Around 150 participants of the 2016 National Assembly of Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) were actively engaged in sessions on shaping an ecological mindset led by Brigidine Sister Anne Boyd and biblical scholar Mercy Sister Elaine Wainwright in Leura NSW on 21-23 June.
The sessions were a departure from previous Assemblies of recent years that consisted of hour long lectures with some time for questions and sharing. Instead, these were opportunities for participants to be guided in reflection, small group discussions and more time for sharing of insights. The Assembly was enriched by an exuberant Welcome to Country by the Waradah Aboriginal Centre group as well as dance performances by the Wagana Dancers of the Blue Mountains and Central New South Wales Country.
As the Assembly began, Sr Anne described the process for the sessions. “We’re on a journey these days, actually during all of our lives, of trying to enter into that sense of belonging, of understanding where we are and who we are. “
“In a way it’s a journey of mystics. It’s a journey that invites us into the essential spirit of all that is. Our Assembly theme, Creation: The Constant Outpouring of God's Love and Mercy, describes the invitation that Laudato Si' offers us.”
For the first session, Sr Anne guided participants through the four billion-year narrative of the universe as a sacred story, which set the context and spirit of the discussions. The sessions were enhanced by thought-provoking video clips, poetry, music and prayers, which were complemented by prayer sessions from the liturgy team led by Sr Mary Louise Petro rsm. Her sessions progressed to deeper reflections on incorporating one's personal experiences into the broader narrative of the universe, experiencing the pain of the world and mercy, moving to a more eco-centric understanding of self and sharing on ecological action in one's personal life and in organisations.
Sr Elaine introduced three paradigms for understanding creation – a theological term describing the unfolding of the universe. The archeological, analogical and anticipatory paradigms were based on evolutionary theologian John F. Haught’s book, “Resting on the Future: Catholic Theology for an Unfinished Universe”.
“There are different ways in which we engage with the story of the universe. And for us, it is a sacred story, a creation story,” said Sr Elaine. “I come as a biblical scholar but I know that we’ve got that rich story behind us, or in front of us, or within us. In a sense those are the three categories that I am going to be using.”
Using three Scripture passages throughout the sessions, Sr Elaine explained and illustrated the use of these three perspectives to engage participants in reading scriptural text in an ecological or cosmological perspective. She reiterated the message of Haught and other theologians of a need for renewal, to interpret out of the future – to shift our consciousness in the Church and put in context our changing understanding of an emerging universe to a God who is emerging.
An anticipatory paradigm rests on the future and “keeps reminding us that God is going before us,” said Sr Elaine. “The unfolding is taking place and we are being called to that unfolding by the God who goes before us.”
“An ecological reading of scripture already leans toward an anticipatory reading in and by itself.”
The conversations during breaks were highly appreciative of the process, content and context of the discussions. “What a privilege it is to have two of our own people providing us with such wisdom, insight and challenge over these days," said Sr Monica Cavanagh rsj.
At the conclusion of the sessions, Sr Sally Bradley rsm thanked Sr Elaine by saying, “You have taken us to a new call and a new edge where we are being stretched even further, to make another big shift in our consciousness: the challenge in how to interpret our sacred texts from both an ecological and cosmological perspective.”
“Can we really do this? A test for us is to see if we can make this shift each time we pray with scripture and each time we celebrate with liturgy.”
Sr Sally thanked Sr Anne for the mystical journey everyone had taken during this Assembly. “You have led us in processes to help us embed ecological awareness more deeply in our consciousness, to go through a process of conversion and finish with some possible action that we can take into the future.”