A Season of Creation helps implement Laudato Si’, honors God as Creator, and challenges Christians to take God’s world more seriously as our common home

March 15, 2016

Contributed by Fr. Charles Rue

The Church’s Liturgical Year evolved gradually, drawing loosely on nature’s cycles to provide timeframes. Onto these frames was grafted the commemoration of historical religious events –  initially Jewish faith accounts of their history of salvation and then Christian remembrances of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus and sending of His Spirit. Over two millennia Christian liturgical practices grew so that systematically over a year Christian communities created cycles of remembrance. These gave structure for worshippers both to know about and to experience the unfolding of God’s acts in the human spiritual journey.

The liturgical year for the Roman tradition was recast after the Vatican II to better serve the pastoral needs of faith communities. In 1975 Annibale Bugnini documented the multitude of people and efforts involved (The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 Liturgical Press Collegeville 1990). Happily, Father Bugnini belonged to the Congregation of the Missions. At Vatican II mission bishops constantly asked practical questions to judge which rituals spoke to their people and to spot gaps.

Now, initiatives by many churches to insert a September Season of Creation within the liturgical cycle provides a structural way to help implement the call of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. The task of bringing ecological consciousness into the 21st century human spiritual journey will benefit from an enhanced liturgical structural framework.

Proponents of a Season of Creation aim to further refine the reformed Vatican II liturgy by opening believers to firstly appreciate the modern insights of the cosmic and ecological sciences.  We also find the voice of earth in the Scriptures leading to response in communal prayer. Such a Season helps challenge Christians to take God’s world more seriously as our common home. It will better express the first article of the Creed, God as Creator, and celebrate it as part of the totality of Salvation in Christ.

Collaboration   Reforming the Roman Liturgy in the 1960s was a collaborative effort involving hundreds of experts and pastors in a Preparatory Committee. Made up of 65 members, 30 advisors and a secretariat, the committee approached liturgical reform with military like organisation. The schema it prepared in less than a year received a vote 2215 in favour by the Council’s bishops with only 46 against. After minor changes, the Constitution on the Liturgy was promulgated November 1963.

To implement the liturgical reform a group of scholars and advisors called Concilium was formed. Over five years it prepared 365 schemeta plus multiple supporting documents, held 13 plenary sessions and kept in touch with Episcopal conferences around the world to ensure pastoral relevance. Its first major task was to reform the liturgical calendar. Significantly, the feast of Christ the King was moved to the end of the liturgical year. Many saints’ days and local feasts were reduced in importance as the mysteries of Christ in the economy of salvation were to take precedence. Forming of a new Lectionary was integral. This followed through on the Council’s mandate to nourish communities with a wider range of Scripture (CL nos. 35.1 and 51). Inspired by various European church experiments, it developed a three year Sunday cycle.

The liturgical reform was announced 1969 and the Congregation of Sacred Liturgy was established to oversee further reform. Pope John XXIII had said, The liturgy must not become a relic in a museum but remain the living prayer of the church. This call grows more relevant in an ecological age.

Opposition to liturgical reform was also organised, however, attempts at backsliding were paltry compared to the great work Bugnini and his many teams had achieved. The pastoral impact on people in the pews of the Vatican II liturgical reforms cannot be overestimated. They experienced a Big God and were helped to enter more deeply into the mystery of life, embracing reality without fear as Pope Francis preached last Easter. New horizons were opened. As a pastor, I experienced the fact that taking part in Sunday worship is the common way ordinary Catholics are led to consciously know and experience God. In 1962 Pope John XXIII said, It is no accident that the first schema to be considered was the one dealing with the sacred liturgy.

Vatican II reform acts as a model of how to insert a Season of Creation within the Liturgical Year. The task will involve many players and provoke an equally turbulent process.

Eco-Conversion primarily a Spiritual Experience

Creating a Season of Creation develops the first article in the Creed. Modern mission theology suggests that 21st century liturgical reform embrace an expanded new story of a Creator God, a cosmic story of salvation. Pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato Si pulls together and develops Catholic teaching on the environment to challenged followers of Christ to love all creation. He asks for deep dialogue with scientists and campaigners who embraced creation in their local place, knowing that we are meant to belong. Denis Edwards writes, we human beings experience grace, the wonder and mystery of God, in the encounter with the world around us … [a] human experience of the Spirit.

Edwards explores a radical Trinitarian and Incarnational approach to the continuum of Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection, not unlike a tryptic altar piece united as one work of art. On God’s initiative, humanity is empowered to transform itself and the rest of creation. In Christ it grows to share in God’s own self and is forever in God (Rn 8:18 Col1:15 Eph 1:10 Rev 5:13). ‘Ecological eyes’ have helped open up future horizons of faith and the human journey. Humanity is part of an evolutionary emergence of God’s love where God humbly embraces the unfolding cosmic, suffers with it, leading to a transformation of humanity. This becomes a new way to see, feel, act, live and ultimately celebrate and pray.

Liturgical celebration of God’s loving action in creation is the common way that sweeps those worshiping up into new vision and transformation. It presents the vision of a wider belonging and a way to participate in that vision. It takes the participant beyond the literal and every day to connect with a reality as big as God. David Tacey argues that to give any lesser role to religion (and by implication its liturgical expression) turns it into superstition as regards God and materialism as regards the earth.

Franciscan theologians argue that creation itself is at the very beginning of redemption and intimately linked to salvation in Christ. Every Sunday and the whole liturgical year ranges back and forward from cosmic creation to the Second Coming. What’s more, placing the feast day of Christ the King at the end of the liturgical year elicits a sense of unfinished reform, a gap yet to be filled. Christ, Alpha and Omega, enhances the eschatological dimension of salvation. Ecological insights on the suffering of all species can help an appreciation of the Cross at the core of Christian theology and avoid fixating on the language and imagery of so-called ‘nice creation’.

No special time is set aside in the Vatican II liturgical reform to contemplate God’s ongoing deeds in creation. New Scriptural, theological and environmental insights suggest it is time for believers to give knowing and active witness to a new awareness of the thirteen billion years unfolding Reign of God; witness to the mystery of God present in creating the entire cosmos and its evolution. A period of structured worship focused on celebrating a September Season of Creation would fit without strain into the relatively ‘dead’ period called Ordinary Time.

Historical Development           

A major stimulus to creating a Season of Creation came in 1989 when Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Dimitrios 1 named the beginning of the Orthodox liturgical year, 1 September, as Creation Day. Many Protestant churches in central Europe which took the lead in the 1990s working on a Creation Time. The European Christian Environmental Network (ECEN) in 2006 said:

We urge Churches to designate the period from September 1 to the second Sunday in October as an opportunity to reflect together on God the creator and on the gift of lifea time to renew our sense of dependence on the Creator, the awareness that we are creatures among creatures, called to serve and care for God’s creation, a time of praise, of repentance and renewal.

However, the idea of challenging the existing structure of the liturgical Year and makeup of the existing Lectionary was a bridge too far for some churches to contemplate. One Catholic group wrote, We are not asking for an official change on the liturgical year. What we need is simply a period of undivided common attention to the Creator and the creation. I believe this approach will not work. Without a designated season of Sunday celebrations, creation time will be swamped by other concerns. Organisers of the Vatican II reform debated the ‘optional’ approach to implementing reform and rejected it. Columban Mission in Australia developed a Creation Season Resource but this tentative attempt used the readings from the existing Lectionary. A more radical approach is needed.

An unofficial ethically orientated liturgical year has emerged in some churches as many Sundays have been designated for Refugees and the like. Such emphasis on ethics and morals could be distorting in celebrating Creation. The 2015 Curial initiative nominating April as ‘Care 4 Creation Month’ is in this vein but may prove a mistake in the long run, becoming just another fringe effort isolated from the mainstream liturgical life of faith communities.  I am reminded of this cartoon. The Little King asks, What is this earth day? Rodney replies, You know sire, the day we all take to honour mother earth by planting a tree or something. The Little King replies, Kind of like an abusive partner sending flowers once a year. To help liberate churches from an exclusive attention to environmental ethics many churches around the world have organised consultations on Creation Theology and Spirituality.

Importantly at a pastoral level, using the word ‘theme’ in liturgical celebrations poses an ever present danger that sets a mistaken tone. The word theme has an educational ring or even that of a campaign slogan. Remembering a ‘grace’ and giving thanks is a better liturgical approach; the style of Eucharistic prayers. Liturgical models are important as evidenced by over emphasis on the therapeutic model. Pope Francis issues a warning against any narrow focus teaching what he terms ‘integral ecology’. Seen as a type of package, it focuses first on spirituality and the human journey of relating to God present in all creation. It only then flows through to confront issues specific issues – the impact of ‘dictatorial economics’ on the world’s poor and the earth itself, life style – and the like.

Models for Development         

Designating a September Season of Creation and creating an accompanying new Lectionary will be difficult. Firstly, reallocation of the Scriptural readings to accommodate a September Creation Season will be a huge task. What will be the criteria for selecting readings for the new season? The blanks left for some Sundays will have to be filled. However, the military like organisation of the Vatican II liturgical reform shows that major cooperative work between experts and bishops is possible if there is the will in leadership. Second, getting consensus will be a major task since uniformity in liturgical practice is seen as a strong value in the Roman Rite. However, the Pope has reminded all that care for earth as our common home crosses all boarders. Third, a practical consideration is the modern cultural trend towards individualism which is wary of structural solutions to anything. However, more Christians and people of ‘good will’ are growing to appreciate a spirituality that embraces all creation and many will welcome a revised liturgical framework for their spirituality.

Pope Francis in Laudato Si cites conferences of bishops and ecumenical sources. In 2003-4 some Australia Protestant churches began celebrating a Season of Creation informed by Adelaide’s ecumenical Earth Bible initiative. A special lectionary was compiled catering for the four Sundays of September. The Adelaide schema harmonises with the three year ABC yearly cycles.  Scriptural selections for the three years focus successively on Spirit, Wisdom and Word. The four Sundays in each year aim to successively address creation, alienation, passion and new creation. To fix these notions in the realities of life, specific images from the natural world were chosen such as trees or water. Nature Psalms were selected plus Old and New Testament Readings which support the Gospel.

Looking from another angle in developing a lectionary for a Season of Creation, it will do well to take seriously the feminist and ecological movements and their contribution towards expanding definitions of humanity. In 1980 Carol Merchant drew a parallel between the failure to recognise woman in society and its failure to acknowledge humanity’s proper place within the natural world. It is sad to recall that in the selection of Scripture for the Vatican II Lectionary the voice of both women and the earth was often overlooked and even suppressed. Other movements may well be considered.

No doubt it will be challenge for many liturgists and bishops to correct past mistakes and incorporate the insights of modern movements into liturgical reform. Then there is the often ideological stance of some who refuse to see the human as totally interconnected within creation. They can be compared to climate change deniers. Many are blind to the place of the physical world itself as the locus for believers’ experiences of divine presence. It is sobering to recall that over two millennia most Christian heresies sprang from a denial of God presence in the material world (Incarnation).

The place of Marian feast days raised questions for liturgical reform. Two criteria were identified for testing the place of a Marian feast – does it enhance a close relationship with Christ? Does it help advance the mission of the church? It seems to me that not only Francis of Assisi but Mary as ‘Nourishing Mother’ needs to be recognised within any Season of Creation.

Creating a Season of Creation opens an opportunity for local churches to collect local eco-sensitive readings to support a revised universal liturgical calendar – ‘inculturation’. Such readings could be taken from local spiritual traditions be they Christian or from another faith. A major teaching of Vatican II was the need to respect the riches of local church cultures around the world. Even the secular world of science and the arts might be a source.

Conclusion

To remake the lectionary to include a Season of Creation is both possible and a pastoral imperative, but needs the will of church leadership to do so. For many believers, ecological insights are being appreciated as a deeper revelation of the divine and recognition of divine presence in the earth itself. A liturgical season would structurally recognise the magnitude of the ecological crisis plus prepare communities to give better witness and service of humanity, be in a better position to dialogue with people of other churches and faiths, scientists and people of ‘good will’ about earth as our common home. The work done by liturgists in consultation with bishops of the world to create and implement the Vatican II Catholic liturgical reform is a powerful sign of hope.

At the pragmatic level of implementation, inserting a September Season of Creation within the Liturgical cycle would give pastors a framework for leading their communities to nurture the ecological dimension of faith proposed by Pope Francis. He exhorts pastors to address the real life issues of their communities in their homilies (EG # 137, 154). He explicitly asks that pastors be prepared from their seminary days onwards to address ecological conversion as a part of Catholics faith; and he asks that this be done in a systematic way (LS #209, 214). Having the framework of a Season of Creation would help pastors carry through on their responsibility.

[A longer version with references of this paper is available] Charles Rue, 29 June 2015 [email protected]