The parish community is the spiritual home for Catholics and it should reflect not just theological principles of the faith but should equally reflect the parish community’s principles that illustrate the responsibility all Catholics hold towards the stewardship of God’s natural resources and manifestations of His creation which are reflected in the parish church’s actual structure. The Sacraments of the Church provide the focal point for all of the spiritual activities, with Eucharist providing the primary nourishment and restoration for the faithful community. However, the Catholic call to responsible stewardship of natural resources should also be part of the life cycle of the prayer and faith community which we call the Church, especially in the local parish community. The Sacred Liturgy celebrates the mystery God’s presence throughout salvation history, the physical community of the parish community reflects how we as faithful participants in the continued unfolding of salvation history should indicate how as Catholics we safeguard and celebrate the gifts the Father as Creator has given us. The parish community of faith has the obligation to preserve and protect the Father’s Creation and utilize the world’s resources effectively, responding to the mandate of God the Creator in Genesis 1:28-30 who commands us:
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God gives mankind the gift of the fruits of His creation and then delegates us to be the stewards of what He has created. That ecological obligation has implications not just for the ancient peoples that held the creation narrative of Genesis in the highest esteem, but entrusts the responsibility of responsible stewardship to each and every faithful believer that follows the Word of God as the inspirational catalyst that stimulates our response of faith in His Word.
How then does the local parish community exhibit faithfulness to the mandate given to us by the Father and exhibit effective stewardship of our planet, our local parish community and most importantly our entire environment which is a reflection of God’s plan of creation and reflects the journey on which we participating as salvation history unfolds. First off it is important to recognize the fact that all Catholics have a responsibility to not just make use of the resources God provide through creation, but we also have a superlative responsibility to protect and preserve the natural resources, utilizing them sparingly and restore them when possible for future generations’ usage as part of the theological and physical cycle of life in Christ which is the central focus of our Catholic faith.
The parish community is the cornerstone of local Catholic faith and is indeed part of the, “living stones,” often referenced by Blessed Pope Paul VI that are called to build up the Body of Christ which we collectively call the Church. How then does the parish community effectively make the proper use of earth’s resources in order to fulfill the massive task of proper stewardship of the planet’s resources and at the same time provide for the common welfare while judiciously utilizing the planet’s resources for future generations? The answer seemingly is simple…build a parish community based on qualitative building resources that give the highest expression of praise to God through the construction of a parish church that reflects the needs of the local community, utilizes the best materials and artisans to complete the task and incorporates sustainable technologies to maintain and facilitate the needs of the worshiping community. While such an undertaking seemingly is simple there are quite a few theological principles of ecological theology that should precipitate the building of a catholic church in the 21st century. In order to understand the principles that are unfolding the parish community should always make reference to the creation narratives of Genesis as the touchstone for their building endeavors, utilizing God’s resources while at the same time preserving them and restoring them for future generations in a symbiotic relationship between the spiritual needs of the parish community while considering the requirements of a secular entity namely the parish which provides a spiritual oasis to the Catholic community while at the same time existing in a temporal realty of the modern world with limitations and obligations of resources and materials that need responsible stewardship.
In his first encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis remind all Catholics of the responsibilities we have towards the preservation of the world’s resources:
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops. Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding. We are free to apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively, or towards adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks. This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction” Laudato Si, paragraph 79
Pope Francis’ teachings are nothing new to Catholics. He is reiterating the teachings of the Church on the subject of sustainability but with a renewed urgency that heralds not just the collective role the Church plays in the human ecological movement but indeed the ever encompassing responsibility of all of the global community to, “act locally, think globally!” Catholic social teaching is continuing to evolve in the appreciation and understanding of the requirements of ecological stewardship not because the Church has never been concerned with the utilization of the planet’s resources. It is now concerned because the urgency of the planet’s and de facto the human society is at the risk of extermination because of global inequities of ecological resources and the lack of proper distribution of materials equally to all peoples.
The local parish structure might look to this potential global calamity as the opportunity to conserve local resources such as heat, electricity and use of water and fossil fuels in the local parish. Small conservations can ultimately lead to large savings that benefit the ecological resources of a local parish, but effective stewardship of resources also proves a positive reflection on the local parish’s economic outlook as well. For the most part, Catholic parishes when seeking to build new structures or renovate existing structures should seek the help of professionals that are familiar with new technologies that conserve energy consumption and perhaps might even provide renewable sources of energy for the parish’s needs. The first resource that comes to mind is the usage of solar technologies and their consideration in the local parish. Solar energy is a renewable source for heating and illuminating our parish structures, it is capable of providing heat and light and through the usage of solar technologies might even provide a positive source of revenue for the local parish community. An example worth citing is a local Presbyterian church in my own community that initiated a solar project and covered the entire roof of their church with solar panels. Within a year, they project generated not only heat and lighting for the community, but the local Presbyterian community started selling excess power back to the local utility company which provides a revenue stream for the community.
Sustainability extends beyond the use of solar panels on the roof of parish buildings. In an age where Catholic parishes are closing, consolidating, merging and reconfiguring there is an urgency to have a plan to make the fullest utilization of the parish’s many buildings and resources in order for the parish to attain the status of self-sustaining. Perhaps a directed focus towards maximization of the parish’s resources is the first order of business. Buildings that are under-utilized, insufficiently occupied or in need of repair or restoration would better serve the mission and the ministry of the Church if they were leased or even sold off in order to provide a proper source of funding for the future endeavors of the parish community. Co-opting vacant parish spaces with perhaps local artisans and craftsmen would be a beneficial relationship that would in the long term provide opportunities for the vocational artists and craftsmen especially if the parish community utilized these artistically talented groups of individuals as resources that would adorn the Catholic Sacred Places with their crafts and arts. The Catholic Church throughout history has always been a patron of the arts. It is now the appropriate time that the local parish communities embrace the local vocational artists and craftsmen rather than outsource commissions for sacred art to prefabricated works often made in foreign workshops of inferior materials that are not reflective of the needs of the local Catholic worshiping community. Sacred art that adorns our Catholic churches should come from materials and artisans that are inclusive of the local parish community or respective diocese. The materials used in representational art should be composed from local resources that are unique and indigenous to the local culture so the, “living stones,” of the local Church might be celebrated as part of the faith community. There are always local artists and craftsmen that reflect the highest quality of artistic representation in the local parish environment. Local Catholic parishes should accentuate local cultures and artistic talents as representative of their own part of the Body of Christ which uniquely identifies each member of the Church as part of the larger manifestation of what we call, the People of God. Effective collaboration in the local community enhances not just the spiritual effectiveness of the Church’s mission but effectively reaches out to even those marginally into a deeper understanding and participation in the parish life and journey of faith.
Perhaps effective stewardship should extend itself even to what might be considered a regression by some to former times, namely the usage of parish properties for the purposes of farming and other agricultural usages. Many parishes have extensive tracts of land on which inordinate amounts of monies are spent for landscaping and other associated costs. Wouldn’t it be a reinvention of what is often considered novel if the parish community incorporated the use of sheep or cattle to provide the efficient means of landscaping for the parish! Recently, Old Saint Patrick’s Basilica in New York City made use of sheep within the parish’s cemetery to keep the landscaping in control, and it was viewed with great adulation and success by the local parishioners. Rightfully in light of the usage of sheep to manicure the lawn at Old Saint Patrick’s Basilica the canticle of Saint Francis of Assisi provides us with an appropriate reflection on the proper appreciation of the resources of God’s 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.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of you, Most High.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather
through whom you give sustenance to your creatures.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong”.
The Canticle of Saint Francis does not specifically mention the usage of sheep in maintaining the landscaping task of the local parish community. However, Saint Francis’ imagery makes all of us reflect on the majesty of the elements of God’s creation that are in dire need of proper stewardship and restoration in our contemporary world, especially in the realm of stewardship of the Catholic Church.
In keeping with the notion of effective utilization of the resources of the Catholic Church, it would not be too far a concept to offer tracts of land owned by the parish community for usage of farming or even perhaps community gardening in order to restore to the parish community an understanding of the beauty of nature and the great bounty of the harvest that might be available if the local parish initiated a program of communal agriculture intended not just to feed ourselves but also those less fortunate than the parish community of faith. Parish sustainability is not really a remote concept, it is rather a notion that demands creative thinking on the part of the parish priests and the entire community…requiring a commitment of resources and materials with a positive impact on the local community of faith as the final result. Parochialism in the 21st century of the Church needs to be discarded and a restored sense of parish creativity should encompass the Catholic community of, “living stones, “as the Church continues to be relevant in the modern world.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave us, Gaudium et Spes (The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World as the template for the Church in the latter part of the 20th century. Now that we are in the post-conciliar era of the 21st century and more than fifty years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council we are well served to review the Council’s documents in a renewed fervor of ecology and global sustainability.
Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.
Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment.
Though mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, giving witness and voice to the faith of the whole people of God gathered together by Christ, this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from her Founder. For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed. Hence the focal point of our total presentation will be man himself, whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will.
Therefore, this sacred synod, proclaiming the noble destiny of man and championing the Godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this destiny of theirs. Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. Ex. Gaudium et Spes paragraphs 1-3.
The notions of global sustainability are indeed not new to the Church, but are reflective of the teachings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. What the Fathers of the Council envisioned was a Catholic Church that embraced the entire world in its totality, not in isolation of Catholic against the rest of society. The fact that the Catholic Church is still contemplating the effects and repercussions of the effects of the Second Vatican Council reflects the notion that our collective human existence indeed the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation history is an ongoing process of time, chronological time but most importantly kairotic time, that is God’s sacred time which essentially is a participation by the collective world in God’s existence.
In reality 2016, half a century after the Second Vatican Council is a monumental period in the life and mission of the Church. The principles of subsidiarity (namely the notion that matters should be determined or handled by the least centralized competent authority,) consistent with the social teaching of the Church throughout the ages is perhaps beginning to come to fruition. The local parish communities are indeed the foundational components of the mission and life of the Universal Church. The notions of ecological sustainability and local subsidiarity are realizing a renewed sense of vigor and comprehension within the Catholic Church as a direct result of the work of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and the continued work and reflection of generations of faithful Catholics that after prayerful reflection are most receptive to the inspired teachings of Gaudium et Spes and accept those teachings in the realities of a modern world with shrinking resources that are in greater demand by an ever expanding world population. Collectively, the peoples of the world since the end of the Second Vatican Council have experienced a global transformation of our human existence through the development of multiple platforms of technologies that have not always solved the problems of the human condition, but uniquely polarized the world’s societies into two distinctive entities, those that have access to all of the world’s resources and unfortunately, those less fortunate peoples that do not have free access to those resources. The Church of the 21st century challenges all of the faithful peoples of the world to participate equally in sharing the resources of Genesis and make the world a better place for ourselves and our posterity. Principles of sustainability and subsidiarity are no longer esoteric options determined by the aspirations of Church councils and uncooperative governments. These principles are at the heart of human existence and our future determination of human existence demands that all Catholics, indeed all peoples collectively cooperate with each other for a world of peace and prosperity…here and now before the choice is taken from us.
Catholic ecological theology and adherence to the principles of sustainability and subsidiarity is not just a passing phase of a theological and geopolitical trend. It is the Gospel in action, namely a call for Catholics and indeed all peoples to enter into a productive dialogue that considers the sustained existence of the world’s entire civilization as the common goal. Starting with the local parish community and building on the worlds, “living stones,” is the inspired revelation of the Holy Spirit for the Church in the 21st century to transform the world by Word, Sacrament and example…one local parish at a time!
If indeed the challenge presented to the global community is ultimately met by the Catholic Church and the rest of the world, then the priestly prayer of Jesus will finally be fulfilled,” I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one–as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” John 17:21