We are sure now, the title of the new environment encyclical is 'Laudato Sii'!
This is the introductory phrase in Italian to eight verses of St Francis of Assisi's famous prayer thanking God for the gifts of creation. "Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day, and through whom you give us light," one of the first lines says. The prayer also praises God for the gifts of "Sister Moon," "Brother Wind," "Sister Water," "Brother Fire" and "Sister Mother Earth."
I'll be reaching for my guitar in the weeks ahead to sing, 'Laudato Sii, o mi Signore'! My church folk group hasn't sung it for years, partly because we can't resist speeding up to the point where it is almost unsingable, but also because it is not in the Laudate hymnbook, which our parish uses. I'm just double checking that's true - yes, two 'Laudate Dominums' and one 'Laudate Omnes Gentes'.
These two hymns praise God and ask the people to praise God but what about praising God for the gifts of creation. There are actually few hymns in our church hymnbooks which do this. Our group always makes sure to sing the environmental verse in 'O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder', but it is so often left out even though it is in the hymnbook. Thank goodness prophetic hymn writers like Bernadette Farrell and Marty Haugen are strong on social justice and creation care.
My point is that Catholics are generally behind the other Christian churches when it comes to being up front about care for the environment. However, once we change the word 'environment' to 'creation' then connections start being made with the Easter Vigil, sacraments using creation's gifts as symbols, and the words in the Mass, 'Lord God of all creation'. We are going to have to be humble about the fact that other Christian Churches have engaged with protecting God's creation for longer and more deeply than ourselves, and Pope Francis certainly is. In fact, at the encyclical launch next Thursday one panellist will be from the Orthodox Church, the first time a member of another Christian Church has been on the panel for the presentation of a papal encyclical.
This reflects the outstanding creation-centred work of Patriarch Bartholomew 1 of Constantinople. Bartholomew has been called 'The Green Patriarch' for confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time. For at least three decades he has placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda. In 1999 he traveled the length of the Danube River, drawing attention to the challenge of restoring the waters and natural environment along its length. He brought a party up the Amazon in 2006 and participated in a blessing of waters with indigenous leaders. 2007 saw him holding a symposium on the Arctic. Yet, a Vatican connection has been there for a decade. In 2002, Patriarch Bartholomew co-signed a document of environmental ethics with Pope John Paul II. The 'Venice Declaration' was the first joint text of the two leaders on ecological issues and emphasised protection of the environment as the moral and spiritual duty of all people for the sake of future generations.
Catholics in Britain interested in creation care have long worked ecumenically. Just one of many meetings and events I've attended was in February last year at St. John's Anglican parish in London's Waterloo. It explored: 'Where is the voice of the churches on climate change?' Chaired by retired Anglican Bishop Peter Price, it brought together a number of Christian organisations working on climate change in order to build up a faith movement which could play a significant role in tackling its worst impacts. After various organisations - including the big Christian development agencies of CAFOD, Christian Aid and Tearfund - shared their plans for 2014, the groups agreed to work together to develop clear asks from politicians, spotlight Church investments regarding energy, support the development of a mass movement along the lines of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and challenge the media for giving a platform to climate sceptics despite the lack of a scientific basis for their views. Next Wednesday's mass lobby of parliament on climate change has been organised be the broad Climate Coalition, with two simultaneous ecumenical services at noon being organised by the Christian groups.
The Church of England representatives at the Waterloo meeting highlighted the positioning of Environmental Officers in nearly all Anglican dioceses who can promote such initiatives as Eco-congregation and Eco-Schools, as well as the 'Shrinking the Footprint' project. They also care for around 10,000 churchyards which host a rich biodiversity. Other organisations involved in the meeting included Christian Concern for One World, the Environmental Issues Network, and representatives of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches. All underlined their belief that climate change is happening and that the churches must be involved in responding to it.
Operation Noah was launched in 2004 by Christian churches to curb human-induced climate change, and perhaps many will remember the 'rainbow' procession through Coventry to Coventry Cathedral for an ecumenical service. I was in the red contingent with Sr Louisa Poole, a St Louis sister who, along with Reggie Norton, is one of two Catholic members of the Board of Operation Noah today. And I remember Sir John Houghton walking with us - the former co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's scientific assessment working group, and former Chief Executive of the Met Office, was spending his retirement raising awareness in Christian groups about climate change.
Operation Noah's prophetic work includes the 'Bright Now' campaign which calls on churches to disinvest from fossil fuels and support the development of clean alternatives to fossil fuels through their investment policies. Last July, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of over 300 churches which represent some 590 million people in 150 countries, endorsed fossil fuel divestment, agreeing to phase out its own holdings and encourage its members to do the same. In May this year the Church of England announced a £12 million disinvestment from thermal coal and tar sands, meaning it is ending its financial investments in fossil fuels that are the heaviest pollutants. And the Methodists announced a new climate policy saying its funds could in the future exclude investment in coal used for power generation, tar sands and companies whose business model is dedicated to finding and exploiting new fossil fuel reserves.
Will the Environment Encyclical distance the Catholic Church from fossil fuel investment? All I can say is that significant lobbying has been going on this past year to urge the Vatican to move in this direction.
Operation Noah's Ash Wednesday Declaration on 22 February 2012 at the start of the Christian season of Lent presented an important challenge to the churches to realise that care for God's creation - and concern about climate change - is foundational to the Christian gospel and central to the church's mission. The points in it about seeking justice, taking responsibility and acting with hope are surely going to be echoed in the new Environment Encyclical.
Pope Francis is bringing the Catholic Church up to speed with other Christian Churches and underlining that we must face our common social and environmental problems together.
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