Sign In
Basket 0 Items


Sign In
Basket 0 Items


Laudato Si’: And Francis Preached to the Birds Preaching and Environmental Issues

13 February 2023

Fr Robert (Robin) Gibbons is a priest of the Byzantine rite, Greek-Catholic Melkite Church and Chair of the Living Stones Holy Land Trust


Sometimes we need some kind of shock to kick start ourselves into widening our horizons, for instance none of us can shy away from concerns about the environment, the fact of our own local climatic shifts. The drastic changes to our wildlife and habitat is becoming far too evident for us to ignore, yet still we often think that it is somebody else’s concern. Until, of course, it happens to impinge on us - we are flooded out, the cold becomes too much, the plants in our garden become unsuitable for the climate change, emissions charges for cars in certain cities bite into our purse, the disappearance of insects, birds and small mammals becomes tragically obvious as a prelude of what might come. When faced with any event of obvious transformation, good or bad, the human person is also capable of strong action and considered response if guided in the right way.



Yet for those of us engaged in the ministry of preaching, the crafting of a homily or sermon that tackles any issues focussing on aspects of ‘greening’ through the medium of the Lord’s words, isn’t always obvious or easy. Yet, I would suggest we have little choice but to try, for it is also an imperative as one of the great challenges we face. Now, and in our future homilies, we need to lead others to savour the Word of God in order to talk about, look at, and discuss in terms of practical outreach just how we are to care for our Earth, repair the damage done, right the injustices that enable greed and sin to hold so much power over us, and halting any forms of destruction we can. We do this by holding in our minds and hearts the Earth’s role as a locus of the Divine One, part of salvation’s story, a sacred, blessed, and holy space. We are called to challenge any viewpoint that sees our Earth and creation in purely utilitarian terms, or as an unlimited human resource to plunder. Jesus never divided this world from the next, as some Christians have sought to do. We have never been taught to act as if we are Gnostics or Manicheans. Jesus sought always to bring those two cities St Augustine wrote and taught about, that of humanity and that of God, as something entwined, belonging together. The Kingdom of God might not be something tangible, seen or heard, but in Jesus’ teaching it is real, organic, growing within and amongst us.




For all of us who believe in the Lord Christ the proclamation of ‘God-Amongst-Us’ must be a constant thread. The place or locus of this encounter starts now, not in some halcyon future, as Mark points out in his gospel it starts with his own coming, for where He, the Christ and we are, there the Kingdom is! Mark has Jesus say this right at the beginning of His ministry: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mk 1:15).

‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, “See here!” or “See there!” For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17: 20-21). In terms of creating a purpose for us all as his disciples, Jesus himself gives us the task ahead of us, we ‘… must preach the good news of the kingdom of God’ (Luke 4:43). However, we need to gather our ideas together and make some sense of just how this Kingdom is understood within the context of our Earth, human beings and living creatures, for Jesus reorients our ideas and prises loose our hold on what we imagine is ours, when he pushes us into facing new horizons, as he does when he states, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36).



How then can we preach our concerns for our earth and all that is in it and yet avoid a trap of seeing this place, this home, as simply transitory? Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ gives us an energising take on a greater vision, words that lead us, as does Jesus the Incarnate Word, to an horizon far beyond the limits of our sight and understanding. We begin with the original root of what we are as created matter, here the innate connectivity between us, our God, living creatures and our common home is made clear in Laudato Si’, ‘The creation accounts … suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations’ (LS 66).

The wisdom of making known our friability is important, nobody else has caused the de-greening, the despoliation of our planet (and on such a scale) as the human species; yet we also have that capacity to work together in forgiveness and make restitution, amends - not just for the past but for life to come! Yes, there is hope, we can preach and proclaim in small and great matters, those environmental themes that pull or push us into greater action. This is not easy especially for the homilist for it also requires a humility from us that has to be foolish for the sake of the Good News. Everything is connected even if we find that a difficult concept, but we have to try and join the dots.



Pope Francis writes, ‘As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”’ (LS 9). That is a deeply rooted insight at the heart, not only of the Incarnation where the Divine met the Human and took on life with us for ever, but in the Resurrection where death, ending, is defeated in a transformation to new life, connected to what has been. If we hold on to that, we begin to see our present world as something infinite, it is perhaps very much like the image of the growing pearl of great price, what starts in the star dust, the humus of Earth becomes the glory of the Kingdom in its fullness! It is important that we grasp the task of reconciliation as one of the necessities in dealing with environment and climate, for nobody can excuse themselves from the command and challenge of Christ to work for the union of all things in Him, to bring creation to that fullness of love.



But in order to be effective in our preaching we ourselves must first believe that all are part of that ‘Sacrament of Communion’, there is a deep ecumenism here which breaks down denominational boundaries. Patriarch Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is quoted by Pope Francis as one spiritual leader who can open out these insights, calling us to the heart of what we are, what God is, what life becomes, what the hard work of the task before us consists of. Bartholomew understands it as a ‘conversion of heart and life’, a vocation, a real calling: ‘It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion’ (LS 6).

How do we share this in our preaching? We begin with the obvious necessity of realising we do not have all the answers, that to help others we must increase our own faith by engaging with others. The charism of humility takes us back to a fundamental requirement of the preacher, to be as one who is obedient to the voice of the Holy One, by which we understand obedience in its root meaning as both passive - by listening deeply, encountering - and then active, engaging in discussion, and only then discerning together the way ahead. It might mean a real individual reappraisal of the way we each preach, and of the significance of that vocation as part of being not so much clergy, minister, ordained but as a Christian. It does us good to listen to others and to critique ourselves and our our methodology, we need renewal from time to time. To preach well is to make that connection between the Holy One and others, but it is also to be the voice of the Spirit, to do that we must know not only the ‘smell of the sheep’ as Pope Francis put it, but the various smells of our mother the Earth itself.



I shall finish with one of my favourite illustrations of great preaching. It is significant that the harmony, which Saint Francis of Assisi (c1181-1226) experienced with all creatures, was seen as a healing of that first rupture which came through sin. ‘Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence’ (LS 66). This is not fanciful nor far fetched. As we progress in biological science and anthropology, we find ourselves discovering that the creatures we have for too long just dominated and used, also have capacities to grieve loss, show affection, even love, to be hurt and reach out to those in pain, and respond to learning. They are not mute dumb beasts. When Francis was discerning whether he should continue on in his ministry of preaching, or go into solitude, he asked the advice of Saint Clare and was told to continue. The first thing he did after that advice was to preach his famous sermon to the birds! Is it madness, sheer eccentricity? Maybe, but I am not of that opinion, as with Jesus, Francis’ sermon is a parable of another reality, one in which we are forced to consider things in a different manner. To preach in such a way about such creatures may shock, but isn’t that what homilies also do, shake the hearer, turn our values upside down? Thomas of Celano tells us what Francis did and the result it had:

‘He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, “Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.” … The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively. When he had finished Francis was deeply moved and sorry for his previous negligence in not preaching to them, and as Thomas wrote, “From that day on, [Francis] carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator …”’ (see I Celano XXI). He is not the only saint to do such things, Anthony preached to the fishes, Seraphim of Sarov had his bear and wild animals, Cuthbert the seals. They are only doing what William Blake shows us in his poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’, revealing more than is obvious, making us truly obedient to the Lord’s voice in all things, opening up to us the deepest mercy and compassion of the Creator for each one of us here on Earth:

‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

A Robin Red breast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage’.



Jesus tells us to image nature and use it: ‘Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?’ (Matthew 6: 26,28-20). This is the widest ecumenism of all, to preach about all that matters on our planet and to understand that the least are as important as the greatest, that all creation and life belong to us, that it is what we do to the least that shows the way of love. It is the answer to the question we yearn to ask of Christ, ‘when did we see you?’ ‘And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”’ (Matthew 25 :40).

Welcome to The College of Preachers

To explore the website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to three articles a month for free. (You will need to register.)

This is the last of your 1 free articles this month.
Subscribe today for the full range of resources from The College of Preachers, including Lectionary sermons for every Sunday, book reviews and more.