“Laudato Si” and Liturgical Life — Example 2: How We Assemble for Worship

I keep thinking about the implications of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si for liturgical life.  Today, I ponder some concrete elements of how we assemble for worship.

First, there is the uncomfortable truth that churches are big consumers of energy, and quite a bit of that consumption happens on Sunday morning.  Let’s take the parish of St. Routine as an example.  Many of the faithful drive to Mass, often one person or one couple per car.  St. Routine’s sizeable parking lot, with conventional asphalt pavement, eases the driving worshippers’ access to the sanctuary.  The sanctuary itself is air-conditioned, usually below 74-76 degrees (a recent article in the New York Times on America’s addiction to over-air-conditioning made the intriguing point that it serves as a sign of power and prestige to make people feel cold:  WholeFoods is chillier than Krogers, and Krogers is colder than Piggly Wiggly. — The differing temperatures between “prestigious” and store-front churches will map onto this).

But of course all this is only the beginning of Sunday morning at St. Routine. We have barely entered the sanctuary.  St. Routine, being a nice and welcoming church, has its doors wide open before Mass — never mind the air-conditioning that escapes from the interior.  Once inside the cool sanctuary, worshippers celebrate what is by most counts a beautiful liturgy – un-troubled of course by the humanly-engineered threat of ecocide and the desperate need for creation-care (although resources for such liturgical creation care abound, e.g., by the British organization “Green Christian” (http://www.greenchristian.org.uk/) which offers online resources like a “prayer guide” and “worship materials”).  St. Routine will also never go through a “Greening Congregations Program” (at Earth Ministry (http://earthministry.org/), take the “St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor” (from the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, at http://www.catholicsandclimatechange.org/), or work through a “worship check-list” about the sustainability of its worship practices (at http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/liturgy/worship-checklist).  After all, what would motivate St. Routine to consider options like living flowers or plants in the sanctuary; beeswax candles rather than (oil-based) paraffin wax candles; local wine for communion; use of natural lighting, etc.?

Instead, the faithful file into a nicely air-conditioned hall after Mass, to enjoy coffee in styrofoam cups, before heading home in their cars.

The trouble with St. Routine of course is not that this community celebrates bad liturgies or that its faithful are bigger sinners than the rest of us.  The trouble is that the parish’s liturgical life routinely participates in non-sustainable practices that are by now widely known to further the threat of a catastrophic end to our planet earth.

And as Pope Francis tweeted on July 2:  “Stop ruining the garden which God has entrusted to us!”  Rather than only the fossil-fuel industry, maybe Francis also had St. Routine in mind?


  1. I’m sharing this with all of my liturgy worker friends in the Oakland Diocese. I believe we all tend to be clueless on these issues because of the convenience element built into how we do what we do. I cringe when I think of the waste generated just in our worship aides. All those paper back misselettes and hymnals create a massive amount of waste each and every year. Although I am not a big fan of projected texts and music, at least that (along with permenant hard bound hymnals) is eco friendly. I also have a issue with the styrofoam cups. That is an easy fix for those who are aware.

  2. For many (most?) of us, winter heating is the bigger energy consumer. Traditional church aesthetics don’t help. High ceilings, old stained glass, large non-revolving doors…

    You can print responsorial psalm refrains and even propers in the bulletin and do away with misselettes altogether. If you really want to follow along with the readings, you have your phone or Kindle. You can have hardbound hymnals with the ordinary.

  3. This is very useful, thanks, and I will pass along some of the liturgical resources to our liturgy and music director.
    On the subject of air-conditioning, apparently our bishop was very uncomfortably warm during Confirmation here this spring (I wasn’t present, but apparently he was wearing more layers than most). He wrote afterwards to say that he had been most distressed and had left without giving his usual vocations pep talk to the young men of the parish as a result. A memo was then sent to all parishes requiring that in future the AC must be on for confirmations if the outside temperature is above 55F.

    1. @Ellen Joyce:
      In areas with a continental climate, with many days in the winter months never breaking over the freezing mark and many days in the summer over 30C/86F, winter heating issues are related to summer cooling issues. To save on heating costs, windows get sealed, and can’t be effectively opened in the summer, when temps in filled churches rise considerably over an hour+ Mass (not a quick Low Mass of old). I spent too many Sundays as a cantor in such environments, getting dehydrated.

  4. The use of local wine might be a good ecological suggestion in places where grapes naturally grow. Here in Ireland a local entrepreneur has been making altar wine for many years. He imports the grapes from God knows where (also is importing grapes better for the enviornment than importing wine???). The taste is terrible, I am a lover of nearly everything that comes from my home County of Cork, but with all respects to Laudato Si, I think that this is a bridge too far.

  5. It’s always been interesting to me how much American churches cater to the comfort culture. There are many large old churches in Europe that don’t bother to heat the places at all – it would be way too expensive. It can get mighty cold for a liturgy, but you can always bundle up. I think the reason most American churches don’t just set the thermostat lower in the winter is because people complain about it, but to a certain extent I think people would get used to it, and just dress more warmly for Mass. It might even encourage people to pay more attention. Never once in my career working for the church have I heard a pastor asking the congregation to suck it up and adapt for the sake of the environment and saving energy cost for the parish. People just expect a level of comfort, and pastors want to give it to them to make them happy.

    1. Doug O’Neill : There are many large old churches in Europe that don’t bother to heat the places at all – it would be way too expensive. It can get mighty cold for a liturgy, but you can always bundle up.

      Indeed, the church in Europe where I went this past winter was mighty cold (even though the heat was supposedly turned on). The pastor had a runny nose, which he was discreetly blowing during the readings and intercessions, every Sunday for about four or five months. I was regularly freezing cold by the end of Mass, to the point of contemplating changing parishes to find one that would be less cold; and my older relative decided to skip church on a couple of bitterly cold Sundays because the cold temperature during Mass caused his fragile digestive system to act up.

      Turning the temperature way down is especially punishing for the sick and elderly. Not a good suggestion for the year on mercy.

      But after finding some parishioners who seemed unfazed by the cold, and asking them where they sat (behind the priest’s back), I think I might have picked a drafty aisle to sit in. I plan to try sitting in various locations in the church next winter until I find the warmest spot from which I can still see the altar and the presider’s face, and then claiming that seat as mine.

      1. @Claire Mathieu:
        Good point about the sick and elderly. I think we liberals have to acknowledge that there are tensions within our own mindsets – for instance, remedying some environmental concerns costs some jobs (here in Kentucky, there are a lot of people employed by the coal and tobacco industries). So being merciful and being good environmental stewards may actually clash at times. Of course, one could argue that they aren’t healthy jobs to begin with, but that doesn’t help much in the short term. And honestly – at the risk of sounding merciless, I know that SOME of those same people who are supposedly affected by the cold church would eagerly sit in the frigid cold at a football game.

  6. I take the points of Pope Francis’ encyclical to be (A) attend to the poor, always, and (B) be aware of our fragile planet, in that order. If I get to church and can’t wait to leave because the climate is intemperate and the worship aids don’t, am I likely to be inspired by prayer, readings, rite, homily and music to achieve goal A? Fortunately, A/C runs from electricity, which can be purchased from a supplier using sustainable sources (hydro or wind, e.g.); heat, as readers have pointed out, can be far more expensive, and seldom offers an efficient option (electric is more costly than fossil fuels). But, if all your local supermarkets are aggressively chilled 24/7, why go after a church that is run once a week, for probably a net of half a day? Why not petition them? Moreover, I know of no pastor who is not acutely aware of his energy costs, since unlike the supermarket, he can’t inflate his collection to compensate, so I would suspect most pastors are not splurging on superfluous cooling or heating. And as to those open doors letting all the cold air out–when you have a hot church, think how long it takes to get the heat out by just opening the front doors! Your losses through the open front doors from a cavernous, uncirculated space are pretty insignificant. Your gains as a welcoming place are far greater.

    1. @Frank Ferrone:
      I disagree, especially in your ordering of priorities: the Pope did not write an encyclical on poverty first and foremost, but on the urgency of care for our common home — without which there will be neither rich nor poor soon.
      And sure, do lobby for wherever you shop (and work!) to use less energy. It is not an either-or between that and also attending to our sanctuaries. I merely pointed out that we, as people who assemble for worship every Sunday, also have work to do, on the energy front — as well as in our homes (I am solarizing mine, to show myself and everybody else that I want to respond to the Pope’s Eco-encyclical with actions and words).

  7. You know sometimes the church as been too cold for me to get to Mass. I offer up my absence. I was a daily Mass goer before and some times in the overll scheme of things getting there has to take back seat to the more obvious problems caused to the planet.
    In the spring the church doors are wide open to let the cold out.
    The alternative is to tear down the buldings that were built for a different situation and rebuild green. Now THAT is committment.

  8. It seems that the real challenge here – as it is with many facets of liturgy – is how do the bridges get built or the connections made between liturgy & life? Environmentally-friendly practices on Sunday by the parish will have negligible positive impact on the environment as a whole. How do those practices get implemented and then serve as a model for everyone to implement the other 6.85 days of the week? Is there a way for congregants to share their own actions with one another? A “Laudato Si” bulletin board or column on the website?
    The archdiocese of Chicago has set environmental benchmarks for all of its buildings; hopefully the public dissemination of this information might inspire some Roman Catholics – and those of other denominations or faith traditions – to follow suit:

  9. Ellen #3: if you are Confirming young women and the Bishop needs to speak to the young men, then please turn the heat up if that would get his vocation talk to stop. I have sat through those talks while high school girls just check out when it starts.

    I know ithis doesn’t address the over/under for temperature but do we understand that we are talking about a first world problem here? The amazing thing about Francis’ encyclical is that he does not come from a first world experience whereas a bishop who demands air conditioning does. That is Francis’ first jumping off point.

    I was at Mass once as a teenager when our parish priest got up for the homily and said, “it is too hot for a homily, even one about hell.” He sat down. And we continued on with Mass. You guessed it, most talked about homily for years.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      I like the example of this homily — I think worshipper had creative ways of dealing with hot and cold worship spaces long before the invention of A/C. And most of these ways were eco-friendly. 🙂

  10. I don’t believe there’s a church in our diocese built in the last 50 years that has windows in the main worship space that can be opened for ventilation. My own parish seats 1500 and all entrances are along one wall. The fire doors could be propped open for cross-ventilation at the cost of noise and fumes from the traffic along the two major roads intersecting next to our choir area.

    The cathedral itself, seating 2200, faces similar difficulties. And in the absence of significant public transportation improvements, not a lot of people would be able to attend either location for Mass in any case.

    I don’t believe the Pope has called for a massive reconstruction campaign for or churches, nor dissuading our parishioners from enjoying each other’s company after Mass over a cup of Java – Argentinian, of course. And styrofoam is better than washing cups, in the western US water shortage.

    Beeswax candles are indeed better than alternatives, but bees are a dwindling resource themselves. And every dollar spent for the more expensive beeswax candles is a dollar not available for the poor.

    It’s nice to think “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” but reality suggests that these considerations are for the next generation of ‘Worship Spaces’ — whatever they may be.

    1. @Sean Keeler
      You seem to assume that all these decisions are over minutae – when really what we are pondering is the sustainability of a particular way of life for our planet. We simply will not have to worry about “the next generation of worship spaces” unless we get our common house in order, so that it can LIVE to the next generations.
      As to styrofoam vs. washing mugs: it depresses me no end to think that there are people out there who do not know of the many Eco-friendlier alternatives that exist between these two poles. Even Starbucks has caught on to that by now, and moved away from styrofoam! 🙁

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