Liturgy, Ecology and Social Justice

Liturgy, Ecology and Social Justice

Friday 3rd September is designated as Spring Ember Day for the Catholic Church in Australia. Ember Days were part of the church’s calendar from early times. They were days of fasting and abstinence that corresponded roughly with the beginning of each of the four seasons.

In 2008 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference decided that the Australian Church should observe the first Fridays in autumn and spring (March and September) each year as special days of prayer and penance.

Ember Days in the 21st century need to focus on the environment, climate change, and our stewardship of the world’s resources. Care for the earth is an important aspect of Catholic Stewardship which has been taken up by parishes in many parts of the world.

Ember days can be considered as liturgical days when the Church celebrates the gift of creation and calls the faithful to a conversion of heart in relation to our care of the earth. Pope Benedict offers challenging leadership in this area. His address to the diplomatic corps on 11 January this year included this reflection:
“There is so much suffering in our world, and human selfishness continues in many ways to harm creation. For this reason, the yearning for salvation which affects all creation is all the more intense and present in the hearts of all men and women, believers and non-believers alike…. May the light and strength of Jesus help us to respect human ecology, in the knowledge that natural ecology will likewise benefit, since the book of nature is one and indivisible.”
Fasting and abstaining from meat are recommended on Ember Days as a means of encouraging restraint in our exploitation of natural resources and expressing solidarity with those who suffer through the inequitable distribution of the world’s goods.

The last Sunday of September is Social Justice Sunday in the Australian Catholic Church. Liturgy and social justice are bonded together, like two sides of the one coin. The community that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist cannot hear the word of God and share the eucharistic bread and cup without reflecting on what it means to live as a Christian in a world where millions go hungry every day.

Breaking bread together must lead us to question a social order in which the gap between rich and poor is growing wider and which permits bread to be so readily available to some and not to others. Eucharist compels those who share in its fruits to seek justice for all God's creation and work for the transformation of a society that oppresses and victimises.

The “other worldly” nature of the Eucharist might be seen by some as an excuse to opt out from such earthly realities. In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II emphasised that the expectation of a new heaven and a new earth increases rather than diminishes the Christian sense of responsibility for the world today and the obligation to build “a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan”. (#20)

Spring Ember Day and Social Justice Sunday “bookend” the month of September in the liturgical calendar, providing an opportunity for parishes to focus on issues such as care for the environment and concern for human rights in the liturgy, in catechesis and in witness to the world.


Elizabeth Harrington