Vatican Summit on Climate Change and Our Liturgical Response

News sources have been abuzz about the Vatican summit on climate change that just concluded and the upcoming encyclical on the environment. The summit also comes on the heels of Pope Francis’ remarks on Earth Day.

While much is being said about the summit and Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical, there appears to little to no mention of the role liturgy can play in reshaping the conversation.

The Vatican summit on climate change wrapped up yesterday and called for decisive action on climate change as “a moral and religious imperative for humanity.” The summit titled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity” was organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, SDSN and Religions for Peace. More than 100 experts from various fields attended the conference.

The statement issued from the summit was rather direct in its call for decisive action to address this global problem. The statement also called on the world’s religions to play a strategic role in developing a solution to this man-made problem. However, nothing concrete was said about the way in which the world’s religions can or should fight this crisis.

Adding more authority to the summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the summit and called attention to the global effort that will be required to address climate change. Quotes from his address can be found here.

This summit comes at a time when the Vatican is pushing for a greater awareness of the problems of climate change, while also attempting to lead a global campaign to address the crisis.

With Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment completed and scheduled for release in the coming months, it is clear that the Vatican is poised to become a prophetic voice and a strategic leader in the fight to end man-made climate change. It will be interesting to see what concrete proposes Pope Francis’ encyclical recommends and whether his encyclical makes connections to the Church’s liturgy.

With this push by the Vatican to rally global support for concrete steps to address climate change, I am left wondering how we can make our liturgies prophetic instruments for change.

Liturgists and liturgical scholars have long reflected on the transformative power of ritual. Our liturgical celebrations are times when we come together to be nourished and transformed, and then sent back into the world on mission.

I have often been critical of the intellectualism and lack of embodiment that seems to be so pervasive in our liturgical celebrations today. I will refrain from stepping onto that soapbox for now, but I do wonder what we can concretely do in our liturgical celebrations to bring about a greater awareness of the problems facing our planet today.

In what ways can our liturgical celebrations be a prophetic voice and a transformative power for change in the fight to end global warming?

The connection between our liturgies and the environment is fundamental to our sacramental system. It is based in the importance of the incarnation. In our sacraments water is poured, bread and wine is shared, and oil is spread. A latent concern for the environment lies at the heart of our sacramental system.

What resources do you know of that speak to the connection between liturgy and the environment? What concrete practices could help us be more attentive to our sacramental system’s latent concern for the environment? How can the liturgy bring about transformation in regards to climate change?

Please comment below.

Below you can find the full text from the summit. CNN is also producing an interesting project on global climate change titled “2 degrees.” The project discusses the impact a 2 degree change in global temperature would have on our planet. It is worth checking out.

Declaration of Religious Leaders, Political Leaders, Business Leaders, Scientists and Development Practitioners (28 April 2015)

We the undersigned have assembled at the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences to address the challenges of human-induced climate change, extreme poverty, and social marginalization, including human trafficking, in the context of sustainable development. We join together from many faiths and walks of life, reflecting humanity’s shared yearning for peace, happiness, prosperity, justice, and environmental sustainability. We have considered the overwhelming scientific evidence regarding human-induced climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the vulnerabilities of the poor to economic, social, and environmental shocks.

In the face of the emergencies of human-induced climate change, social exclusion, and extreme poverty, we join together to declare that: Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity; In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role. These traditions all affirm the inherent dignity of every individual linked to the common good of all humanity.

They affirm the beauty, wonder, and inherent goodness of the natural world, and appreciate that it is a precious gift entrusted to our common care, making it our moral duty to respect rather than ravage the garden that is our home; The poor and excluded face dire threats from climate disruptions, including the increased frequency of droughts, extreme storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels; The world has within its technological grasp, financial means, and know-how the means to mitigate climate change while also ending extreme poverty, through the application of sustainable development solutions including the adoption of low-carbon energy systems supported by information and communications technologies; The financing of sustainable development, including climate mitigation, should be bolstered through new incentives for the transition towards low-carbon energy, and through the relentless pursuit of peace, which also will enable the shift of public financing from military spending to urgent investments for sustainable development.

The world should take note that the climate summit in Paris later this year (COP21) may be the last effective opportunity to negotiate arrangements that keep human- 2 induced warming below 2-degrees C, and aim to stay well below 2-degree C for safety, yet the current trajectory may well reach a devastating 4-degrees C or higher; Political leaders of all UN member states have a special responsibility to agree at COP21 to a bold climate agreement that confines global warming to a limit safe for humanity, while protecting the poor and the vulnerable from ongoing climate change that gravely endangers their lives.

The high-income countries should help to finance the costs of climate-change mitigation in low-income countries as the high-income countries have promised to do; Climate-change mitigation will require a rapid world transformation to a world powered by renewable and other low-carbon energy and the sustainable management of ecosystems. These transformations should be carried out in the context of globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, consistent with ending extreme poverty; ensuring universal access for healthcare, quality education, safe water, and sustainable energy; and cooperating to end human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery; All sectors and stakeholders must do their part, a pledge that we fully commit to in our individual capacities.


  1. For one thing, we can stop using disposable missalettes and invest in dignified hardcovers that will last for many years.

  2. Aside from the obvious preaching, there are those interesting Masses for Various Occasions that hardly anybody uses. Some are agriculturally themed and could tie in nicely. As Peter says – permanent resources like Missals and hymnals, rather than disposable Missalettes. Organs sometimes get criticized for using lots of wood, but if you consider that well-built organs can last centuries, that’s a minimal impact. It’s a bigger environmental waste to buy an electronic organ that will have to be thrown out in 20 years. Regardless of one’s views of sacred architecture, we can build churches that will last. A good organ-builder told me just yesterday that in some cases, he thinks his organs will actually outlast the buildings they are in. The old churches that are still around were built to last; we can do the same. How about LEED certification of new church buildings? That doesn’t have to compromise acoustic and liturgical concerns, and yet I have rarely seen this in Catholic churches. Solidly built chairs or pews, rather than cheap things that fall apart. Hard flooring rather than chemical-rich carpet that has to be replaced every so often. The harder it is, the longer it will last, and the better it will be for congregational singing. Environmental concerns don’t have to be at odds with other factors. Let’s get on the ball!

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I published that conference statement on ICN but tried in vain to get any names of the signatories.
    With regard to liturgies bringing in environmental issues – there is a lot out there. Off the top of my head Ellen Teague has written some lovely stuff. Fr Sean McDonagh has done much more. There are some excellent Catholic, ecumenical and interfaith organisations producing all sorts of materials. i can provide a list if anyone would like it.

  4. We can also make better decisions about the Bread, Wine, candles, Palm Branches, etc. we use. (

    We had a guest preacher who spoke on environmental justice, who stood in front of our huge font recycling gallons of water, and asked “What will do if we don’t have water for baptisms?” You heard a lot of the assembly gasp. Which led to “What well we use to celebrate the Eucharist, if our land can no longer produce wheat and grapes?” Like Nathan, I want to avoid a soapbox, but when I ponder those questions, we liturgists should be more than a little concerned about climate change!

  5. Probably the best things that can be done are those that will impact the 6.85 days of the week that parishioners are NOT in the sanctuary. The #1 negative impact all of us have on the environment is our consumption of an industrially-produced, meat-based diet.
    One parish in the Chicago area has stopped allowing any kind of bottled water at parish meetings or events. Another (Protestant) congregation uses only naturally-grown flowers, since greenhouse-produced ones use an insanely greater amount of water than naturally-grown ones.
    Big picture, the best thing we can do at the parish level is to raise awareness of the ways that so much of what we consider “normal” day-to-day activity places a huge drain on local (and global) resources.

  6. Alan Hommerding : The #1 negative impact all of us have on the environment is our consumption of an industrially-produced, meat-based diet. .

    So, who’s in favor of resurrecting a few age old practices of the Catholic faith, namely, abstaining from meat on almost every Friday during the year, and fasting during Advent and Lent? It would, after all, not only be a good spiritual discipline, but also be much better for the environment. I’d think it’d be a good place to find common ground between traditionalists and progressives. Or is threading the needle that way just wishful thinking?

  7. This reminds me of the mantra from my liturgical theology class (can’t remember if it was from Schmeman or Kavanagh): Liturgy is doing the world the way it was meant to be done.

    I would say, in response to Alan’s point on diet, that the even more general problem is people viewing the world as something that is supposed to give them whatever they want, whenever they want it, regardless of reality or cost or context. Maybe liturgy could be a good training ground in conforming ourselves to an external reality, not of our own creation. Unfortunately, all too often the liturgy becomes just one more place where people expect to get things exactly their way (whether it’s style, content, length, whatever) – or they will walk.

  8. This essay is full of a questionable chain of premises. And I am no global climate change skeptic at all. But when we start to think “what can we do to the liturgy to accomplish X?”, we’ve already misplaced our focus.

  9. +10

    Karl Liam Saur : This essay is full of a questionable chain of premises. And I am no global climate change skeptic at all. But when we start to think “what can we do to the liturgy to accomplish X?”, we’ve already misplaced our focus.

  10. No meat on Fridays…really…as we move forward to handing our children a world in deep need of ecological repair, we will use this to promote religious agenda.

    This effort will require a whole new look at how we gather people and the consumption on those events. Hymnals, throw away worship aids, styrofoam cups, … Prayers, legitimate recycling centers, carpool apps, advocacy for the planet, …the liturgical challenge is that we should be reminded that this issue needs constant reflection, realistic assessment, and an action based plan that challenges us to the core of generosity to the earth and the very next generation…and our own generation. Go Francis go…please notice that the pushback will come from consumption driven industries. Can that be our voice for the oppressed in the coming years?

    1. I can’t tell, Ed, the tone in what you mean by “Really,” but I’m hoping by the context of the rest of your post that you agree it isn’t a bad idea. There are something like 78.2m Catholics in the United States. Can you imagine the economic and environmental effects of just, say, 10% of them abstaining from meat on Fridays and throughout Advent and Lent? That’s over a quarter of the year. As I’ve said; it /should/ be an easy win where all sides of Catholicism can rally together, and it doesn’t require innovation or artifice to do so.

  11. We could also look at our current (U.S.) death care practices: bodies pumped full of formaldehyde, laid out in hardwood or metal caskets, encased in concrete burial vaults, and buried in cemeteries kept green and weed-free by massive amounts of chemicals. The body of the deceased, once lovingly cared for, turned over to the “professionals” who advertise on the back of your parish bulletin because we have forgotten how to care for our own dead. We could learn a lot from the Trappists in this regard. See the slide show on this website page

    The commercial funeral industry loves the church’s preference for the body being present during the funeral liturgy because it means, in most people’s minds, embalming, a non-biodegradable casket, and of course a burial vault, which almost all cemeteries require to maintain an even lawn and allow for the use of heavy grounds-keeping equipment. Some Catholic cemeteries now allow green burial, but the majority do not.

    There are alternatives: caring for our dead in the home, biodegradable caskets, green burial, and of course cremation. A single cremation releases about 500 pounds of CO2 (For comparison, a gallon of gas produces about 20 pounds.) Alkaline hydrolysis, available in my metro area, uses one-eighth the energy of cremation.

    These ideas may be an example of KLS’s “what can we do to the liturgy to accomplish X?” I think of them rather as an example of how to put into practice St. Benedict’s admonition to “keep death always before your eyes.”

  12. Shaughn Casey There are something like 78.2m Catholics in the United States. Can you imagine the economic and environmental effects of just, say, 10% of them abstaining from meat on Fridays and throughout Advent and Lent? That’s over a quarter of the year.

    The consequences might be different from those you imagine. A large rise in the numbers of people eating vegetarian on Fridays would result in an environmental impact with a corresponding rise in human “methane emissions”. If they ate fish, there would be an economic impact on poorer people since fish is generally now more expensive than meat.

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