Ecology and the Eucharist

William Patenaude
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A woman called from another state last week concerned that her bishop wasn’t supporting an interfaith environmental statement. She had read about November’s Laudato Si’ event hosted by Bishop Tobin here in Providence and wanted her bishop to do likewise.

Similar concerns have been expressed to me this past year from across the nation. Eco-minded Catholics are eager to have their pastors and bishops engage environmental protection head on through any number of secular activities.

While they have a point, we seem to be forgetting that the best thing priests and bishops can do to protect life on Earth is to focus on the liturgy.

The Mass and all the sacraments are, by their nature, intersections between God’s grace, the created order, and the human heart. Benedict XVI put it this way: “The relationship between the Eucharist and the cosmos helps us to see the unity of God’s plan and to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the ‘new creation’ inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam.”

Political rallies and special eco-events are often necessary. But we are better served when priests and bishops focus on providing stirring celebrations of the sacraments. I am not saying that worldly engagement by clergy isn’t important. I just ask that we remember (especially as we approach Holy Thursday) that it is only through the priesthood that we are offered the gift of the Eucharist. And without the Eucharist, well … you get the point.

Thus we get to the importance of savoring the Mass. Not with rushed readings of Eucharistic prayers and fast elevations of each species, but with solid, prayerful, beautiful, and intentional celebrations that offer the faithful — who are rushed and mired with mediocrity everywhere else in their lives — something different.

In January, His Eminence Peter Cardinal Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a talk on the centrality of the liturgy in environmental protection. In part he said that a task before us “is to make sure we view liturgy as a deep and strong ritual expression of the fact that God lives among us prior to, in a unique way within, and following upon sacramental engagement. The function of sacramental liturgy in its uniqueness is about bringing to the world what we have experienced in the liturgy.”

I’ve been blessed that every pastor I’ve had since I returned to the Church has made a point of celebrating the Eucharist with reverence. This is where I grew to appreciate how the People of God are better able to tackle a great many ills of the world by first allowing ourselves to encounter God, particularly in those seven graced sacramental moments, most especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

But in today’s age of hyper-consumption — when we see the world and each other as a means to often selfish ends, as things to satisfy our needs and to then discard — we may be tempted to apply a fast-food mentality to the bread and wine offered at the Mass if there is not something breathtaking about the way the Mass is said and the way it is engaged by the faithful.

I understand and in many ways agree with my fellow Catholics who want their pastors deeply engaged in eco-activism and instruction. But the most important work to be done by our priests is to offer Eucharistic celebrations that are more akin to a great celebration than they are a trip to a sacramental McDonalds, where we order, prepare, and eat as fast as possible so we can all move along to whatever else might satisfy those hungers that can only be satisfied by God.

William Patenaude, M.A., KHS, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. He is a parishioner of Saints Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick, and writes at CatholicEcology.net.