[Editor’s note: This commentary was written for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, to appear along with the joint statement of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for the World Day of Care for Creation. With the permission of the author, it also appears here in English.]
The world that we share – the ground we tread, the air we breathe, the water we savor – unites us in a very tangible and profound way. Despite our diverse religious or racial differences, the earth provides a basis of solidarity and the ground of harmony for all people, all creatures, and all things.
It comes, then, as no surprise that the spiritual heads of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are able to profess with one mind and one voice the sacredness of God’s creation and to proclaim the need to respect and protect its resources for the benefit of all people, especially the vulnerable among us.
This is the first time that the pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch have co-signed and jointly issued such a statement.
The Orthodox Church has long advocated for preserving the natural environment, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s advancement of creation prayers and programs since the late 1980s. No other worldwide religious leader has placed the ecological crisis at the forefront of his service and sermons as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. However, the late Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch and the current Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have also published major statements on the sacredness of God’s creation.
Indeed, after the Ecumenical Patriarchate established September 1 as the day of prayer for the environment in 1989, the worldwide Orthodox Church adopted the same day in the early 1990s, while other religious organizations (the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches several years ago) and Christian Churches (the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion more recently) followed suit.
At a time of global crisis and international instability – when so many people throughout the world have become the subject of displacement and deprivation resulting from the violence of political leaders and the greed of corporate heads – it is a source of consolation and inspiration that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew take time out to focus on the heart of what matters in the world in their “Joint Message on the World Day of Prayer for Creation.”
While neither explicitly nor specifically referring to the responsibility weighing heavily on nations that chose either not to endorse or else to withdraw from the Paris Agreement of December 12, 2015, the two Christian leaders “urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and to support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation.”
The very first Patriarchal Encyclical issued in 1989 asserted that the church could not remain idle before the ecological crisis; however, it also urged “all those entrusted with the responsibility of governing the nations to act without delay taking all necessary measures for the protection and preservation of the natural creation.” And Francis closes Laudato si’, his encyclical letter “on care for our common home,” with a prayer for God to “enlighten those who possess power and money that they avoid the sin of indifference.”
I have to wonder whether the pope and the patriarch have in mind the short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness of the Trump administration – that ill-advisedly withdrew from the Paris Agreement and irresponsibly disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change – when they recognize the precarious consequences of “no longer respecting nature as a shared gift, but instead regarding it as a private possession.”
Their words seem to echo the more considered sentiments of former President Barack Obama, who declared that the Paris Agreement paved the way to “a world that is worthy of our children. A world that is marked not by conflict, but by cooperation; and not by human suffering, but by human progress. A world that is safer, and more prosperous, and more secure, and more free than the one that we inherited.”
There is an ecumenism of dialogue among various confessions, which many fundamentalist Christians consider a threat to their faith’s integrity. There is an ecumenism of martyrdom shared by victims of Muslim violence, which fundamentalist Christians consider a threat to their racial supremacy. And there is an ecumenism of ecology in the face of global climate change, which many fundamentalist Christians consider a threat to their entitled appetites.
Nevertheless, Francis and Bartholomew are unwavering in their commitment to ecumenism. The truth is larger than any particular confession. The world is larger than any single nation. And the planet is larger than any individual ambition. Whenever we reduce life – whether politics or economy, even religion and spirituality – to ourselves and our own narrow interests, we neglect our role and responsibility to transform creation.
This is the heart of the joint message published by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: That our relationship with this world determines our relationship with heaven. The way we treat the earth is reflected in the way that we pray to God. Walking on this planet and kneeling in church are tantamount to the same thing.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis serves as theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on environmental issues. He is a clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.