Friday, March 4, 2016

Sacraments and Ecology

Liturgy 31, no. 2 (2016) is devoted to issues involving Christian Initiation. Peter McGrail’s essay deals with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment. Here is the introduction to McGrail’s analysis of the Pope’s focus on caring for Earth as it addresses liturgical matters.

Fifty years on from Vatican II, the lack of any sustained consideration of the environment in its various constitutions, decrees, and declarations is striking. For example, half of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was devoted to detailed consideration of “more urgent problems” – yet the environment was not ranked among them. (See
The Council Fathers were reflecting the preoccupations of their time. In the intervening half-century, global perspectives on the issue have changed; today environmental concerns form an arena for passionate political, economic, and scientific debate.
 Not surprisingly, therefore, Pope Francis’s second encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” ( has provoked strong and disparate responses. Many Catholics have received it as a timely challenge to review their own priorities and practices. From other quarters the complaint is heard that the Pope has overstepped his legitimate remit by pronouncing on highly disputed interpretations of economic science or by closing down debate as to what responsibility (if any) should be assigned to human beings in the processes of global warming. That the letter should have catalyzed such strong, and at times vehement, responses is hardly surprising; it is difficult to avoid the impression that Pope Francis sets out to be challenging.
While the challenge posed by Laudato Si’ to politicians, economists, and diocesan sustainability planners is pretty self-evident, the letter addresses wider audiences, including those responsible for catechumens. At first sight the letter provides food for thought to be explored during the catechumenate period; for example, chapters 4 (“Integral Ecology”) and 6 (“Ecological Education and Spirituality”) offer particularly rich possibilities for catechetical use along the journey of conversion. Laudato Si’, however, also implies (rather than directly raises) questions of a more mystagogical nature. In focusing our attention on humanity’s dependence upon “our Sister, Mother Earth” (no. 1) for the sustenance of life, the letter challenges us to recognize that we depend upon the same mother for the material symbols that we use in initiating men and women into the Christian life—the water, oil, bread, and wine that articulate the catechumenal process.
It is of the nature of symbols to combine—sometimes ambiguously—very different fields of meaning. A careful reading of the letter through a liturgical lens can prompt us to expand our awareness of the fields of meaning operative in the symbols of initiation to include the ecological. This, in turn, gives rise to questions. How, for example, can we presume to immerse the elect in the baptismal bath, anoint them with consecrated oil, or invite them to the table of the Eucharist, without recognizing that the natural signs we use can speak also of the poisoning of the natural world, of unequal access to healthy drinking water, and the social impact of consumption? Can we lead our neophytes forward from the Mysteries without having explored these ambiguities with them? Can we ignore sacramental ecology?

Peter McGrail is a priest of the Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocese and is head of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University, UK.

Peter McGrail, “Initiation and Ecology: Becoming a Christian in the Light of Laudato Si’,” Liturgy 31, no. 2 (2016), 55-62.

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