Creation care ministry

Exploring the foundations of creation care in Holy Scripture

By Norman Lévesque
January/February 2014

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In June 2013, I spent a wonderful week at the Manresa Retreat Centre in Pickering, Ontario, at the annual retreat for Scarboro missioners in Canada. One of Scarboro’s stated values is that they “recognize, affirm and celebrate the sacred gift of God’s creation, entrusted to everyone.” In keeping with their concern for ecology and the integrity of creation, they invited me to present their retreat. It was a week spent in beautiful surroundings and with lovely people who have been involved in social justice and have witnessed to the beauty of God’s creation at the four corners of the planet. Some of these precious people were more than 90 years old. What could I, a 32-year-old, teach them?

I talked with them about the foundations of creation care in Holy Scripture. The bible is filled with green pages and I began with my top five passages.

1. In Genesis 2 we read the second story of creation, which presents the human being as the first creature. “God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” It is intriguing to read that the human and all the animals are formed in the same way. The name Adam literally means “made from earth.” God molds Adam from adamah (red earth) and from clay (mixture of water and soil), with the tender hands of a potter. Then God blows into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and Adam becomes a living being.

This mythical story holds great meaning: humans come from the stuff that surrounds them—earth, water, and air. We are not extraterrestrials; we are profoundly terrestrial. And God put the human in the garden with this mission: “Cultivate it and keep it.” Cultivate refers to ploughing and modifying the terrain so as to obtain one’s shelter and sustenance; humans can develop their surroundings. Keep means to preserve sustainably. So this passage (Genesis 2:15) contains inspiration for sustainable development. What could you change in your daily life to help you live more sustainably?

2. Everyone knows the story of Noah (Genesis 6-9), but people are always surprised to find that it holds great ecological awareness. Imagine caring for the Earth’s biodiversity on a boat for months and months. Noah was a man of faith; he and his family listened to God and obeyed God’s will. But there is a crunchy detail in this story: two of every species came to be saved. Why every single creature? Obviously, the author of this story had insight into the workings of ecosystems and the interconnectedness of all life. Any forest or marine biologist will tell you that when a single species is wiped out from an ecosystem, there are repercussions on all other species with which it interacts. In many cases, the loss of biodiversity in a region disturbs the ecosystem permanently, and in some cases, the ecosystem collapses.

Once we understand the web of interdependence between creatures, the ending of Noah’s story makes even more sense. God puts a rainbow in the sky to make the first covenant—a covenant between God, humanity, and every creature on Earth. We are all in the same covenant. We are all in the same boat. So whatever happens to one impacts the other. When we understand ourselves as part of the web of life, will we feel more compassion and care for all other forms of life, particularly those that might be close to extinction?

3. Even though the Gospels do not speak of environmental degradation (because the Roman occupation seemed to spark more discussion about social justice), the prophets in the Old Testament spoke about it. Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah denounced the pollution that was killing off the creatures of the land and related the cause to the wickedness of the people: “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it, the animals and the birds are swept away” (Jeremiah 12:4).

We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation. The implications of living in a horizontal manner [is that] we have moved away from God, we no longer read God’s signs.”

Pope Francis, World Environment Day, June 5, 2013

Jeremiah calls the people to listen to God in order for this destruction to stop. Pope John Paul II was the first to use the expression “ecological conversion.” He said: “It is immediately evident that humanity has disappointed divine expectations—humiliating the earth, our home. It is necessary, therefore, to stimulate and sustain ecological conversion.” As people of faith we need to understand our relationship with all life and become more aware of our responsibility towards God’s creation. Do you know any modern day prophets who call for an ecological conversion?

4. The beginning of the Gospel according to John (John 1) echoes the story of creation (Genesis 1) but puts emphasis on the Word through whom every creature came to be. The Word that lovingly shaped this world became flesh in Jesus Christ who spoke, healed, forgave, and blessed. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The next time you are amazed at how beautiful an orchid is, how graceful a beluga swims, or how lovely a chickadee sings, remember Jesus, God’s Word, created them. And doesn’t that make you want to protect these creatures?

5. Finally we get to the heart of Christian mission: witnessing to the good news. At the end of the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to “go into the world and proclaim the good news to every creature” (Mark 16:15). This is quite original but very coherent if we notice that Jesus spends 40 days in the desert “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13). Jesus’ solidarity with every living creature showed in his life on this Earth. He came to renew all creation. As such, he expects his disciples (read: “you and me”) to make the world a better place, not only by loving humanity and caring for the poor and the sick, but also by loving every creature and caring for God’s creation. According to Celano, St. Francis’ main biographer, it is this passage from Scripture that inspired Francis, the poverello (poor man), to act in such a fraternal way with every creature. What Good News do you witness to the birds and fish, to the trees and waters around you?

At the end of the retreat, an elderly Sister and Scarboro friend attending the presentations made her way to the front of the room with her walker to thank me. Then she added: “I wish I could have learned this before. The Church and the world would be different.”

Norman Levésque is a theologian and environmentalist, author and speaker, and the director of the Green Church Program offered by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism. He lives in Laval (Québec) with his wife and has a vegetable garden. Norman has recently published a book entitled Greening Your Church: A Practical Guide to Creation Care Ministry (Novalis, 2014).

Greening your church

In addition to Holy Scripture, environmental values are also promoted in the legends of the saints, in the Eucharistic prayers, and in Catholic Social Teaching (the statements of popes and Episcopal conferences, and the contributions of many theologians). But once we learn about eco-theology, how does that actually change how we live our faith? This is where Creation Care Ministry comes in.

Creation Care Ministry is an official ministry of the Catholic Church, with religious or laypersons mandated by their bishop (or religious superior) to assist faith communities to live a Christian spirituality that is closer to nature. Present since the 1990s in Germany, this ministry has been developing in Switzerland and northern Italy and is sprouting in Canada. To help with this ministry, the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism has developed resources through its Green Church program:

Ten steps to greening your church

  1. Create a Green Team... Invite members of your faith community (including at least one young person) to be part of the team. Make a list of ecological improvements you have already made and celebrate them. Hold a brainstorming session to identify ways you can promote environmental awareness among church members.

  2. Develop an environmental policy that directs purchases, waste management, and other decisions. Make sure your faith community is on board!

  3. Add green tips in the parish bulletin or on the diocesan website about how we can respect and protect the environment. These bits of information are important to the community and stimulates personal involvement.

  4. You may have to take baby steps at the beginning. Most churches start by placing recycling bins in all the rooms or introducing energy efficient lighting.

  5. Make an action plan. All your resolutions are well intentioned, but each one must have a deadline and someone in charge.

  6. Emphasize the spiritual dimension. Talk about the new environmental focus in a Sunday homily. When more people realize that protecting the environment is a scriptural value, creation care will grow.

  7. Raise awareness by inviting a keynote speaker or showing a documentary film to stimulate discussion. Organize a series of classes on faith and the environment. Participate in other environmental awareness campaigns.

  8. Partner with your neighbourhood. We reach more people and accomplish more when we partner with others instead of trying to blaze our own trail. Some churches organize an annual eco-fair that involves community groups.

  9. Share your vision. Write a story for the local media, make a documentary, paint a mural, or speak in a school or to a group of seniors. Let others know what you are doing so they can get involved and this important mission can grow.

  10. Celebrate! Plan to celebrate God’s Creation in prayer two to four times a year. Prepare special liturgies that integrate prayer, environmental awareness, and a promise of action. In the summer, celebrate an outdoor liturgy to enjoy the beauty and fullness of God’s creation. (Prepared by Norman Lévesque)

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