In 1908, the inaugural Octave of Christian Unity was formed to nurture international Christian community building. By the 1930's the event had transformed into a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, offering a more inclusive invitation for Protestant congregations to join in prayer and song around the world. With somewhere between 33,000 and 38,000 Christian denominations in the world, events like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which occurs every January 18-25, have come to define an ecumenical need that mirrors the diverse religious tradition of Christian theology.
In the U.S. alone, somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of Americans claim Christian affiliation, comprising over four hundred different denominations, making the United States one of the most varied Christian enclaves in the world. Despite these many differences, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity represents an ever-present continuity of shared values — a time for Christians to strengthen their commitment to protecting their core principles.
This year, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will focus on a theme of "Reconciliation: The Love of Christ Compels Us," inspired by 2 Corinthians 5:14-20. Working with the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute, they have developed an amazing collection of materials for promoting and celebrating this year’s event.
There are many ways to understand the concept of reconciliation, a vital component of Catholicism, commonly achieved through confession, sacrament, and penance. These opportunities are a time for one to seek forgiveness and to reunify with God, neighbor, and creation.
Climate change has put a strain on all three of those relationships. From the disproportionate damage inflicted upon communities of color, to our turbulent relationship with the natural world, our century of burning fossil fuels has created some serious schisms. Pope Francis felt so strongly about the need for climate reconciliation that he included it in his Encyclical, Laudato Si’.
In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change. The Australian bishops spoke of the importance of such conversion for achieving reconciliation with creation: 'To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion or change of heart.'
In the tradition of reconciliation, Pope Francis went on to offer an opportunity to not only achieve reproachment but strengthen those bonds which we have damaged in seeking a life of convenient abundance.
A few months after the Encyclical's release, Pope Francis called climate change a grave sin, declaring all protection of creation to be a work of mercy. But climate change also offered an unexpected opportunity by serving as a conduit for strengthening a relationship fractured between Roman and Orthodox Catholics centuries ago. There were many factors leading to the recent reconciliatory moves by these churches, but climate change is among the key issues facilitating the budding friendship.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis included many citations from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s years of climate advocacy. In turn, the Patriarch highlighted the issue during the Pan-Orthodox Council in June 2016, which welcomed Vatican officials, as well as 10 Orthodox churches who affirmed their full unity with one another. Both the Pope and Patriarch have been vocal about climate change for years, but the historic event allowed further connection on the issue, which continues to expand today. In seeking reconciliation with creation, religious communities are discovering common ground on which they may mend their interreligious relationships; but is it enough? Or do we need a formalized "process and mechanism" for "truth and reconciliation commissions,” as religious leaders like Desmond Tutu have suggested?
A formal process would certainly be beneficial, but there’s no need to wait around for one to form. Climate reconciliation is something every faith community may work toward in their own terms. You'd be hard pressed to find a tradition that does not already have some method of reconciliation in place, to either build bridges between communities or restore one's own commitment to caring for God's creation. How will you reconcile climate change this year?
"Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation."
-2 Corinthians 5:18
Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.
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