving presence and self-gift of God. He is convinced, as was Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, that we will then find our hearts stirred with grateful love.

We are David. We are the sinful woman. We are the Pharisee.

But when we contemplate creation and human society with love, we too are forgiven.  Looking through those eyes, we will recognize the results of that sin, the suffering and destruction globally. We will be, Francis is convinced, moved to compassion, transformation and healing action.

Laudato Si’ is a call to conversion and urgent action, action rising naturally and forcefully from contemplative, loving, prayerful spirits.

Yes, we are David. We are the sinful woman. We are the Pharisee. And we are being called to be Jesus, speaking out with courage his way of approaching each other and the world with an open heart and eyes of love. We are being called to be Jesus, discovering in and through our loving contemplation and care for our common home, that we too are forgiven many sins because we love much. And we are being offered the opportunity to take part in the birthing of the new creation.

Opening minds and hearts

As in this example, the context within which we reflect and pray with biblical texts has a profound impact on the meaning we discover for our lives in the world today. Too often that context is limited to the personal, or at best, interpersonal dimensions of our lives.  Consciously opening our minds and hearts to the full global and cosmic context in which we live will allow the vision and values of the Word of God to resonate more powerfully.  It will open to us a more adequate sense of the guiding revelation of God for the human family here and now.

More adequate liturgical texts will eventually be able to help us grow in that consciousness. May they come soon. And may they be in accessible language that will open the eyes and touch the hearts of ordinary people everywhere.

In the meantime, we can and must read the Word and celebrate Eucharist conscious of our common home, our cosmic context and our integral ecological mission.

[Jesuit Fr. James Hug is the former president of the D.C.-based, social justice-focused Center for Concern.]

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