By Fr. Harry Winter, OMI, Originally Published in March/April 2021 “Ecumenical Trends”
From September 1 to October 4, the world’s 2.2 billion Christians observed the Season of Creation, as part of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si‘. Yet many Roman Catholics have hardly heard of this ecumenical and liturgical venture.
In its August 28, 2020 edition, the Boston Globe carried an Associated Press item stating that, on August 27, “Two authoritative religious bodies called on Christians to band together to fight ‘sins laid bare or aggravated by the pandemic, including racism and economic injustice'” (A3). For me, it is very surprising that the item did not call attention to the full title of the joint statement from the Vatican and the World Council of Churches (WCC): “Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity.”1
When one juxtaposes the ten-year proposed future of the Season of Creation and the recent document “Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Society,” we see a remarkable convergence of Christianity’s outreach and inner up-building. But this convergence also raises some troubling questions, which can be examined by first looking at the statement “Serving a Wounded World,” and subsequently at the “Season of Creation.”
Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity
When Pope Francis and the Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, published their “Document on Human Fraternity,” during the pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (February 3-5, 2019), they stated: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.”2 Yet there was an immediate criticism by Roman Catholic Bishop Athanasius Schneider: “Christianity is the only God-willed religion.”3 Many evangelical Protestant and some charismatic Catholics would probably agree with Bishop Schneider. The editors of the national Jesuit magazine America wrote in their Spring 2019 literary issue: “The theological tension within the Catholic double tension to evangelization on the one hand, and dialogue [with world religions] on the other, remains unsolved for most writers (25).
Although it does not go quite so far as the “Document on Human Fraternity,” “Serving a Wounded World” continues its remarkable progress about the positive value of the World’s great religions–even as it has been met with similar criticism from both Catholics and Protestants. It is significant, for instance, that the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) did not sign on to the statement (as it had for the 2011 statement by the Vatican and WCC “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World”),4 even though WEA had joined in a creative effort with Humanitarian Islam in April 2020, “undertaking an ambitious joint effort to reshape how the world thinks about religion and to counter the threats of religious extremism and secular extremism.”5
In my “Commentary on the Statement ‘Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World,'” which Ecumenical Trends published in 2017, I noted the almost total silence in the Roman Catholic World about “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World”, in spite of the earlier document’s success in bringing together Witness, Unity, Dialogue, Justice-Peace-Integrity of Creation and Spirtuality.6 “Serving a Wounded World” integrates these domains even more comprehensively and simply; it is written in easily understood language and its format can be reproduced simply and attractively. Did its authors feel that the 2011 “Christian Witness” statement was not presented in an understandable way? The style of “Serving a Wounded World” is simpler than any Catholic document I have read. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:24-37) is used repeatedly in the statement (as it anchors Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti), and the role of the Holy Spirit comes out loud and strong.
The authors speak of “a world wounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the scourge of religious intolerance, discrimination, racism, economic and ecological injustice and many other sins.” For many religious communities, this comes especially under the heading of JPIC: Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. But the authors quickly observe “We rejoice that Christians, as well of people of all faiths and goodwill, are collaborating to construct a culture of compassion.”5 So this remarkable consensus statement wants at the same time to evangelize, without proselytism, and to respect other religions.
My inquiry about why the WEA did not sign on to “Serving a Wounded World” has gone unanswered.6 But on April 21, 2020, the editor of one of the leading missiology journals noted “Leaders of two of the world’s largest religious organizations, the World Evangelical Alliance and Humanitarian Islam, announced that they are ‘undertaking an ambitious joint effort to reshape how the world thinks about religion and to counter the threats of religious extremism and secular extremism’.” Also mentioned was the existence of “Communio Messianica, a church whose members are first generation Christians from Muslim backgrounds.”7
The Protestant evangelical outreach to Islam now seeks not only to witness to, but to work with, an interesting development which is uneven across Protestant evangelicalism. The twenty pages of text are almost half pages in size, with at least one blank page and several with only seven or fewer lines of text. Its seven Recommendations (18-19) are urgent, and should be used in every seminary, every Religious Formation program, frequently in homilies, and in every meeting with members of other religions and people of good will. This is an essential statement for any Christian.
Season of Creation 2020
Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople began a Day of Prayer for Creation for the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1989. It was embraced by other major Christian European Churches in 2001, and by Pope Francis for the Roman Catholic Church in 2015. The steering committee includes both the World Evangelical Alliance and the Lausanne Creation Care Network, from Evangelical Protestantism, in addition to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and main-line Protestant groups.8
When the superior general of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate sent out a request on August 22, 2020, for all members of the Oblate Family, both religious and laity, to observe the Season of Creation, along with “all our Friends and People of Good Will,” he emphasized that “The cry of the poor and the destruction of the environment go hand-in-hand.” He also explained that he was not calling us to become “environmental watchdogs,” but rather that “At the heart of our mission to evangelize is the call to conversion, accepting the Good News of Jesus.”9
The Season of Creation instructions stress that each country and each culture differs widely in its concern for the devastation humans have wrought on our planet. Yet, observing the Sundays of the Season of Creation from September 1 to October 4, would mean at least that all Christian parishes would be listening to the same three Bible readings from the lectionary developed by the Second Vatican Council and later adapted by Protestant Churches as the Revised Common Lectionary. The basic similarity of these two lectionaries has been called one of the ecumenical marvels resulting from the Second Vatican Council.10 It would be a great ecumenical and evangelical advance if all Christians were listening to the same Scripture readings over the three year lectionary period.
But the postings on the internet for the Season of Creation are numerous, and some give three different Scripture readings. So too the Collect, Prayer over the Gifts, and Post Communion prayers differ widely. Remember the anger in the Latin Church over the new translation of our Collects in the third edition of the Roman Missal, November 27, 2011? This anger was partly due to the perception that the older Collects had more beauty, whereas the 2011 edition seemed to be stricter and too rigid. Now we face the opposite pole of the tension between unity and diversity; there is, perhaps, such a thing as too much variety and too much adaptation.
It is worth noting that Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ is a very prominent part of the Season of Creation materials; a ten-year project has been sketched for the use of this encyclical in the Catholic Church and in ecumenical endeavors. Now, halfway through this period, the pope has released a new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which “narrows the ecological scope of Laudato Si’ onto profound and pressing challenges of economic justice and interreligious peacebuilding.”11 Indeed, before the onset of the novel corona virus pandemic, Pope Francis had planned to meet at Assisi on October 4, 2020 (the Feast of St. Francis) with young people from all over the world, to share ideas about how they might give a soul to the economy of tomorrow.
If we want to understand Fratelli Tutti in light of the broader ecumenical, interreligious and ecological challenges we face, it is invaluable to consider the Christmas Greetings given by Pope Francis to the Curia on Dec. 21, 2020. In this Christmas message, the pope explained how it was due to the COVID-19 crisis “at that difficult time that I was able to write Fratelli Tutti.” He then elaborated the Biblical concept of “crisis,” culminating in Jesus on the Cross and then extended in the Church. “Those who fail to view a crisis in the light of the Gospel simply perform an autopsy on a cadaver. They see the crisis, but not the hope and the light brought by the Gospel. …We have forgotten that the Gospel is the first to put us in crisis.” “Finally, the pope continued, “I would urge you not to confuse crisis with conflict. They are two different things. Crisis generally has a positive outcome, whereas conflict always creates discord and competition.” He believes that the Church is “a body in continual crisis, precisely because she is alive.”12
We are indeed entering a new time, a time of fruitful crisis if we follow Pope Francis’ insights. The Holy Spirit is pulling us–perhaps dragging some of us–toward seeing all Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ, and all peoples as somehow related to Him and His Church. Or, as “Serving a Wounded World” puts it: “we as Christians can become partners in solidarity with all people of faith and good will” (8). Within Christianity, we are realizing that no one church has all the resources to do Christ’s will. Every denomination has something specific from which others can learn and grow. Likewise, members of every religion are slowly growing aware that we must urgently work together and learn from one another’s perspectives if we are to lessen our common planet’s devastation, amid the surging economic and social injustices that we dare not tolerate or excuse. And although Fratelli Tutti may not seem to extend this recognition beyond communities of faith entirely, it is important to remember a crucial detail of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)25-37), used by Pope Francis to anchor the encyclical: “One detail about the passers-by does stand out . . . not [to] be overlooked.” The priest and the Levite “were religious, devoted to the worship of God. …Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.”13
Our differing Christian churches and broader communities have differing approaches to the importance of the wounded world we now face. These differences are both enriching and disturbing. The month of January 2021, for example, saw two deeply divisive events. The refusal of conservatives to disavow the breaching of the US Capitol by conservative-fundamentalists on January 6, and the refusal of liberals to disown those advocating partial birth abortion, as we observed following the Roe vs. Wade anniversary in late January, both illustrated the difficulty for moderate liberals and moderate conservatives to isolate extremists. And yet, as the authors of “Serving a Wounded World” state: “We are called to learn from each other in this time of crisis. We should also be open to what God can teach us through those from whom we least expect to learn anything (cf. Acts 11:1-18)” (15). Is it not reasonable to hope that fundamentalists in every community are being pushed by the coronavirus into mundane but potentially fruitful contact with moderates?14 What might be possible when we help our neighbors–with whom we may vehemently disagree–not only with gifts of food or trips to the doctor, but with prayers and a listening ear?
At the end of his Christmas Greetings, Pope Francis asked the Curia to “continue to pray for me, so that I can have the courage to remain in crisis” (10). Dare we also pray with the pope to remain in crisis? If we continue to reflect on the statement “Serving a Wounded World,” and work to increase the vitality of the Season of Creation, we will indeed be able to continue in a state of crisis.
Father Harry E. Winter, OMI, is the Coordinator of the Ministry of Mission, Unity and Dialogue for the USA Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He ministers from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Residence, 486 Chandler St., Tewksbury, MA, 01876, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Council of Churches, “Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity”: https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/Document/ServingWoundedWorld.pdf; accessed 7 January 2021.
- Pope Francis and Ahmad All-Tayyeb, “Human Fraternity”: http://www.vatica.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html; accessed 28 February 2019.
- Bishop Athanasius Schneider on Pope Francis Statement: http://www.pagadiandiocese.org/2019/02/08/bishop-athanasius-schneider-on-pope-francis-statement-with-muslims-christianity-is-the-only-god-willed religion/; accessed 31 August 2010.
- My inquiry about why the WEA did not sign on to “Serving a Wounded World” (email to the Bishops Committee on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, US Catholic Bishops Conference, 5 September 2020) has gone unanswered.
- Thomas John Hastings, “Noteworthy,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 44.4 (2020), 411. Also mentioned is the existence of “Communio Messianica,” a church whose members are first generation Christians from Muslim backgrounds.”
6, Harry E. Winter, OMI, “Commentary on the Statement ‘Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World,” Ecumenical Trends 46.9 (2017:10-11). The document itself is included on 12-13, 15. See also the2019 statement by the Vatican and WCC (without WEA): “Education for Peace in a Multi-Religious World, A Christian Perspective.”
- “Serving a Wounded World,” 5, 7
- “About the Season of Creation”: www.seasonofcreation.org; accessed 16 September, 2016.
- Most Rev. Louis Lougen, OMI, “A Wake-Up Call to Get Involved,” (Aug. 22, 2020): available at wwwomiworld.org, “Leadership, Superior General Writings”; accessed 16 September, 2020.
- Harry E. Winter, O.M.I., “Presbyterians Pioneer the Vatican II Sunday Lectionary,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38. 2-3 (2001): 127-50; see also the Presbyterian Call to Worship 38. 1 (2004-2005): 37-54.
- Aaron Hollander, “Homeward Bound: Ecology and Ecumenicity from Laudato Si’ to Fratelli Tutti,” Ecumenical Trends 50.2 (2021), 2.
- Pope Francis, “Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia,” 21 December 2020, 4-7.
- Pope Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” 74, Chapter 2, 56-86 is entirely devoted to the parable.
- For my thorough examination of the differences between Catholic, Evangelical/Charismatic, Neo-Orthodox/Vatican II, Fundamentalist and Liberal perspectives, see Dividing or Strengthening? Five Ways of Christianity (available at http://www.harrywinter.org/Divide-Strengthening.htm; accessed 7 January 2021). For more on the corona virus and fundamentalists, see Harry E. Winter, OMI, “Corona Virus, Missionaries and Fundamentalism,” Occasional Papers on Mission (June 2020), available at http://www.harrywinter.org; also on US Catholic Mission Association website, “Occasional Papers.d”