“Everything is connected,” Pope Francis tells us in his 2015 encyclical letter on ecology, Laudato Si’ (see No. 91).
In particular, as Pope Benedict XVI had said in 2007, caring for the earth and caring for one another go together. He called them the “ecology of nature” and “human ecology,” and made a further connection, too: “There is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men. Both of these presuppose peace with God” (Message for the World Day of Peace 2007, No. 8).
We’re becoming more and more aware that something has gone wrong in our relationship with creation — that is what we mean when we talk of an ecological or environmental crisis. And we’ve known for a long time that something has gone wrong in our human relations with one another — that is why there are so many conflicts in society and in the world at large. As Christians, we believe that something went wrong in humanity’s relationship with God at a very early stage — that’s what we call original sin. All of those problems are connected.
The Bible shows us the link very clearly. After the sin in the Garden of Eden, dramatized as Adam and Eve eating the fruit that God forbade them to eat, they hide from God and make clothes to cover their embarrassment with each other at being naked. Then God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you!” (Gn 3:17). It seems that the relationship of Adam and Eve with God, with one another and with the earth have all been broken simultaneously. Why? Because it’s God’s love that holds everything together, and when Adam and Eve defy God and reject His love, everything falls apart around them.
That means that the ecological problem needs a deep spiritual answer, not just a bit of conservation and recycling to solve it. We must renew our love for God if our broken relationships with one another and with creation are to be repaired.
Pope Francis tells us how we need to see things: “We human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (Laudato Si’, No. 92). Those words remind us of the famous “Canticle of Creation” composed by St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis’ patron. St. Francis thanks God for all the wonders of creation, and the opening words of the canticle are Laudato Si’, “Praise be to you, my Lord.”
It is sometimes said that Christians bear some responsibility for the damage to creation because, as recounted in the Book of Genesis, God says to Adam and Eve, “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gn 1:28). Over the years, some may have regarded these words as a license to exploit creation, but when seen in context that cannot be their true meaning. The verse immediately before that says that God created Adam and Eve in His own image. The dominion that is given to them must be intended as an image of God’s dominion. They are intended to be God’s own representatives in the midst of the creation that He made and loves and delights in. If God found everything He made “very good,” it cannot be that He gave human beings permission to spoil it! Instead, our proper task is to look after it, care for it and nurture it on his behalf.
Having rejected God, we human beings have a sinful tendency to think that everything exists just for our own benefit, so we use creation greedily and selfishly, and St. Paul said that creation groans as a result. Creation waits, he said, “with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). True children of God will treat creation properly, but sinful children harm it.
Now, there is no truer child of God than Jesus, God’s own Son who came to save us from sin and to save the whole world from the effects of sin. St. Paul recognized Jesus as a second Adam, sent to remedy the faults of the first Adam (see 1 Cor 15:21-22,45-49), and the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World said that Jesus not only reveals God to us, but also reveals us to ourselves (see Gaudium et Spes, No. 22). Being true man as well as true God, He shows us how human life is meant to be lived. We are all made in the image of God, but He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). In every way, we need to learn from Him and ask His help.
Jesus had a remarkable relationship with creation: He calmed the storm (see Mt 8:23-27), multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed the five thousand (Mt 14:13-21), opened the eyes of the blind (Jn 9:1-7), helped the crippled man to walk (Mt 9:2-8) and performed countless other miracles. It seems that creation was responsive to Him, at peace with Him, its brokenness was mended, and it even became abundant in His hands, the hands of the second Adam, the true child of God, the true image of God.
At the Last Supper Jesus took bread and wine into His hands, and all of the accounts tell us that He gave thanks to God for them. Unlike human beings, who take things without any thankfulness to God, He was full of thanks and praise, and the bread and wine were transformed by His act of thankfulness. They became His own body and blood. Instead of groaning, they rejoiced. They were fulfilled in His hands. Pope Francis says that in the Eucharist “all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation.… Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love” (Laudato Si’,No. 236).
Jesus said to His disciples, “Do this in memory of me.” Do we ever think that among the many lessons He was teaching us at that moment one of them was how to treat creation? Handle it with love and thanksgiving, not with violence and greed!
In every Mass, Jesus is among us. The priest represents Him offering up His one sacrifice as our true priest. Jesus offers himself and the whole of creation to God with joy and thanksgiving, and we join in His offering. We offer ourselves and all of our work in the world to God “through Him and with Him and in Him.”
That’s the significance of the procession with the bread and the wine to the altar. We identify them as “fruit of the earth (fruit of the vine), and work of human hands.” We’re bringing samples and symbols of all of our work on God’s earth, and the priest prays in our name: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread (wine) we offer you.” These words show the full dimensions of what is happening, which we so easily forget. The Mass is not just about Jesus and me as an individual, nor even about Jesus and us as a community; it’s about humanity and the whole of creation being taken up to God in and through the loving sacrifice of Christ. It’s “an act of cosmic love”!
Jesus unites us once again with God and with one another and with all that God has made. All that was broken and scattered is gathered and reconnected in Him. So, Jesus himself is the answer to the ecological crisis. St. Paul tells us that God’s plan is to unite “all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10), and that everything is reconciled with God through the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross (see Col 1:20). That one sacrifice is present in every Mass, a sacrifice of thanksgiving — that’s why we also use the word “Eucharist,” which means “thanksgiving” — and powerful ripples of thanksgiving should spread outward from the Mass into our lives and through us into the world itself.
The prayers of the Mass teach us to be thankful: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ Our Lord.” Giving thanks to God “always and everywhere” through Jesus Christ is the path to salvation! And to help us do that Jesus gives himself to us in every Mass. We actually receive Jesus and His own thanksgiving into our hearts and souls in holy Communion, and we then need to put thanksgiving into practice day by day. Grace before and after meals is a particular echo of the Mass, and what could be more appropriate than a morning offering giving thanks for each new day and asking God to help us to use it well, and special prayers when we embark on a new venture, involving the use of resources God has generously given us?
“In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thes 5:18), St. Paul tells us, because nothing at all can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). At all times, good and bad, thankfulness comes from being aware that we are never alone, and that Jesus is with us. Offering everything up to God, especially trials and sufferings, is another precious way to live every moment in the very spirit of the Mass. Consciously bringing our lives and our plans, our work and our worries to Mass, and placing them on the altar together with the gifts of bread and wine is the way to unite our whole lives to the liturgy and the world itself to the sacrifice of Christ.
Sometimes it’s the most obvious things that we fail to see. In this case, the Church is asking us to reflect on the fact that our most sacred act, the Mass, is conducted with bread and wine. By bringing those gifts to the altar to be offered to God, we’re acknowledging that all of creation has been given to us by God; we are saying thank you; we are acknowledging that we’re not masters of the earth, it’s God’s earth and we’re his servants; and we are asking Jesus to feed us and teach us how to live as true and faithful children of God.
We will never fully understand the riches of the Mass. We keep learning and making new discoveries. The ecological crisis prompts us to see links between the Mass and all that God has made. Deep down, the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis, and the Mass is the key to our response as Catholics. As Pope Francis says, the Eucharist is “a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (Laudato Si’, No. 236).
Msgr. Paul McPartlan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster (UK) and the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.